Halston was the legendary, infamous and 70’s iconic American fashion designer that most British people have never heard of. On Saturday night, When I started watching Netflix’s latest large-scale-reconstruction-of-a-key-person-or-moment-in-gay-history-oversaturated Ryan Murphy creation (the next is going to be Jeffrey Dahmer)
D came in and said ‘Who?’ He didn’t recognize the name. More importantly, the slightly miscast Scottish actor Ewan Macregor, who plays the man himself, admitted in a New York Times article on the series that he had never heard of him ever either. Despite his ‘legendary status’ among fashion historians and cognoscenti of the ins and outs of the end of 70’s discotheques, the designer simply didn’t make an impact in the UK, at least not in my generation’s consciousness. Halston’s archrivals Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, of course yes. Hugely (and surely the bottles for Obsession took some inspiration from the Elsa Peretti designed bottle of Halston’s signature fragrance? -I don’t remember it being on the shelves of the department stores I scoured maniacally as a teenager. A flacon like this would have caught my attention. I have never smelled it.)
Ryan Murphy productions/ affiliations (Glee, Hollywood, American Horror Story, Hotel, Pose, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace) are always big, melodramatic, campy, technicoloured, no-expenses-spared sentimental artifices that draw you in with the subject matter, splashy mise-en-scène and homosexualist titillations (he is never afraid to show handsome naked men going at it down a back alley or in the gallery at Studio 54, the only reason I had heard of this designer because Grace Jones mentions him a few times in her brilliant autobiography on the disco era, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs). At the same time, despite the gangbusters, maximalist approach and imploring politicitizing, his series can sometimes transmit as a little bit shallow: hollow.
Acting-wise, I thought Krysta Rodriguez was good; believable as Liza Minelli, Halston’s plus one and best friend. The beautiful Rebecca Dayan was also effective and real, a convincingly late seventies model, muse, artist and all round fashion inspiration as jeweller Elsa Peretti, swanning around the offices exquisitely in Halston’s creations.
Halston himself, however, struck me as rather one note. Too dry and brittle. As though there was nothing inside. A nicotined encasement, ‘moody and snappy’: ‘fey’. I have nothing, in principle, against actors ‘playing gay’, as all acting is acting – playing another human being – and after all, it is usually the quickest ticket to award success, so who can blame someone wanting to jump on the oppressed sexual minority bandwagon and play a tragic gay? A limp wrist here (so many cigarettes smoked mimsily in this saga), a feminine toss of the head there….this is why Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Sean Penn in Milk, Matthew McCanaughy (is he really running for the Texan senate?), Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer and so many more all scooped up Oscars for their depictions of gay men, a topic ‘the academy’ seems to hold dearly, but which I personally sometimes find limiting, even patronizing. Although a seed of truth is sewn into every stereotype, a bit of flamboyance needn’t necessarily end up in fag-handed caricature, even if – according to those who knew him – Halston was rather affected, a complete re-invention of his original Iowa boyhood self; his phoney Manhattan Mitteleuropa accent an immutable part of the whole shebang.
At the time all of this was going on I myself was just a child dancing around my bedroom during the Disco Era to my Abba and Blondie and Shalamar records and so wasn’t an active participant in all this withering decadence and excess (the series does work well as an advert against cocaine: how boring it all looks, how exhausting needing that to just get through the day). I did absorb it all greedily though through the television and the radio, from school and just living, and ‘Halston’ does a pretty good job I would say of recreating the outfits, hairstyles, and general vibe of that decade, although in general I must say that they never, with their heftily priced costume departments and overprocessed ensembles, quite nail the flicks and the gungy feather fringes, the glitter and the gloss – it always looks somehow too neat ; the 70’s, in England, at least, surely grubbier, hairier.
Still, even if atmospherically there are some lacks, ‘Halston’, as a whole, is still fascinating, engrossing. For me, just witnessing how an artistic talent and persona can whip up a cultural frenzy and then be tossed aside when the muse is poisoned by reality and commerce; the fickle rise and fall is enough to keep me hooked. Episode 3, ‘The Sweet Smell Of Success’ is also required viewing for any Perfume People who are interested in seeing the genesis of blockbuster perfume back in the day – the eponymous first fragrance was extremely successful in America and the reason the company was able to stay afloat for so long once the designer’s star was on the wane, Calvin Klein stealing the cultural mood with his Brooke Shields ‘nothing gets between me and my Calvins‘ scandalous jeans commercials. We see how a representative from the fragrance company responsible for coming up with and making the scent visits his New York premises on 101 East 63rd Street week after week with test vials of olfactory components, judging his reactions to them, trying to get him to genuinely include some of his own inspirations in the blend; important associations he recalls from his childhood; the fierce rejection of initial bottle ideas: the snobbish horror he feels that ‘his fragrance’ will be promoted and constructed by Max Factor, a mass market brand that Halston practically spits on with appalled shudders. He simply won’t budge or put his name to the perfume unless it is done his way (ironic: later he loses all rights to his own name, but at the dizzying heights of his fame and infamy his signature logo was everything). Overridingly, one thing that definitely comes across throughout the series, despite the stress and neuroses, is the man’s unwavering belief in his own taste. Going from 1960’s fame in creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic pill box hat, to successfully riding the wave of a later, completely different zeitgeist, takes real talent and steadfastness : outright rejecting his backers’ initial ideas for a perfume, he continued to stick with his guns, selecting an unusual and asymmetrical glass blown sculpture that Elsa Peretti had created, inspired by sea shells she had collected near his beach front home. Considered unproducable in a factory, Halston stood firm, declaring it was ‘that bottle or nothing’, a stylish and hypnotic flacon which was an intrinsic part of the perfume’s appeal for a great many people aside the smell of fragrance itself: leading it to immediately start ‘flying off the shelves’ and instantly become one of the ubiquitous, essential super hits of its day.