Before Tom Ford, there was Halston, sharing the same model-like looks, penchant for black turtlenecks and black sunglasses, exquisite taste, flair for creating beautifully cut clothes that expertly walk the tightrope between sophisticated and sexy, and determination to pursue world domination through branding, slapping his name on everything from lingerie and perfume to luggage and bedding (though it’s now commonplace, Halston was the first high-end designer to pioneer such diversification).
But while Ford has maintained a steady grip on his business and personal life, Halston got sucked into the “divine decadence” of the ’70s, embracing a party-hearty lifestyle that led to him neglecting the day-to-day workload and resulted in his eventually losing control of his company and even the use of his name when his corporate backers’ patience became exhausted. Now, the designer’s glamorous, turbulent life is the subject of a five-part Netflix biopic that reunites the star (Ewan McGregor) and producer (Christine Vachon) of Velvet Goldmine, another tale of ’70s excess, with most episodes written by Glee co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan. We look at how much of the series is real and how much a synthetic blend.
On the Rise
The series depicts little Halston (then Roy Halston Frowick) making hats to comfort his beloved mother after her irascible husband, Halston’s father, physically abuses her in their Midwestern home. Halston was indeed from the Midwest—originally Iowa, then Indiana—and according to biographer Steven Gaines, he did make hats for both his mother and sister from an early age. Halston’s father, a CPA, was known for his hot temper, but his being physically abusive may be pure invention, and according to friends and family, Halston’s childhood was wholesomely middle-class middle American.
The next we see of Halston, it’s 1961 and he’s making Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat. This is true, although Oleg Cassini, Kennedy’s official designer, maintained, not entirely believably, that he actually designed the hat and Halston merely fabricated it. By this time Halston was head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman, New York’s swankiest department store, where his client list included Greta Garbo, Barbra Streisand, and most of the city’s leading fashion plates and socialites.
However, as the ’60s roll on and people stop wearing hats, Halston sees the writing on the wall and persuades Bergdorf Goodman to bankroll his first clothes collection. The reception, as the series suggests, was muted because the designs had no real personality, and the store pulls out. In the series, after Halston strikes out on his own, he is left $200,000 in debt and about to go under despite a well-received catwalk show, but is saved a few months later when fashion leader Babe Paley orders several versions of his innovative, luxurious-but-durable Ultrasuede dress. In reality, Paley and a number of Halston’s former high-profile millinery clients, including Catherine Deneuve, Lauren Bacall, and Jackie Onassis rode to his rescue even before the wildly popular Ultrasuede dress appeared.
The series introduces Halston’s assistant designer at the time, a rather cowed speed freak called Joel, who comes up with the idea of using a tie-dyed chiffon fabric. Halston did employ the future film director Joel Schumacher, who had been a designer for hip boutique Paraphernalia and was addicted to speed at the time, but he was tasked with knitwear so was unlikely to be working with chiffon.
Conspicuous by Their Absence: Charles James
The series references Halston speaking of his admiration for Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Halston is shown fearlessly cutting on the bias (cutting at a 45-degree angle so the fabric drapes itself on the body) and draping the fabric on the model rather than working from a pattern as Balenciaga did. Indeed, Gaines quotes a friend saying Halston “wanted to be recognized as the Balenciaga of America,” and the head of his workroom, Salvatore Cardello, trained with the Spanish designer. Balenciaga, who shared Halston’s belief in simplicity and that clothes should move with the body rather than restrict it, was certainly a major influence, but no mention is made of an equally revered couturier who was an even bigger influence both in art and in life, Charles James.
James—widely thought to be the primary inspiration for the misanthropic, perfectionist designer in Phantom Thread—was a designer’s designer, renowned for his superb tailoring. Even Balenciaga called him “the greatest couturier in the world.” Halston first met James in 1957, soon after moving to New York, and the two would have dinner two or three times a week, with James becoming his mentor. It was James who shaped Halston’s view that fashion could be fine art (the older designer would spend months getting the drape of a sleeve just right), and it was thanks to James he met the head of millinery for Bergdorf Goodman. “Halston learned a great deal from Charles James about designing and the world of style and society,” said Lilly Daché, the society milliner who was Halston’s first employer in New York. Halston adopted James’ favorite flower, the orchid, as his trademark bloom, eventually spending six figures a month on supplying them for his studio.
