How American designer Halston, the subject of a new Netflix series, defined an era

As a dramatisation of the couturier's life, starring Ewan McGregor, hits our screens, a look at why it is worth watching

Halston with models Alva Chinn and Chris Royer in evening wear from his 1978 Resort collection at Halston's Olympic Towers headquarters in New York.
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Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is starring in the new Netflix series Halston, based on the life of the flamboyant designer of the same name.

Born Roy Halston Frowick, he became one of the most influential American designers of the 20th century, creating soft, fluid dresses that were as elegant as they were appealing.

Elsa Peretti and Halston attend the Fragrance Foundation's dinner together in the Plaza Hotel in 1976.
Fashion designer Halston and Elsa Peretti attend the Fragrance Foundation’s dinner at the Plaza Hotel in 1976.  Courtesy Penske Media

In his new approach to fashion, he discarded structure, replacing it with draped and wrapped dresses – often made from a single piece of cloth – that were so successful they came to define the fashion of the 1970s.

The Studio 54 life

Forever linked to the New York excesses of Studio 54, Halston dressed, and partied with, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich and Elsa Peretti, whom he would later introduce to the jewellery house Tiffany & Co, sparking a collaboration that would last until her death this year.

In return, Peretti created the teardrop-shaped bottle that housed Halston's first perfume. She was also part of the ever-present entourage of devoted models who followed Halston everywhere and were quickly dubbed the Halstonettes. As diverse as they were beautiful, they included Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Karen Bjornson and Anjelica Huston.

Fashion designer Halston with Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland and Liza Minnelli. The designer's glittering life has been serialised. Courtesy Pinterest
Fashion designer Halston with Andy Warhol, Diana Vreeland and Liza Minnelli. The designer's glittering life has been serialised. Courtesy Pinterest

Halston threw lavish parties for the likes of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, and revelled in having such famous clients. He once quipped that "a designer is only as good as the people he dresses", before going on to admit that his work was experimental and "revolutionary in its day".

A hat for Jackie Kennedy

Originally from Iowa, Halston studied millinery and opened his own hat shop in Chicago in 1953. Five years later he relocated to New York to work at Bergdorf Goodman, and got his big break in 1961 when the first lady, Jackie Kennedy, wore one of his pillbox hats to her husband's inauguration.

In 1966, he expanded into couture and ready-to-wear, launching his first collection at Bergdorf Goodman. While the press was underwhelmed, customers loved the new freedom he offered. He would go on to create couture for well-heeled clients such as Elizabeth Taylor, while designing more accessible pieces for the less wealthy.

"Clothes that danced with you"

Halston made the humble halterneck a go-to and pioneered the use of Ultrasuede, a substantially cheaper, synthetic version of suede that he cut into shirt dresses and jackets. He also designed costumes for choreographer Martha Graham, while Minnelli described his sensual, lightweight dresses as "clothes that danced with you".

Determined that fashion was for all, not only a privileged few, Halston sought to include all women in his collections. In an interview in 1977, he explained that "one has to think of every American wardrobe need, from the with-it young girls with style to the woman that leads a corporate structure lifestyle. That means I have to have a short dinner look, a gala look, something for entertaining at home and practical clothes that adapt to climate change".

He experimented with different materials, such as polyester, made into slip dresses, and cashmere, cut into soft wrap dresses. In 1977 he unveiled his High Rise collection, made of wool, jersey, velvet and chiffon, and tied at the waist. He boasted his new shape would "elongate any figure".

Designer Roy Halston with models Karen Bjornson and Margaret Donohue in looks from the Halston Made to Order Spring 1981 collection.
Fashion designer Halston with models Margaret Donohue and Karen Bjornson in looks from the Halston made to order spring 1981 collection. Courtesy Penske Media

For all his success, however – he sold his companies in 1973 for an estimated $11 million – all was not perfect in Halston’s world. Although still creating collections for the eponymous brand, it was not his own, and when his behaviour became erratic in the mid-1980s through excessive partying and drug use, he was ousted from the company he created. He died in 1990.

Courting controversy

While the new McGregor series is billed as a dramatisation, it is already being slammed by Halston's family for inaccuracies. His niece, Lesley Frowick, has condemned the project as "frankly garbage", while other members of the family and the Halston Archives say they were not consulted.

Celebrities during New Year's Eve party at Studio 54: (L-R) Halston, Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley, Jr. and wife Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol.  (Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
Halston, Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol at Studio 54 in New York. Getty Images

Only time will tell if the new Halston series lives up to the hype and if McGregor has captured the elegant flamboyance the designer was so famous for. Regardless, we can only hope it shows the true innovation he brought to American fashion, and how his designs helped to shape an era.

In an interview with Women's Wear Daily just before his death in 1990, Halston acknowledged the shift he brought about. "I made the change from very structured clothes to a more casual look, and fashionable women picked up on it.

“Whether it was cashmere, jersey or chiffon, it was about a total look. Clothes should be practical, glamorous, functional and spare. But mine weren’t always simple. Some of the simplest looks were actually the most complicated.”