How ‘Halston’, the miniseries on Netflix, has let one of America’s greatest fashion icons down
To review the new Netflix miniseries on the iconic American fashion designer Halston, let’s begin with a few facts that are missing in this presentation. The viewers of these five episodes are two to three generations removed from the culture that Halston represented through his designs. And unless you’re a fashion student or an avid enthusiast, it’s safe to assume you’re not familiar with his work, even though you may have heard the name.
Roy Halston Frowick’s working years stretched from the 1950s to the early 1980s. In this time, he came to define American fashion, especially for the ’70s. He was the first designer of note to design for a department store (JCPenney), a move that was at the time considered beneath them (but now we just love ‘collaborations’ between, for example, H&M and designer X). He was possibly the only American fashion designer who was admired in Europe even though he didn’t come from the pedigree of having assisted French couturiers in his younger years (like Oscar de la Renta did). Beyond that, he continued designing and approving designs for all license deals that he signed, unlike others who simply signed over their licenses to producers to chase expansion (French designer Pierre Cardin is often cited as the most disastrous example of such MO; Pierre Cardin ballpoint pens exist, not joking).
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So what happens when an unfamiliar generation — one that has no direct link with Halston or his legacy of design — views a five-episode Netflix series that selectively centres Halston’s arrogance, drug abuse, and sexual life?
A still from ‘Halston’
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The dead tell no tales
In the timeline of biographical chronicling on film, the genre of fashion documentaries and OTT series is fairly new. It was only in 1995 that Unzipped, a behind-the-scenes film about American designer Isaac Mizrahi’s Fall 1994 collection, was released. Light-hearted as it was in its take, it set the tone for many such films to follow.
- Season 1
- Episodes: 5
- Director: Daniel Minahan
- Language: English
- Starring: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Dayan, David Pittu, Krysta Rodriguez, Bill Pullman
- Storyline: A miniseries based on the life of American fashion designer, Halston
You still see its echoes in the more recent Martin Margiela: In His Own Words (2019), The Gospel According to Andre (2017), and Dries (2017). Unzipped is widely regarded as the starting point for this kind of moviemaking because it opened the fashion world to an audience that did not have access to its inner workings or to its big names. At least not easily.
A quarter century later, a divide has emerged when it comes to telling the stories of fashion’s great names whether it’s a movie or a series. And this divide plagues Netflix’s Halston all through its five episodes, as binge-worthy as they may seem.
The divide manifests in the treatment of the subject matter. If you’re a designer or a fashion great who’s alive, you get to tell your story and have it recorded for posterity. André Leon Talley’s The Gospel According to André (2017) and Dries Van Noten’s Dries (2017) are examples of documentary features that centre on the subject’s voice. Once you’re dead, though, the way your story is told depends entirely on the screenwriters and directors. And Halston’s has not been treated with nearly enough respect and responsibility as it deserves. Nor is there any real storytelling.
Half the picture
The Halston miniseries suffers not for lack of talent or production value, but in its very concept. Ewan McGregor plays a tortured Halston who’s already set on the path of self-destruction from the opening episode. And if you’re the kind of viewer who takes pleasure in short-lived vindication, the series doesn’t disappoint. Drugs, sex with male prostitutes, botched relationships, a few high points, and then the ultimate dive into an AIDS-related death. It’s more predictable than sunrise.
A still from ‘Halston’
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Moreover, the series almost completely ignores Halston’s personal and factual history, limiting it to flashbacks (very Coco Avant Chanel from 2009) of his mother being abused by his father, and then her death, which is given about as much importance as his discovery of the fabric Ultrasuede via designer Issey Miyake at a cocktail party in 1971, a fact that the series completely misses. Along with the fact that he was possibly the only American designer to have a racially inclusive model pool at the time, much before representation became a buzzword. Even the presence of American artist Andy Warhol, who was a close friend, is limited to Halston cribbing about stolen paintings twice.
All these were enormously important in his life, but exist here only to highlight his narcissism, drug abuse, sex, and partying. No amount of great acting by Krysta Rodriguez (playing Liza Minnelli), Rebecca Dayan (playing Elsa Peretti), and David Pittu (playing Joe Eula) can salvage the finger wagging moralising that this series ultimately represents. Halston, played rather drearily by McGregor, comes across as nothing but a party boy who, despite his abounding talent, couldn’t hustle hard enough to control his fashion empire.
The even sadder part is that apart from its deeply researched production value in terms of costumes and sets (easily the highlights of the entire series), Halston utterly fails to capture the 1970s as a defining decade in American fashion and culture. And director Daniel Minahan had five full episodes to do that. Movies lasting a mere 90 minutes have captured entire eras.
See it if you really have nothing else to watch, but Pose Season 3 is up on Hotstar.
Halston is currently streaming on Netflix.
Varun Rana is a fashion commentator.