But James was also a role model in some less positive ways. He was egotistical, paranoid, and litigious, constantly suing people he claimed had stolen his ideas. As Halston’s star rose, James’ declined. By 1969, he was broke and constantly stoned, with a mean streak that had alienated most of his friends, a cautionary tale that Halston chose to ignore. With admirable loyalty, he sponsored a James retrospective and employed James in his workroom. Predictably, the relationship collapsed, with James claiming until his death all of Halston’s designs were stolen from him.
Minnelli the Muse
The series suggests that Halston met his great friend and muse Liza Minnelli when he saw something in a vivacious but raw young performer at a supper club and went backstage to meet her afterward. Their actual meeting was more prosaic: Minelli recalls that she was shopping in Bloomingdale’s with her godmother, frequent Halston client and author of Eloise, Kay Thompson, when she was drawn to a Halston ensemble, leading Thompson to arrange a meeting at the designer’s studio. “We got along instantly, and he became my fashion mate. I did what he said. … He dressed me, and suddenly I was able to go anywhere I wanted,” the star said in 2011, while the singer Michael Feinstein told the New York Times “no one matters more to her than Halston. Liza says that, with Fred Ebb and Kay Thompson, Halston created her.”
As the series documents, the two became self-created family, with Halston becoming the star’s confidant, sounding board, and style guru, teaching her how to dress, providing her wardrobe, and accompanying her to parties and discos. Although it’s not clear if he altered her costumes for the film of Cabaret (as the fictional Liza asserts in Halston), he certainly designed the costumes for her live performances, much of her offstage wardrobe, and the gown she wore to collect her Best Actress Oscar in 1973.
Although the show suggests that Halston only turned to costume design after his star started waning, in fact he designed costumes for several performers besides Minnelli in his heyday. In 1973, he created 12 gowns for his client Lauren Bacall to wear in a televised version of the play Applause, and in 1977 he designed the costumes for a revival of Hello, Dolly! starring longtime client Carol Channing. And rather than designing costumes for the legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s company late in his career as Halston depicts, in fact he designed the costumes for more than a dozen of her ballets starting in 1975, as well as becoming one of her company’s most generous patrons.
The Body in the Air Vent
As has been amply documented, the series’ depiction of Studio 54—the Glitterati Central disco where Halston and Liza, along with Halston’s lover Victor Hugo and Bianca Jagger spent most of their evenings in the late ’70s—is, if anything, restrained. Yes, there were people openly having sex in the balcony, and cocaine was as ubiquitous and widely available as Coca-Cola. Even one seemingly concocted episode where a woman too hopelessly bridge-and-tunnel to ever gain admittance but desperate to get past the velvet rope crawls into an air vent and becomes fatally trapped is in fact true, although the would-be partygoer was a man in black tie, not a woman in discount Halston.
Conspicuous by Their Absence: Andy Warhol
Although Warhol’s silkscreen paintings are glimpsed on the walls of both Halston’s and Minnelli’s residences and he is name-checked once or twice, the artist is largely absent from the story even though he was one of Halston’s closest friends (“Whenever there was a dinner or something at H.’s house, he would be there,” Minnelli recalled) and as much a part of the core Studio 54 group as Jagger or Minnelli. Not only did Warhol and Halston collect each other’s work, they often collaborated creatively, beginning with the 1972 Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards, where Halston put Warhol in charge of his runway show. He later designated Warhol the unofficial photographer for subsequent shows. Warhol frequently wore Halston menswear, for which he created an ad campaign in 1982. For years Warhol and Halston celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together at Halston’s townhouse. Halston also gave Warhol elaborate birthday gifts ranging from a white fur coat to a box of Muppet items provided by Jim Henson after Halston sent a box of his cosmetic products to Miss Piggy. Warhol also sketched portraits of Halston’s family members.
It’s easy to see why Halston and Warhol were drawn to each other: both from unremarkable backgrounds in conservative Middle America where their gayness made them outsiders, both with a keen understanding of the power of stardom and branding, and both, underneath all the social frou-frou, passionately devoted to their art. “I think that Halston and Warhol both had a sophisticated appreciation for the power of brand identity,” said the curator of an exhibition devoted to the two at the Andy Warhol museum in 2014. “Each had formative experiences working in department stores, and as they subsequently embarked upon their respective careers, adopted a persona that would become inseparable from their productions as designer and artist.”
