Revealing the Truth About the Designer Who Put American Fashion on the Map
By Jacques Pantazès
Halston famously refused to brand his now iconic perfume bottle designed by Elsa Peretti. With intransigent marketing executives insisting, Halston cunningly devised a tiny paper band label to loosely wrap around the neck of the bottle, designed to delicately fall off as soon as the stopper was removed: An anecdotal gesture in Halston’s career that is most telling of the true personality and vision of the single designer credited for America’s place on the fashion map. From First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy history-making pillbox hat, to Liza Minelli’s stage and film ensembles and Bianca Jagger’s languid dresses and jumpsuits seen at Studio 54, Halston’s visions defined the idea of American style and aesthetics for more than three decades.
Now, with a Netflix biopic produced by Ryan Murphy purporting to tell his story, Halston’s name is being reintroduced to younger generations. In response to the series, The Halston Archive Foundation has released this formal statement: “The HALSTON Archives and Family were not consulted on the Netflix mini-series involving an inaccurate, fictionalized account of famed Fashion Designer, “Halston”. The HALSTON Archives remains the only definitive and comprehensive source on the man and his legacy.”
We sought the truth. Fashion Historian Jacques Pantazès examines the life and times of American fashion Legend Roy Halston Frowick in a four part analysis approved by the Halston Family Archive Foundation especially for TheStyleTitle.
HALSTON I: Who was the real Halston?
As it presents in the lives of many illustrious people who have been known historically as Visionaries, there is a distinct set of identities that hide behind the names they give themselves in order to live their lives comfortably. In this instance, we have Roy Halston Frowick and the man who would ultimately be styled worldwide by his single middle name, HALSTON. Because both of these names represent the same torchbearer, neither are “The Real Halston.” It is the defense mechanism of many creative people to be intensely private, in order to guard integral parts of their personalities and identities from public scrutiny. In the case study of the American Visionary Fashion and Lifestyle Designer “HALSTON,” we have a perfect example of this theory.
It is said that genius is the symptom of a kind of disease; a disease born of disbalance, and this theory squares perfectly with regards to young Roy Halston Frowick. Born to deliver majestic splendors to the universe, Halston is issued from childhood and familial landscape that is quintessentially midwestern; a nurturing home brimming with the joys and attentions of a close-knit family, siblings, uncles, and aunts all living frugal lives amid the rigors of the Great American Depression. Vestiges of the more exuberantly artistic elements
of Roy Halston Fowick’s bucolic childhood and early adulthood betray themselves thematically in what would manifest as distinctively daring verve and a lavish lifestyle enacted with vengeance that would blossom in the natural rebellions of youth.
In retrospect it becomes clear that Roy Halston Frowick performed as a natural-born Provocateur, in the early stages of his career, bravely leaving behind all the simplistic joys of country life for the sophistication of bright lights and big cities to achieve precocious success as a milliner of note first in Chicago, then New York, known initially as “Mr. Halston.” When worldwide fame swiftly struck in the form of a sensationally simplistic pillbox hat worn by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s inauguration in 1961, Halson was born.
Many people who claim to have known Halston will have only known facets of the designer’s incarnations, yet they will all recall a man of astounding sensibilities that would become the penultimate showman of an époque. A dazzling entrepreneur blessed with the shape-shifting capacities of a chameleon, all the while maintaining a veil of mystery in the form of an impenetrable shell, protective of the vulnerabilities that manifest naturally when someone is a born artist or créateur. Most were only allowed fleeting glimpses of a carefully self-created public persona. Precious few are those who would ever really know the man behind it.
Halston the man is invariably described first and foremost as a hardworking perfectionist who was generous, loving, remarkably witty, intensely private, unfailingly elegant, and obviously someone of great, truly cathartic visions and goals. There are few if any examples of American Designers having led their lives on the stage of Fashion and Lifestyle that would live to see the kind of global effect on culture as Halston did. We might celebrate the fact that Halston’s wildest dreams and fantasies did in fact materialize, thanks in no small part to singular, relentless perfectionism that is the stuff of legend. As it happens in all dreams, though, darker passages were also bravely endured.
“The Real Halston” in essence was the very intricate, multi-layered self-made character creation of the first American Superstar Designer. A man of transcendent talent with an astounding breadth of vision. The paradox of a singular showman who happened to be intensely private, while understanding the importance of publicly living out the glamorous, elegant, and rakish lifestyle the mere mention of his name would unquestionably represent.
HALSTON II: What was Halston’s biggest contribution to American fashion in general?
