Roy Halston was the darling of the Hollywood who’s who as well as American high society, and a moderniser of late-20th-century female fashion. Now a sumptuous new Netflix show traces the glamorous life and tragic demise of the era-defining designer
The Netflix series Halston, due to debut this Friday, May 14, has been feverishly anticipated... but who was the designer? The show, starring Ewan McGregor as the titular fashion designer, is co-produced by Ryan Murphy of Glee fame and traces Halston’s ascent from Midwest milliner to the toast of Manhattan and Studio 54 devotee. In our current glamour-starved state, it promises both heady escapism from the monotony of enforced isolation and vivid inspiration to get dressed up again after a year of sweatpants.
Roy Halston Frowick was highly innovative and immensely influential; his designs captured the decadence and languorous elegance of the late 1960s and early 1970s in a seductive blend of glamour and celebrity. He dominated the era with immense style, broke ground with his minimalist aesthetic — which executed pared-back shapes in the most luxurious fabrics — and was the epitome of contemporary luxury. His clothes were also supremely comfortable, which endeared him to the international jet set. Both prescient and savvy, Halston’s clothes anticipated the women’s liberation movement, as they championed freedom and modernity while also exuding a glamorous yet easy cachet. Original, authentic and ambitious: he was one of the most important designers in the history of 20th-century fashion. Even today his name evokes visions of world-weary elegance and languid luxe.
He once said, “You are only as good as the people you dress,” and his list of starry clients was a veritable who’s who of American high society and celebrity, including socialites Nan Kempner, Brooke Astor and Babe Paley; Hollywood royalty Lauren Bacall, Liz Taylor and Liza Minnelli; new stars Candice Bergen, Margaux Hemingway and Ali MacGraw, as well as era-defining beauties Bianca Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace. The women who wore his clothes became his loyal friends and adored him, not only for his style, but also for his charm, charisma and debonair persona.
Halston was exquisitely and innately stylish. He was also movie-star handsome, witty and talented. He had an aura of personal glamour combined with an eye that anticipated societal trends and could express them in innovative, appealing clothes. In the space of a few short years between the late ’60s and early ’70s, he evolved to become the emperor of sexy ’70s style and seemed guaranteed immense wealth and success. And yet, in a series of dramatic twists and turns, he lost it all — his company, his brand and his health — to die prematurely at 57 from an Aids-related illness.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, Halston was a precocious talent, sewing and creating hats for his mother and siblings from a very early age. He dropped out of college to go to Chicago, where he started his career as a window dresser while taking night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally a talented milliner who made distinctive sculptural hats, he later moved to Manhattan to work first for Lilly Daché and then Bergdorf Goodman, where he forged valuable connections with the store’s elite clientele, culminating in the pillbox hat for Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. During his decade with Bergdorf’s, he courted the Manhattan fashion press, and impressed influential editors including Polly Mellen and Diana Vreeland with his professionalism. Halston possessed talent and charm in equal measure, and his charisma was central to his success.
Sensing that hats were starting to go out of style, he moved into fashion in 1966 under the sponsorship of Bergdorf Goodman. His first show was a career-defining moment: it was fresh, exciting and dynamic, and heralded the modern and minimal Halston style, which he would refine in the coming decade. Halston chose to offer the glamour of high fashion fused with the convenience of ready-to-wear. Despite his lack of a formal design education, he was a modernist, creating utterly simple yet dramatic clothes (kaftans and lounge pyjamas) in luxurious fabrics: cashmere, silk charmeuse and tie-dyed chiffon. These were sinuous clothes that whispered refinement, caressed rather than clung and were ideal for the new generation of socialites, models and stars, as typified by his celebrity models, Anjelica Huston and Elsa Peretti.
He sensed the seismic shifts in society in the late ’60s and early ’70s (prompted by a global recession, the student movement and women’s liberation), which heralded the emergence of a new style of dress. The mood of the era was for unfussy, understated style and Halston excelled at reconfiguring classic items into utterly modern clothes to reflect that sentiment. He foresaw that the energy and accessibility of ready-to-wear would oust traditional haute couture with modern, streamlined styles. The sombre modernity of Halston’s clothes struck just the right chord with women looking for maximum impact with minimum fuss. Isaac Mizrahi captured this when he said, “He [Halston] recognised that women wanted to look mobile. He put women in motion, made them modern.”
Grace Mirabella, former editor-in-chief of US Vogue, said of his eye, “Halston’s proportions were perfect. His clothes followed the shape of a woman’s body without being tight; they held the body while still retaining a certain glamour.” He was genuinely a designer who loved women: he was always infinitely kind and considerate to women’s bodies, dressing a range of shapes and sizes with skill and empathy.