Finally, Halston did not buy a beautiful beach house in Montauk as the show maintains; he rented a cottage from Warhol, part of the artist’s Montauk compound, for many years. Already ill with AIDS, Halston viewed The Andy Warhol Diaries that appeared posthumously in 1989 as a betrayal from beyond the grave since they lifted the lid on the designer’s use of drugs and gay hustlers— and, worse, his sharing drugs with Minnelli.
One of these gay hustlers was the exuberant and charismatic Victor Hugo, who insinuated himself into the designer’s personal and professional life, becoming the boutique’s window dresser as well as Halston’s lover and hedonism facilitator, organizing gay orgies and procuring drugs. Hugo had his own (nonsexual) creative relationship with Warhol, insofar as he modeled for the artist’s Torso series and “contributed” to his Oxidation series by urinating on canvases coated with wet copper paint. Warhol made Hugo a contributing editor of his Interview magazine, where the Venezuelan conducted Q&As with celebrities and designed advertisements.
Hugo is depicted as genuinely being in love with Halston but also as being primarily occupied with advancing his own interests. Both these things would appear to be true. The series shows Hugo threatening to sell salacious gossip about the designer to the New York Post after Halston has refused to give him money for an artistic venture. In reality, Hugo approached not only the Post but also other publications and journalists with offers of gossip for sale. In 1985, Hugo signed a nondisclosure agreement in which he promised not to speak publicly about his relationship with Halston in return for which he received some Warhol paintings and other objects, as well as a large amount of money. Of course he ignored the conditions.
Eventually, Halston’s brother, Bob, had to lock Hugo out of the New York house because, according to Gaines, Hugo had moved back in and was making off with Halston’s property even as the designer lay ill. Then there was the nonfinancial betrayal. Former Interview editor Bob Colacello writes in his memoir that Warhol was jealous of Halston’s huge success and used Hugo, who had been a Warhol assistant at the Factory, to embarrass the designer. “Andy loved it when Victor showed up at [Studio] 54 in a jockstrap or at a Halston party in a Halston dress, in both cases much to Halston’s embarrassment,” Colacello wrote. “Victor later told me that Andy actually paid him to do these things.”
Another former Warhol associate, larger-than-life actress Pat Ast, who had appeared opposite Joe D’Allesandro in Heat, turns up in Halston as a saleswoman in the boutique and as part of the Halston entourage. Ast was in reality both these things, as well as one of the very first plus-size models when Halston put her on the catwalk. Halston pioneered incorporating diversity into his shows, using a regular rota of models—known as the “Halstonettes”—that included not only Ast but women of color such as Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, and a very young Iman. Today this sounds unremarkable but at the time it was revolutionary.
Decline and Fall
The series shows Halston’s initial corporate backer, a relatively benign owner called Norton Simon, being swept up in 1980s acquisition mania and being bought by a more hard-nosed giant corporation called Esmark, a subsidiary of bra-and-girdle-maker International Playtex. The new owners take a dim view of Halston’s indifference to cost control, lackluster profits, increasingly chaotic work ethic, productivity, and management, and the high-handed attitude he maintains despite all this. Halston was indeed forced to sell his trademark so that he couldn’t design under his own name, but he didn’t sell to Esmark as the show suggests—because within a year of acquiring Norton Simon, Esmark itself was acquired by Beatrice Foods, another conglomerate. Halston unsuccessfully tried to buy back his business in October 1984 and when this failed, stormed out of his office, after which he was removed as president of his own company, but not before the ever-enterprising Victor Hugo offered to testify or give evidence against Halston in the event of a lawsuit. All it would cost Playtex is $10,000 cash. Beatrice then spun off Halston Enterprises, which in 1986 was bought by Revlon.
Conspicuous by Their Absence: Halston’s Family
In the show, after Halston becomes increasingly ill with AIDS, he decides to sell his beloved Montauk beach house and New York townhouse, telling his closest consigliere, fashion illustrator Joe Eula, that he is moving to San Francisco because “you know why.” What is not made clear is that he moved to the Bay Area not only because it was a center of AIDS health care but because his brother, Bob Frowick, and sister, Sue Hopkins, lived in Santa Rosa with their families. Even though Halston remained close to his siblings, they never appear and are never mentioned in the show. Halston was especially close to his niece Lesley Frowick (referred to in The Andy Warhol Diaries as “the niece”), who has become the keeper of the Halston flame and maintainer of the archive. She is the author of the Rizzoli book Halston: Inventing of American Fashion and was co-curator of the traveling exhibition Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede. The family has distanced themselves from the Netflix production, issuing a release this week calling the series “inaccurate” and “fictionalized.”