“American Fashion” had for most of the Twentieth Century been a kind of diluted version of style effects shown in the Haute Couture salons of Paris and Italy. In the realm of American Innovators of the apparel arts, there are but few players and most have fallen into obscurity: Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, and Rudi Gernreich are names that come to mind amid a blitz of others that may have stuck around in our collective consciousness, yet none achieved ubiquitous, worldwide recognition in quite the way that Halston did.
Among Halston’s creative peers, we find people like Geoffrey Beene, who followed a reclusive career path very similar to that of Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta, who seasonally presented a simple menu of all things Parisian, and Bill Blass who pioneered clean-lined, sporty-chic clearly inspired by French Art Deco couturiers Jean Patou and Chanel. Not a single American designer in the contextual climate of the time dared to shatter the Parisian dictates heretofore considered stylish, then without looking back, blithely re-invent them. None that is, except Halston. At the history-making Versailles fundraiser of 1973, where world-famous Parisian couturiers were pitted against their American contemporaries, it is still discussed today that the French were forced to admit that Team America very surprisingly stole the show. This unexpected, unquestioned and resounding success was achieved largely thanks to Halston, and his creative team. What was seen as jaw-dropping innovations at the time, opening and closing a fashion show with Fosse-esque live performances by Liza Minelli, the unironic, racially diverse nature and natural New York City swagger of models dancing joyfully, all of this enthralled the French, opening the eyes of the entire fashion world for the first time to the reality of allure that had scarcely anything in common with the stiffer, more formal approach of the Europeans. Halston alone put American Fashion on the map in a way that no other American Designer ever previously had.
Apart from introducing the novel idea of an American Designer who would consciously, and successfully rival the likes of previously unchallenged names like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin, Halston’s work did much to re-introduce a kind of unbridled, eroticized, and voluptuary engagement with clothing and accessories that had not been seen since the decadent pre-war era of Paul Poiret and the Ballets Russes, when loose, flowy Orientalism briefly replaced the uptight rigors of Victorian bones and stays: Halston’s clothes were lightweight, easy to pack, and a joy to wear. The Halston Woman was encouraged to go braless, without foundations, underneath shimmery bias-cut silks that moved with the body, rarely, if ever constricting. Cunningly and with tremendous verve, Halston erased zippers, buttons, and every imaginable concept or ruse that might require fussing. Halston embraced and sublimated the natural movement of cloth along the body, be it liquid bias-cut silk, or sensual yet crisp ultrasuede, a machine washable polyester fabric designed for upholstery that Halston famously pioneered in apparel. At the height of his career, Newsweek crowned Halston “the premier fashion designer of all America”. In 1977, when Halston launched his perfume encased in its groundbreaking Elsa Peretti designed organically bent teardrop flacon, it became the top-selling fragrance in the entire world: An achievement unmatched to this day, by anyone.
Wherever the Halston signature appeared, there were sensuality, eroticism, and evocations of indulgence. The Halston Style impacted everything that would come to embody the lifestyles of the rich, the famous, and the decadent without ever falling into maximalism. Halston opened the floodgates to a brave new world where women and men were finally encouraged to enjoy their bodies without guilt, creating pragmatically constructed clothes that were just as easy to put on as they were to take off: Another Halston innovation, neither gesture was considered more or less important. In spite of embracing natural forms and movements of the human body unfettered, Halston’s clothes were never minimalist, boring, bland nor obvious. On the contrary. The Halston Look was chromatically varied and bright, glamorous, exciting, exotic, all the while remaining intrinsically elegant and perfectly wearable for real life situations, willfully stripping away everything of the inherently French clutter of meaningless décor. Speaking to Vogue, Halston told of creating fashions and accessories devoid of superfluidity: “… all of the extra details that didn’t work—bows that didn’t tie, buttons that didn’t button, zippers that didn’t zip, wrap dresses that didn’t wrap. I’ve always hated things that don’t work.” In this rarefied realm of gifting the world a very sudden possibility of easy-on, guiltless sex appeal, Halston truly was peerless and remains to this day the only American designer to have impacted the History of Fashion with such force.
HALSTON III: What is your opinion on the Halston Netflix biopic?
It is a characteristic of our time that a great deal of American cultural output involves revisiting the twentieth-century careers of the flamboyant personalities of the Arts. The Netflix mini-series “Halston” is a pitch-perfect example of this phenomenon of nostalgia, among countless other films and books. True to form, Netflix certainly spares no expense in recreating scenery and encouraging stellar performances out of the prime players of the intrigue. Predictably, from the very first of five episodes, the series disappoints with a sickly fascination and blatant exploitation of the more private elements of Roy Halston Frowick’s life and career, including convenient plot twists, such as a traumatic childhood involving abuse, amidst others, that are simply not true.
