Who Was Halston? Exploring Three Of The American Fashion Designer’s Key Legacies

There's more to the man than the Netflix series.

Designer biopics have always intrigued archivists and fashion enthusiasts and the recent spate of series and films focusing on the industry’s past towering figures offers plenty of material for analysis. Netflix’s miniseries Halston is the most recent glance back into the world of eminent American designer Roy Halston Frowick, better known mononymously as Halston. 

Where Halston’s producer Ryan Murphy’s previous fashion designer-centric season of American Crime Story dived into the story of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace’s murder—a subject matter which bears parallels to Ridley Scott’s forthcoming House Of Gucci film—the subject explored in the new Netflix series is centred around a slightly different kind of downfall.

The tale of Halston’s life offers up all the rich narrative trappings that prestige TV loves to explore. A ‘started from the bottom’ individual seemingly as talented as they are troubled, surrounded by and in the business of creating glamour. A cohort of famous friends such as the inimitable Liza Minnelli, celebrated jewellery designer Elsa Peretti and models like Anjelica Huston, Pat Ast and Pat Cleveland, who would go on to become icons in their own right.

For those curious, take a peek at how the actors in the cast of Halston compare to their real-life counterparts.

Designer Halston with Liza Minelli

There’s the revitalising, transitional period of glamour in America that saw the 1960s make way for the glittering, disco delights of the 1970s. A career that rises to wild heights, only to come crashing down as Halston sells the use of his name to J. C. Penney, followed by his death that comes far too soon after testing positive for HIV.

“The hook for me was 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,” explains Halston’s director Dan Minahan, per the Los Angeles Times. “And to me that was very rich. It seemed like a really archetypal American story.”

Ewan McGregor in Netflix's Halston

The Halston series focuses on this, tackling a different important career moment for the designer in each episode, though reviews have been mixed as to whether this has proved a successful strategy. Members of Halston’s family have decried the Netflix miniseries as ‘unauthorised’ and ‘misrepresentative’ of the essence of the designer. Likewise, Halston’s model friend, Cleveland, recently said: “I don’t think anybody could ever play him the way he really was.”

For those unfamiliar with the designer, who is often deemed the first American couturier, there a number of key moments showcased in the series that are well worth further exploration. Here, a little more detail behind them.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s pillbox hat

It’s true that the incident that first sky-rocketed Halston to international notice was a moment of luck: Jacqueline Kennedy chose a pillbox hat designed by Halston to wear with her Inauguration Day suit. The hat, which was custom-designed by Halston when he was serving as the high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman’s milliner, spawned a movement.

According to a later interview, Halston said the dent in the hat wasn’t intentional. Kennedy was simply hanging on to her hat because it was windy, “everybody who copied it put a dent in it, which was so funny,” the designer recalled.

Ultimately, the hat would become a double-edged sword. While it propelled the designer to success, it also became a part of his story that he’d struggle to shed and move on from as he shifted from hats to garments.

The Ultrasuede shirtdress, aka, model 704

Halston ultrasuede shirtdress

Another oft-repeated anecdote is Halston’s popularisation of Ultrasuede, a synthetic version of suede that opened up a world of practical dressing for women due to its machine washable nature. In Netflix’s Halston, the designer claims to socialite Babe Paley that he invented the durable fabric.

While there’s no denying his talents as a master fabric manipulator—Halston was known to dispense with patterns and cut his clothes in single confidant swoops while it was draped across a body—the synthetic ultra microfibre was actually invented in 1970 by Japanese scientist Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto. (Some critics have noted the minimising of people of colour from Halston, despite Halston having many close relationships with some of America’s first successful Black models, none are given speaking parts.)

A different—likely more accurate—legend goes that Halston first happened upon the material that would become one of his signatures during an encounter with designer Issey Miyake whilst he was wearing an Ultrasuede shirt. Taken by the utility of such a fabric, Halston was the first designer to create a shirtdress for women from the fabric. The dress, known as ‘model 704’ was introduced in 1972 and became a runaway success, heavily mimicked by other designers.

Halston’s friendships with Liza Minnelli, Pat Cleveland and Elsa Peretti

Halston with Pat Cleveland and Pat Ast

Halton’s magnetism is something of a legend and his celebrity friendships and his association with Studio 54 are explored throughout the Netflix series. One of the most tempting things to wonder about is the reality of these friendships, unfiltered by the lens of time or a Netflix production. By all accounts, this may be the arena in which Netflix’s Halston has the most success. 

According to his niece Lesley Frowick, despite the focus on the salacious aspects of his later years, Halston himself was a man for the people. In his designs and with respect to his mid-Western background, he attempted to create accessible, practical garments for the real American lifestyle people were living. “That’s why he went into J.C. Penney, to create a lifestyle for the American woman of the day,” Frowick explained, per WWD.

When it came to Halston’s friendships, “he was always interested in what other people had to say and in other people’s lives, especially if they were doing interesting things.” That interest and loyalty may be best embodied by the staunch loyalty people have to him to this day. Pat Cleveland, his close friend and one of the models who made up the Halstonettes, recently told The Cut that “You just felt like somebody picked you up and put you in Heaven when you were with him.”

Of Halston’s friendship with Minnelli, Cleveland said, “He was protective of her because he really loved her. He loved her and he loved Elsa very much.” From accounts, Halston and Minnelli’s friendship was the kind of partnership that’s rare to see in the fashion world these days, not simply a muse-artist relationship but something truly collaborative, supportive and special.

The remnants of this relationship can be seen in photographs, interviews, any number of Minnelli’s most significant fashion moments: the sunny yellow pantsuit for her 1974 wedding, the dress she accepted an Oscar for Cabaret, and of course, her concert looks.

Minnelli is one of Halston’s biggest defenders to this day, especially in the wake of fresh examinations like Ultrasuede, the 2019 documentary Halston and Netflix’s most recent miniseries. If you were hoping for accounts from the inner circle about Halston’s drug use or infidelity, they aren’t going to come from those who knew him.

“It’s very hard to do an interview about your best friend,” Minnelli said about Halston in a 2019 interview. “Especially if what’s popular in that day and age time is digging a little. I don’t like it. I hated it when they did it to my mother or my father or myself. And I won’t do it to Halston, I just won’t. I refuse.”

Perhaps it’s a pertinent sentiment to take away when watching the Netflix series. The show dives into the designer’s legacy, his friends, his work and his struggles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean viewers will ever know the man.

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