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The true story behind the Netflix series Halston starring Ewan McGregor

“I hear a lot of things about myself. I hear that I’m jet-set and this and that, and I’m really not. I live a very quiet life.” — Halston

Imagine undergoing years of struggle to climb from the lowest rungs of the social ladder to the highest, befriending the elite and encapsulating yourself in a world of glamour and glory, only to have an exponential downfall, bringing life to a complete circle. That is the exact story of Roy Halston Frowick, the famous American fashion designer who went by the name of Halston. The designer garnered global success with his incredible designs that were minimalistic and neat, using fabrics that were exquisitely comfortable made of materials such as Ultrasuede and cashmere. Halston became a phenomenon in the 1970s, and his fashion was a defining factor of the era, which revelled in its groovy disco era. Having befriended some of the most iconic names in the echelons of the elite, Halston’s story, laden with scandals, controversies, love and mirth, is no short of a legend. 

It is understandable why Ryan Murphy would like to follow up his former designer-centric work that dealt with Gianni Versace’s infamous murder with that of Halston’s impeccable journey to fame and subsequent downfall. Biopics about the showbiz industry have always sparked interest as they usually address controversies that are meaty to the common public. With Halston, it is no different, except the story is a lot more intriguing as a man rises from nothingness to the zenith of success and power, which attracts people’s attention. It also provides a brilliant insight into Halston’s troubled mind that grew increasingly disillusioned while trying to cope with his rising fame. With its new miniseries Halston, Netflix gives the world an insight into the designer’s fascinating life story, where each episode focuses on various aspects of his life, highlighting the significant events that took place. 

While the series has earned mixed reviews, some being rave ratings due to the brilliant portrays, it has been criticised for rushing through the events, which have often led to certain factual fallacies. Some opined that the series does not live up to the greatness of the individual talent. One of the designer’s model friends even expressed his disgruntlement and said that nobody could ever do justice to the original man. The director Dan Minahan agreed that the “this idea of someone coming to New York, creating this made-up name, building it into an empire and then being stripped of his name and company—he couldn’t be Halston anymore” attracted him and to him, “seemed like a really archetypal American story.”

While this five-part miniseries starring Ewan McGregor, Rory Culkin, Kelly bishop, Bill Pullman and more, adds significant details regarding the designer’s life, a lot remains untold and hidden from the public eye. Halston was a phenomenal man with a far-sighted visual aesthetic. As we read further about Halston, we understand how dynamic he was as a character. Tracing his struggle from near nothingness to that of a bustling fortune is nothing but extraordinary. The series explores his personal and professional life and the torrid love affair that ensued between him and Victor Hugo and concludes with Halston losing his empire and eventually succumbing to lung cancer induced by his longstanding battle with HIV-AIDS in 1990 dying at the young age of 57. While some of the details are correct, we are here to debunk some of the elements that have been nuanced by the Netflix series. 

Born in 1932 in Iowa to a working-class family, Halston developed his flair for creating and altering clothes at an early age, gaining inspiration from his grandmother. The family moved to Evansville when Halston was only ten years old. While there has been no concrete evidence regarding domestic abuse, despite his father allegedly being as controlling and temperamental as most fathers in that era, the show hints at his mother being the victim of abuse. This might leave fans confused and hurt, but in reality, he had a “wholesomely middle-class American” upbringing, as said by his family and friends. Having taken a night course at the School of the Art Institute at Chicago, Halston would make ends meet by working as a window dresser. He eventually started his hat business which was unique in its own way. The newspapers were astonished by the unique hat designs, and soon he opened a shop in Chicago wherein he adopted his mononymous name. 

However, the legendary designer earned his big break and a huge amount of fame after he designed the famous and widely-discussed pillbox hat worn to the 1961 presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy by his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. The hat became a trademark symbol, and many designers tried to copy the same design. Halston, however, had something insightful to add regarding the making of the hat. In an interview with Vogue as recorded by PopSugar, he said that the “funny thing about that pillbox hat” was that “it was made too small for her, but Mrs Kennedy wore it anyway. When a gust of wind threatened to topple it from her head, she dented it hanging on to the hat. The Seventh Avenue copycat hat makers reproduced the design by the thousands so accurately that each pillbox had a dent in it.” 