It is generally known that Halston was never inclined to willfully take part in any herd comradery amongst his peer group of active Fashion Designers: Only Rarely was he seen in any of the places and circumstances where one naturally expects to find the usual posse of Garment Industry players. Here we have another illustration of the Designer’s carefully guarded nature. Halston and his own set of close friends and work colleagues were very much a part of certain social scenes, yet ostensibly absent from the usual charity balls and black-tie charity galas where clients were courted and important society introductions were intrinsic to the industry. Ironically, it is mostly among the onlookers who claim to have “known” Halston that Netflix mined a great deal of what is offered up to viewers as factual details and information: As a disclaimer, the usual fine print is included at the end of each episode.
The Netflix series betrays an unhealthy, voyeuristic preoccupation with some of the less seemly elements purported to be integral to the Halston Mystique. As a result, we are forced to endure not only hazy suggestions of child abuse, but painful re-enactments of substance abuse, explosive and unending temper tantrums, as well as unbridled graphic depictions of wanton sexual indulgence: To wit, not halfway into the first episode we are asked to witness some of the most disturbing homo-erotic escapades ever filmed for television. The fact that, at the time, very few, if any public figures in the arts were publicly demonstrative of their homosexual inclination is noticeably glossed over, even ignored. A sterling opportunity to showcase the natural provocateur Halston as an early trailblazer for gay freedoms, rights, and pride is wasted. Instead of exploring the legendary kindness, daring wit, and documented generosity of the real-life character, we are shown a fictitious illustration of what amounts to furiously untamed mercenary greed. Rather than focusing on Halston’s remarkable preoccupation with gently encouraging clients to free themselves from society tabus to sublimate their bodies, giving in to their innermost desires, we witness a kind of manic tyrant, terrorizing his creative partners, humiliating his friends, slowly alienating himself from the world he himself built.
To put it bluntly, Netflix shows us a great lot of lavishly recreated, pitch-perfect Halston interiors, equipped with an unrelentingly furious Halston traipsing through them, cigarette in hand, hissing smoky insults and blithe, snide dismissals. Aside from the brilliantly recreated costumes worn by Halston himself, we are shown only fleeting glances of the real legacy, the main event, the thing that made all of it possible: The clothes. As an audience, we are never enlightened about why the designs were successful, or, perhaps most importantly, why they were revolutionary. We close into the final curtain call unaware of precisely how Halston came to so triumphantly embody America’s first, and last, “Superstar Designer.”
HALSTON IV: How will the Netflix miniseries affect the legacy of Halston?
The fact that the Netflix series “Halston” boils down to five exhausting hours of gut-wrenching emotional meltdowns, insults, and betrayals, all amidst incessant, substance abuse and brutally graphic systematic depictions of exasperated sexual compulsive disorder is its’ main flaw. Of all the characteristics Halston’s extraordinary career and legendary life should showcase, in the realm of truth, commonality could never conceivably be one of them. To wit, when examined within the context of its’ historical time frame, not a single one of the behaviors that are unflinchingly showcased as trademarked by Halston alone was unusual: To this day, Fashion designers in Europe and America for the most part are notorious for this entire menu of such moralistic behavioral infractions. The main difference is most get away with them, their reputations intact. In a cruel plot twist of history, tainted by the harrowing stigma of the early AIDS crisis, Halston is shown casually blackmailed, summarily outed, effectively being reduced publicly to a kind of poster child for the perils of promiscuity. When the exceptionally lush landscape of a self-made American icon leaving a legacy that remains unmatched is distilled down to graphic depictions of the most common human faults and transgressions, what could have been the brilliant re-enactment of a charmed life of inspirational triumphs becomes nothing more than the usual binge recipe we all know by heart: Tawdry clickbait.
The Halston Personal Archives Foundation was never consulted nor petitioned in any way by Netflix, and this detail alone is telling. In response to what amounts to an admittedly fictitious portrayal of the life of a designer who would be on top of the shortlist of America’s greatest, The Halston Personal Archives Foundation has issued a public declaration of disapproval and continues working on a number of altruistic initiatives such as scholarships and fund-raising events to honor Halston’s talent and real-life spirit of generosity. Most importantly, a feature film is currently in the works that the foundation hopes will finally set the record straight: Halston’s family and friends all look forward to the release of what will be considered the definitive and final word on the real-life and times of America’s most legendary arbitrator of taste, fashion, lifestyle, and design: Halston.
This article has been approved by The Halston Personal Archives Foundation.