“You’re only as good as the people you dress,” said Halston, who clothed Jackie O, Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Gene Tierney. Swathed in controversy, honoured many times in his career, the designer is currently receiving the most golden honour of all - his own Netflix docudrama. But how much of what we are seeing on TV is true and is the halterneck back? Here is the low-down.
Roy Halston Frowick has been lauded as “America’s greatest fashion designer”, an accolade he would surely never have achieved had he named his label Roy. He started out making hats (his first notable fan was Jackie Kennedy) before moving into ready to wear, couture, perfume and, in 1972, a collaboration with JC Penney which would eventually prove the label’s downfall, and see him lose the rights to his own name. Charismatic and kind yet also cruel and standoffish, Halston died in 1990, aged 57. In the Netflix drama, he is played by Ewan McGregor - quite convincingly, once you stop expecting Francis Begbie to burst into the room and glass everyone. McGregor’s performance is cleverly understated, and draws out the designer’s loyalties and sensitivities as much as his predilections for rent boys and cocaine.
The Other Man
Which brings us to Victor Hugo, the Venezuelan rent boy that Netflix depicts as Halston’s one true love. In RL, they were in a relationship for 12 years, his fictitious name apparently a pun on his “Huge O” physical endowment. True enough, Victor doesn’t stop banging on about his big dick, an appendage from which he extrapolates a vast degree of entitlement. These days, Victor’s manipulative behaviour would be called out as coercively controlling, but this was the seventies, so it wasn’t. Instead, he lorded it up all over town in tight pants, bullying Halston’s staff and demanding recognition as Halston’s partner. Every successful fashion designer has a clingy fuckbuddy of dubious intent, and Netflix’s depiction of Halston’s is spot on.
Actually, Halston had two muses: the languorous Italian model Elsa Peretti, who had been with him since the days he couldn’t even afford a lightbulb for his studio, and Liza Minelli, for whose 1974 wedding to Jack Haley, he famously made a daffodil yellow trouser suit. Netflix depicts the two women as friends, which is nice, and avoids the cliched trope of bitchy fashion mavens. But there was another formidable woman in Halston’s life: Eleanor Lambert, the legendary fashion publicist who was to PR what Anna Wintour is to editorial. It was Lambert who not only catapulted Halston onto a global stage, but American fashion: the Met Ball wouldn’t exist without her, nor would New York Fashion Week. Filthy mouthed and tenacious, it’s about time Lambert’s standing was recognised on screen.
We’ve all heard of Studio 54, club of clubs, favourite of Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Angelica Huston, Calvin Klein and Bianca Jagger, who you may have heard once rode in on a white horse. Halston was always there, surrounded by “Halstonettes”, rent boys and bowls of cocaine, looking so haughty in his dark glasses that even Warhol was allegedly intimidated. Which is all very cool, so why does Netflix’s version of Studio 54 look like the Romford outpost of Cinderella Rockerfella’s circa 1985? The show’s executive producer, Ryan Murphy (Glee, Pose, Hollywood) is a stickler for detail, and has form in creating lavish bacchanalian scenes. Maybe the myth of Studio 54 is so powerful at this point in history that not even Netflix’s legendary budgets were enough to capture its hedonism.
“It’s sexy, it’s comfort, it’s freedom,” breathes Halston or one of his acolytes, for the script is nothing if not an enabler of a rousing armchair game of Fashion Bingo. Every cliche in the fashion lexicon is here, camped up for our delectation. After his hats, Halston’s first big hit was a machine-washable button-through dress in a fabric he named Ultrasuede, which debuted in 1972 at $185. The dress was somewhat prosaic, but the fabric became legendary, and MacGregor utters “it’s ultrasuede” with comedic effect. Halston’s most well-known design was probably the halterneck gown, which ruled the dancefloor at Studio 54 and was later revived by the Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe, who served as creative consultant to Halston after it was bought by Harvey Weinstein in 2007. But enough said about that: suffice to say that Netflix captures the sex appeal of Halston’s clothes, as well as the tensions inherent in creating them.