Initial reviews of his Bergdorf collections were lukewarm and sales so modest that Halston resigned 18 months after his debut show, but a mere three months later, in April 1968, he re-emerged with his own company, Halston Ltd, with private backing from a wealthy Texan, Estelle March Watlington. A boutique on 68th Street near Madison Avenue decorated with batik walls, East Indian furniture and exotic orchids followed and, despite a tiny staff, minimal capital and no dressing room, was soon a mecca for stylish women.
Next he began to gather around him the entourage that would become his creative family: tall, lean and ethnically diverse models including Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Carla Araque, Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson and Anjelica Huston; illustrator Joe Eula; jeweller Elsa Peretti; controversial window dresser and on/off lover Victor Hugo, and creative Joel Schumacher. The models Halston chose were central to communicating the Halston look and lifestyle, and these “Halstonettes” starred on his runway, season after season. They also travelled with the designer en masse to social gatherings and press outings — from the Met Ball to nights at Studio 54 as brand ambassadors.
Halston had such a rapid ascent over the next four years that, by 1972, he was being hailed as “simply the premier fashion designer of all America”. He consolidated this success with his most popular piece, the Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress (he was the first high-fashion designer to use a synthetic fabric) and later an eponymous perfume in 1975 (which at its peak was the second-bestselling scent globally to Chanel No 5). He socialised with Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in Studio 54 and was the poster boy for the relentless hedonism of ’70s Manhattan. As the prototype for the modern celebrity designer, both louche and luxe, he was synonymous with a very modern, understated and sexy style.
However, the very success of his brand would be Halston’s eventual undoing. After winning his first Coty Award in 1973 (then America’s most prestigious fashion prize), Norton Simon Industries bought the Halston name. The deal promised an annual salary of $150,000, to eventually grow to $500,000, and $7m in stock options. By 1975, Esquire was asking, “Will Halston Take Over the World?” and in 1978 he moved into a new HQ at the Olympic Tower on 51st and 5th Avenue next to St Patrick’s Cathedral.
But the fame and wealth brought mounting additional pressures. Halston began monetising the brand with licensing agreements (at his peak he had 30 licences and an extraordinary range of licensed products, including eyewear, luggage, garment patterns, menswear, a range for JCPenney, gloves, hosiery, handbags, scarves, shoes, foundation garments, hats, wigs, rugs, towels and furs).
This increased workload combined with a growing drug addiction fostered during his Studio 54 social life and his perfectionism (which meant a refusal to delegate or employ design assistants) led Halston to develop a violent temper. He simply refused to give his name to a product unless he had actually designed it, and the escalating workload became untenable when combined with his nocturnal lifestyle and cocaine use.
Halston had always been an extremely hard worker but now he was stretched thin. These circumstances and the sale of his company to a series of ever-larger business conglomerates (Esmark Inc and Beatrice Foods) led to his eventual expulsion from his own company in 1984, for failure to meet his commitments. From then on, he could no longer design under his own name and spent his remaining years trying to get his brand back without success.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he died of an Aids-related illness in March 1990 in California. In one final magnanimous gesture, he instructed his family to sell his white Rolls-Royce and donate the proceeds to Aids research. His creative legacy endured, however, with other designers, particularly Tom Ford, acknowledging that he integrated Halston’s “clean, simple, streamlined” design philosophy into his life, an influence obvious in his ’90s Gucci collections, when some garments were direct copies of Halston designs. Halston’s legacy in the American industry was immense — he influenced Donna Karan, Calvin Klein and Narciso Rodriguez in pursuing minimalism as a credible style template. Internationally, he paved the way for the celebrity designers of the ’80s and ‘90s: Armani, Ralph Lauren and Versace all copied him, becoming part of the social elite. He created an entire lifestyle, from clothes to interiors, with a unified aesthetic vision, which is the blueprint for successful designers today. He was also one of the first designers to create a diffusion range for a multiple, making good design available at affordable prices.
Designer Bill Blass recognised his unique status: “Halston was really the first American designer to make an original statement, particularly in a time when fashion was so derivative of European designs. It sounds corny, but he was the quintessential American designer.” Halston himself had mixed emotions about his fame, reflecting, “I think fame and fortune are really a curse in a way but yet they’re necessary evils for success.”
Perhaps the greatest tributes to Halston came from the women who wore and loved his clothes. Anjelica Huston said, “Pretty much everything you put on at Halston was so beautifully made. The interiors were as great as the exteriors; they made you feel like a woman. You didn’t feel like a little girl when you wore his clothes — you felt elegant and rich and dressed and ready for anything.”
The easy allure and cool sexuality of Halston’s designs still endures, making them look utterly modern to this day. His clothes always enhanced the women who wore them, and that is his lasting legacy.