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The Freeing Fashion Behind the Halston Saga

If you want to buy a bottle of Halston perfume, go to your local CVS and check one of those locked plexiglass fragrance cabinets that house ancient boxes of Liz Claiborne and Jovan Musk. The Halston comes in a beige box, with the late designer’s name on it in his signature all-caps, sans-serif font, and costs about thirty dollars. But both the plastic-necked bottle and the caramel-colored juice within it are only echoes of Halston’s original 1975 blockbuster fragrance. That perfume—which cost sixty dollars an ounce back then, roughly equivalent to three hundred dollars today—came in an exquisite glass teardrop bottle designed by the Tiffany’s jewellery designer and longtime Halston collaborator Elsa Peretti. The scent, created by the legendary French parfumier Bernard Chant, was tangy, feral, and almost too naughty to wear to work, but this mildly transgressive quality was a big part of the appeal. The seventies were an unbridled and messy time, when loucheness was a life style born of postwar nihilism and economic decline. If the city was crumbling around you, why not smell like death and sex, entropy and excess? The new formula does not smell like these things. It cannot clear elevators or persist through a night of heavy dancing. It evaporates quickly and smells a little like soap. Still, I bought a bottle recently, because I knew that a new Netflix miniseries about Halston (called, simply, “Halston,”) was coming, and I wanted to turn my viewing experience into a kind of Smell-O-Vision. As it turns out, the synthetic, exasperating reformulation was a perfect match for watching the series.

The life of Halston—who was born Roy Halston Frowick, in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932—should make for potent television: a Midwestern, gay fashion obsessive comes to the big city, drops his first name, changes his aesthetic, dominates Bergdorf Goodman and Studio 54, sells his name, loses everything, and dies too young. At the height of his fame, Halston oozed courtly glamour out of his pores (which he tinted orange with heavy bronzer) and cut a striking figure in tight black turtlenecks and dark sunglasses, a cigarette perpetually dangling between his fingers. He flew too high—his final headquarters looked out over the spire of a tall cathedral in Manhattan—had too much fun, and then the confetti ran out. But the danger of a seductive story is that it is easy to become seduced while telling it. “Halston,” directed by Daniel Minahan, starring Ewan McGregor in the titular role, and with Ryan Murphy as an executive producer, feels as slick and indulgent as Halston’s sprawling Olympic Tower office—a cocaine-fuelled space that featured mirrored walls and tables, a sea of plush cherry-red carpeting, and a reputed forty thousand dollars per year in decorative orchids—but it does not feel half as uncanny or daring as the actual world Halston created. Instead of presenting a shambling, complex tangle of ambition and artistry, the five episodes play out like a live-action Wikipedia article peppered with faux-campy contrivances. The dramatic plot points are all there, but the soul of Halston’s work—his actual creations, and how they shaped the lives of the women who lived in them—comes through only as a faint note.

In the third episode of “Halston,” for instance, the perfume becomes a sort of heavy-handed metaphor for Halston’s inner life and repressed memories. Vera Farmiga plays Halston’s nose (a bit of creative license, as the real perfumer was a tweedy Frenchman), asking him to bring in three items that carry sensorial significance. Halston presents her a Lady of the Night orchid (his favorite form of flagrant excess); a box of cigarettes (“I find it so comforting,” McGregor says, with the exaggerated drawl that Halston started affecting after he dropped his first name); and a used jockstrap in a plastic bag. The jockstrap belongs to Halston’s lover, Victor Hugo, a precocious Venezuelan party hopper whom many blame for Halston’s descent into drug-bingeing during his later years. The Farmiga character eagerly takes the jockstrap out of the bag and drapes it over her head, then inhales deeply. The scene makes a dirty joke out of what Halston told the Times, at the time of the perfume’s release, was “probably the most complicated business experience I’ve ever had.”

The fragrance was a new experiment for Halston, an ambivalent tiptoe into high-volume, mass-market commerce after a career in high fashion. He got his start making hats in Chicago, in the nineteen-fifties, and became head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. His big break was designing the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to the Presidential Inauguration—soon everyone who was anyone had to have a Halston chapeau. He channelled this momentum into launching his own clothing brand, in 1969, called Halston Limited, by convincing one of his regular clients, a Texas oil baroness named Estelle Marsh Watlington, to back him financially, with the promise that she would be funding the first truly American couture atelier (Halston was never short on bravado or the desire to spend other people’s capital). He found an early muse in Liza Minnelli—who to this day wears vintage Halston getups to many public outings—and he made his Madison Avenue workshop into a gathering place for the Manhattan demimonde. Warhol went there. Elizabeth Taylor went there. Babe Paley went there. The artist Pat Ast worked as a saleswoman (and, later, for one of Halston’s early fashion shows, leaped out of a giant cake). His work became so popular that after just five years in business he was able to sell Halston Limited, along with his trademark, to the mega-conglomerate Norton Simon Inc. for an alleged sixteen million dollars, with the tacit agreement that Halston would retain full creative control over his output.