Like any pragmatic individual, Halston quickly recognised the shift in trends and switched to designing women’s fashion as soon as hats started to lose their glory. One of the earliest and richest patrons was Mrs Marsh, whose funding helped him set up his business. He had designed an exquisite dark jade velvet wedding gown for Mary Wells Lawrence, who, impressed by his intricate work, helped him gain extra fame by designing clothes for the crew in the Braniff International Airways, of which her husband was the CEO.

“I think people are born for their destinies. Certain people are gifted to use their hands, or voices or minds. I’m fortunate enough to be such a person.” 

Known for his innate skills in manipulating the texture of the fabric to make it sustainable and suitable for everyday wear, especially for women, Halston gained immense popularity due to him being undeniably talented and gifted with the hands of a master artist. He was one of the first designers who made shirtdresses for women using Ultrasuede, being a trailblazing fashion designer in many aspects. This dress, which was later impersonated by many, came to be popularly known as ‘model 704’. Halston was a practical man and did away with impractical things, including unnecessary bows, zips, and more. He wanted to make fashion as comfortable as possible, hating “things that don’t work”.

Halston believed in helping his models create an impeccable fashion statement, wearing clothes that would suit the needs in the distant future, most notably pants. Something that current fashion houses and designers lack is diversity. Halston was a fashion designer who had his own cohort of models known as the Hastonettes, who tagged along for shows and were incredibly diverse. Besides being friends with heavyweight names such as Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, Angelica Huston, pat Cleveland and more, Halston had a loyal band of friends and models who stayed put and helped him grow exponentially. 

The Netflix series successfully explores the depths of Halston’s charismatic and magnetic personality, with McGregor doing justice to his role. However, had the series been a tad bit longer with a few more episodes, one could have seen the better character development of respective names and the unfurling of a better storyline. Known for his pragmaticism while designing clothes, the series does not forget to gradually trace his steady downfall.

Triumphant at the Battle of Versailles, an iconic competitive fashion show, Halston sold his name and company banner for a whopping $16 million to Norton Simon yet continued to work there. He also created one of the first “masstige” lines in the industry following his $1 billion deal with JCPenney. However, with this, his resolve started crumbling down as he started being a luxurious spendthrift, indulging in drug and other substances. His fractured relationship with Victor Hugo added to his troubles, causing him to spiral even more. While he was the pioneer in creating trendy and comfortable womenswear, he slowly lost his footing as he gradually lost his creative autonomy. Halston received his final blow when he was banned from designing for his namesake company which furthered his frustrations and drug-fuelled benders. While he continued designing for his family and friends, it was heartbreaking to learn how the design mogul was reduced to sheer nothingness due to certain lapse of judgements. 

Halston, one of the groundbreaking figures in designing practical clothing, especially athleisure, left the fashion industry hollow with his untimely demise at 57. However, he left behind him a trailing legacy of extraordinary and wonderful designs and clothing that helped create a new genre of clothing in the fashion industry. While the Netflix series does a good job of humanizing the legendary Halston, the man remains a mythical figure even now, with certain private aspects of his life that cannot be ventured upon.

Halston’s never-ending passion for designing can be summed up by something he said, as excited as a child: “It (designing) has everything. It’s difficult; it’s hard work, it’s harassing, it’s full of drama. I don’t quite know where I got my ambition, but I have it. I go into things with an optimistic point of view, and I look at it straight and try to make it the biggest and best success I can. But the thing that holds my interest always is more; what’s next, what’s going to be the next exciting thing.” A man celebrated for his neverending struggles throughout his life as well as his farsightedness, Halston continues to reign supreme in the fashion industry, and his presence is, even after 31 years of his demise, overwhelming.

“You need to create the illusion of success for people to pay attention.” 

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