From Bianca Jagger’s dresses at Studio 54 to Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat and Liza Minnelli’s stage outfits, the fashion designer Roy Halston – or simply Halston – was the last word in American glamour in the late 1960s and 70s. Now, with the Netflix series Halston telling his story, that name is set to hit the radar of another generation. It comes at a good time – Halston’s disco-worthy designs could provide the perfect inspiration ahead of nightclubs reopening on 21 June in parts of the UK.
Halston stars Ewan McGregor as the designer and it is produced by Ryan Murphy, the man behind Pose, The Assassination of Gianni Versace and American Horror Story. Add characters including Minnelli, Elsa Peretti and the models Pat Cleveland and Karen Bjornson dressed in body-skimming fashion, and it is set to appeal to a demographic who like retro glamour and hedonism with their box sets.
As with Murphy’s Versace series, and Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated The House of Gucci, Halston’s family have been quick to speak out against the series – adding a layer of controversy. Lesley Frowick, Halston’s niece and chief executive of his archives, released a statement this week complaining that the series was “an inaccurate, fictionalised account” of her uncle’s life. Speaking to Women’s Wear Daily, she added that “salacious things sell”. In addition to this, McGregor has defended his casting as the gay designer over sexuality representation.
What is indisputable is Halston’s impact on fashion. Tom Ford’s ultra-sexy 90s look for Gucci – popular on fashionable Instagram feeds – owes a lot to him, and his influence can be seen in London designers advocating a club-appropriate look, including Maximilian, Halpern and Nensi Dojaka.
Halston moved the aesthetic from the flowers-in-the-hair look of the hippy movement to the sexy, dancefloor designs made for the disco era. “It’s all about movement, the form of the body,” said Daniel Minahan, who directed the series. Halston was so focused on the body that he encouraged women to wear his designs with no underwear.
He also designed clothes for a new generation of working women. The series documents his creation of a suedette shirt dress in the early 70s – one that women were able to put in the washing machine. With convenience and chic combined, it became a hit. “That dress was one of the largest selling in America … and it was extremely expensive,” said Minahan. “Everyone from Katharine Graham to my father’s secretary in Connecticut had that dress.”
This series was a passion project for Minahan, 20 years in the making. He said he had been intrigued by Halston’s story after reading a 1991 biography of the designer. The director was particularly struck by how Halston created his own image, to spread the name of his brand. He was endlessly photographed with his entourage of female friends – sometimes dubbed the “Halstonettes” – and created a signature look of black polo neck, slicked-back hair and sunglasses. This transformation is shown in the first episode. “He had a uniform, an armour,” said Minahan. “He did what he did for Liza [Minnelli], making her sort of an icon … he did the same thing for himself.”
In 1975, Halston’s friend Andy Warhol immortalised him in a screenprint. By 1977, as Minahan says, Halston became so famous that “he was on The Love Boat as himself”. In 1979, his name was immortalised as a disco label, along with that of Gucci and Fiorucci, in the lyrics for Sister Sledge’s classic He’s the Greatest Dancer.
Halston reportedly struggled with drug addiction and lived an extravagant lifestyle. In 1973, he sold his brand and in 1982, he signed a deal to create clothes for JC Penney. The association with an affordable high street brand – now commonplace – turned off his well-heeled clients. Stores such as Bergdorf Goodman stopped stocking his label.
He died away from the limelight in 1990, at the age of 57. “He was sort of brought down in a really unfair way and his life ended before he was really through,” said Minahan. “Many young people, unless they are in the fashion world or an incredible student of New York nightlife and culture, won’t know who Halston was.” This version of his story – even if it is not family-approved – will change that.