What separated Halston’s runway designs from others was their ethereal quality (his later licensing work, when he slapped his name on everything from luggage to flight-attendant uniforms, is more uniform and pedestrian). He would drape jersey or chiffon over the body on the bias, relying on twists and tucks to create a floaty, gliding silhouette. The clothes were refreshingly simple and forthright, even if the life was a pulsating soap opera. Take Halston’s Ultrasuede shirtdress, or “model number 704,” one of his best-selling items. In the show, Halston touches a prototype for a suede coat and suddenly has erotic visions of running his fingers along a man’s bare buttocks. He fetishizes the texture, but is dismayed to see that the suede doesn’t hold up to getting wet. In a later scene, showing off a new run of model 704s to the socialite Babe Paley, he claims to have invented Ultrasuede, a synthetic version of the real material, though some reports suggest that he gently borrowed the idea after seeing the designer Issey Miyake wearing it in Japan. Halston was, however, the first person to use the innovative fabric to create a woman’s day dress. What he created, in model 704, is a highly technical garment that could stand up to the washing machine. The design stole the best elements of a men’s oxford shirt—pointed collar, shoulder yoke, double-button cuffs—but also accentuated a woman’s form with a sash belt. The structured neckline, with buttons that start at the breastbone, was a provocative choice. As the fashion historian Patricia Mears wrote in the exhibition catalogue for a 2015 Halston and Yves Saint-Laurent retrospective at F.I.T., “His shirtwaist dress was, according to some, the first low décolletage seen on an item of daytime sportswear.”

The freedom and undeniable energy to Halston’s clothes were matched by the way he presented them. He allowed his models to sneer at or flirt with audiences during runway shows. He loosened up waistlines and let long dresses skim the floor. His vision of glamour was that of the butterfly: colorful, ephemeral, transitional. So many women talk of being changed by Halston’s clothes, of feeling wild and dominant in them for the first time. But the women of the Netflix series are depicted as more pathetic than powerful. Minnelli collapses and heads to the Betty Ford Center. Peretti, one of the great jewelry innovators of her era (her longtime residency at Tiffany breathed fresh allure into the aging brand), has a grand meltdown in the Hamptons after secretly pining for Halston. Pat Ast, an infamously outsized character with a booming voice and a frizzy wedge of hair, has only one or two lines. Halston was one of the first designers to regularly cast Black models, including Pat Cleveland and Alva Chinn, in his shows. In “Halston,” no woman of color is given even a minor speaking part.

The show’s high-strung theatrics are most entertaining in the final two episodes, in which McGregor chews through Halston’s epic descent, clearly delighting in scenes in which he gets to scream at assistants to bring him more cocaine. In 1983, Halston signed a huge deal with J. C. Penney to design a diffusion line, called Halston III, which would allow the women from his Midwestern home town to have a slice of his satiny world. Some might say this move was visionary—today, major designers do collaborations with Target and Adidas and Ugg boots without a second thought. But going downmarket ruined Halston in the high-fashion world at the time. His beloved Bergdorf dropped his line, and soon other department stores followed. At the same time, Norton Simon sold off Halston to Esmark, Inc., which had a Playtex executive take over the couture house. Eventually, Revlon bought the brand, but discontinued all products except for the perfume, which was still a cash cow. After a series of hostile brand takeovers, with executives who wanted to cut him out of the loop entirely, Halston was exhausted. He made a weak bid to buy back his name from Revlon, but it didn’t pan out. He died, of AIDS, in 1990, the same year that Revlon ceased making Halston clothing altogether.

The Netflix series is not the first attempt to chronicle the Halston saga. Steven Gaines’s dishy biography, “Simply Halston,” provided the source material for much of the show. In 2010, the filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith released an indie documentary called “Ultrasuede,” in which he wanders around asking nosy questions of Halston’s contemporaries. (Minnelli, in a rare and vulnerable interview, begs Sudler-Smith not to linger on the sordid details of Halston’s life; he should focus on “the solid stuff, not the gossip.”) In 2019, a second documentary, also called “Halston,” from the filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng, featured the writer and actress Tavi Gevinson as a fictional investigator hunting for the truth about Halston’s rapid decline. These projects, too, have tended to linger on Halston’s hard-partying Studio 54 years, on his torrid love affairs, and on his hot temper. What sticks most in my mind, though, is a short scene from Tcheng’s documentary, in which Fred Dennis, a fashion curator, shows off Halston dress patterns from the archives of F.I.T. One has the spiralled look of a “Cuisinart blade,” and requires only a single seam. Another looks like a tangram—a long rectangle with triangles jutting out at awkward angles. Halston could glance at a lonely square of fabric and immediately know how to manipulate it (a sculptural skill held over from hatmaking). He often worked scissors first, trusting his hands to cut into precious textiles without a premeditated plan. This dynamism in his creative process was key to why women felt so dynamic in his designs. His customers wanted to feel uninhibited—no bra, no worries, and smelling of leather—but also bolstered by his garments in other ways. “He took away the cage,” Pat Cleveland says in Tcheng’s film. In a Halston design, she adds, “You didn’t really need the structure as much as you needed the woman.”

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