Halston: A reminder of the best of American fashion

The series Halston, on Netflix, is a dramatised version of the designer’s life and sums up the very best of American fashion. Could it have a bigger impact?

From documentary to drama, the lives of the great fashion designers have become a favourite subject for filmmakers over the last decade. This year, director Daniel Minahan has given us a compressed five-episode life of Halston that has drawn wildly mixed reviews.

It follows on from the Halston documentary by Frédéric Tcheng in 2019. Tcheng has also documented the lives of Valentino and Diana Vreeland and, most brilliantly of all, Raf Simons at Dior in Dior and I (2014).

So, what to make of Minahan’s mini-series? For the fashion lover, it is full of many treats and delights to unpick. In her book, The Great Fashion Designers, fashion author Brenda Polan called Halston “the minimalist’s minimalist”, highlighting how he pared down the over-accessorised 1960s into simple silhouettes in the most luxurious of fabrics.

The mini-series is overrun with orchids and full of sharp, witty one-liners, delivered in the most affected of accents by the brilliant Ewan McGregor as Roy Halston. It portrays the designer as a troubled genius with a superiority complex. A central narrative thread explores the tension between creative and commercial that runs through the lives of most high-end designers. It’s also a campy, exuberant celebration of the rise of American fashion and the Studio 54 era. In sum, Halston on Netflix achieves the great balance of toeing the line between historical accuracy and entertainment.

“Halston embodies the convergence between fashion and celebrity in the 1970s, partying hard and partaking in the glamorous social scene of his clients. Despite this, he was a serious designer,” fashion historian Cally Blackman says. “His Ultrasuede shirt-waist dress became a classic and perfectly expressed the pared-down American aesthetic – it was said that no New York socialite could afford not to have at least one in their wardrobe.”

There are plenty of treats in this telling of Halston’s glamorous but tortured life, including a non-stop flurry of quotable one-liners – “you could ask, darling, but that’s not going to happen”. But for fashion lovers, it’s great to see clothes given a central role. As an educational exercise in fashion history alone, it’s really informative. Jeriana San Juan, costume designer, says, “I had to give a bit of a fashion education so that people really got the context of how amazingly revolutionary and forward-thinking Halston’s clothes were in their times”.

Much of what Halston made feels familiar to modern eyes: the minimalism, the garments draped and cut on the bias, without zippers, pockets and seams. Effortless simplicity was his signature. A designer who summed up the American way par excellence.

This year’s Met Gala, to be held in September at the end of New York Fashion Week, will focus on American fashion. It couldn’t come at a better time – as America grapples with a new cultural mood. Time to contemplate how the country’s designers are grappling with a post-pandemic world and with the political and social justice movements of recent years.

Halston’s designs told the story of women who were not so much focused on looking rich but on feeling rich, not just materially but emotionally. Perhaps we need a bit of that spirit again, with a dash of 21st century chutzpah. Designers certainly need to find new ways of speaking about fashion and identity in today’s America.

As perfumier Adele, who worked with Halston on his fragrance, might advise, 2020s’ fashion still needs to find its base scent, its soul. Move on from the exciting but ephemeral. In the Halston mini-series, we transition swiftly from ‘God bless Jackie Kennedy’ to ‘Fuck Jackie Kennedy!’ within the first few minutes of the show, suggesting how quickly trends fade. The best of Halston surmounts the transience of fashion trends and presents as timeless, elegant clothing. More of that, please.

The revival of interest in Halston is likely to roll on. Soon, we will be able to shop the dresses from the Netflix show. A ten-piece Halston x Netflix evening-wear capsule, to be rolled out for pre-order next month, is based on archival pieces worn by famous Halstonettes like Liza Minnelli and being remade by the brand that still bears the designer’s name. If you don’t want to buy the brand, then buy the look. Caftans, halter-neck tops, slip dresses. Sounds just right for the summer of 2021.

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