HALSTON

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.

49 Comments

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49 responses to “HALSTON

  1. If I recall correctly, Halston was an American designer who partied back in the days at Studio 54 in New York City with the likes of Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and others. His fashions were worn by many movie stars and other international icons and his Hallston perfume was worn by lots of people, including people who were not famous and just everyday people, most of whom couldn’t afford his designer clothes but could manage to buy a pear shaped bottle of his iconic perfume. I believe I went through several of those little pear-shaped bottles and although I haven’t smelled it in actuality for a long time, I can still perceive its smell.

    • Yes, this program definitely captures all of that; going from the disco high life and creme de la creme of society to becoming available to the public in a perfume. This came up recently when I was writing about Bernard Chant, the perfumer behind Halston (but not mentioned in the series). I feel that there is a big gap in my knowledge not having smelled it. What was it like? Seeing the notes, I imagine I would like it as I love marigold topped seventies perfumes. I imagine it being quite romantic; spiced with heft, but with enough lucidity for the disco lights to shine through.

  2. I haven’t watched the series but your terrific post and great pics on Hallston was intriguing and sparked my interest.

    • Thanks. It’s most certainly very watchable. Some good music too: not just the obvious disco hits. I was delighted to see the Studio 54 guests dancing to The Chase from Midnight Express. I love Giorgio Moroder. There are only so many times a person can hear ‘Freak Out!’ by Chic.

  3. Excellent summary of the show. I completely agree with your observations. But how do people not know the name? His ultra suede ushered in that 70s brown and beige era of Lauren Hutton, a leather and tan time. Halston was ubiquitous in the 70s along with Warhol, Minnelli, Calvin and Brooke.

    Ryan Murphy’s best project was the assassination of Versace. The Hollywood series was awful. And Halston verges on camp or is camp and I agree seems hollow, fake and synthetic.

    • I agree Hollywood was really quite bad. Overambitious and unbelievable. I liked Versace but also found it hollow (I personally thought the lead actor was kind of terrible).

      A ‘leather and tan’ time: like Lauren Hutton and Richard Gere’s HILARIOUS love scene in American Gigolo. Yes yes I know. BUT – I am not American. I am hoping some British readers will correct me and say, what are you talking about, Halston was everywhere in the department stores, how could you not have seen it or smelled it? – but as I say, D had never heard of him and NEITHER HAD EWAN MACGREGOR – and yet he supposedly ‘lost himself in the role’ once he started researching. I thought he was serviceable, but not quite right. I am ridiculously fussy about actors/ actresses though, so I probably shouldn’t be listened to. Of the ones I mentioned, I think although I was a bit skeptical about Dallas Buyers Club before watching it, I did quite like Matthew Unspellable and Jared Leto’s ‘Oscar winning performances”; I mean Sean Penn was good too, come to think about it and so was Tom Hanks if I am honest. I also hugely enjoyed Pose recently – anything to do with Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour is guaranteed to draw me in 100% – even if it is quite often too mawkish (D couldn’t watch it) and probably the gayest thing I have ever seen. Sometimes though, after a week in the world, I need these historical reconstructions and splashes of colour.

  4. Ryan Murphy’s work doesn’t have much heart, I think because everything is too clean and bright. And the 70s were quite dingy, mainly because everyone smoked, so things gathered a yellow patina, including faces, plus there were ash trays everywhere! Ewan McGregor is wildly miscast I think.

    On Halston, I had heard of him – I remember my mother going out in Halston rip-offs, looking gorgeous and reeking of Jean Patou 1000. We were expatriates in the Middle East so probably a more international crowd than one would find in the UK at that time though!

    • 1000 – a sign of great taste.

      And yes – you have identified what I was trying to say. Everything is way too clean and bright. Like it’s been rinsed in contact lens solution. There should be more tatter and grime.

  5. Halston was famous with the disco crowd on the East coast of the US (NYC to Miami) in the 70s. His flowing, draped jersey dresses are iconic and I believe he was one of the first designers to license his name & be mass produced. He kind of led the way out of the Hippie/Bohemian thing in the early 70s into the “designer label” obsession of the 80s. .
    Surprisingly, I only recall seeing Halston fragrances in drugstores, never in department stores. I don’t recall the scent of any of the Halston fragrances.
    For some reason Halston never caught on in suburban California, perhaps he was too gay & disco for the Reagan years? I have rarely seen 70s Halston gowns shopping vintage in California but Bob Mackie, Bill Blass, and Valentino galore. Meh, California ‘Burbs were always kind of frumpy. Mass produced 70s Halston garments are quite easy to find in NYC and are amazing quality. I bought a gold lame Halston halter dress for $20 in ’92 from a NYC flea mart that was stunning.

    • I ADORE the idea of these mass produced 70’s garments yielding such treasure and pleasure. I think D would have a field day in such a place actually: I did really like a lot of the clothes I saw in the series; that whole Diane Von Furstenberg wrap around floaty thing or draped Grecian figure look works forever in my book

  6. Katie

    Great write-up! It’s funny, I have only heard of Halston cause of the line in the Billy Joel song “Big Shot” that mentions a Halston dress.

    • Just ordered a mini vintage from evilbay, not expensive, hear it’s a green chypre w heavy marigold.
      Once saw an exhibition at FIT a few years ago, with one gown by Halston i never forgot, long transparent red bias silk chiffon layers down to the ground from a bare tight halter, designed to kick out when walking, pure beauty and fashion genius. I was in nyc those days, we divided between Studio 54, not for me, and the downtown No NY, Pyramid Club, Mud Club, anti fashion DIY younger arty types very noisy and wild scene, the gritty side you speak of. It was also a money & celebrity vs no money & self created persona thing, the last gasp of artists just getting by and hanging out w each other in nyc before the end of cheap rents.

      • You nail the atmosphere of it; how fantastic and how beautiful that Halston dress sounds.

        (So you were actually AT Studio 54? ! Has its myth been really overblown? I can imagine swooning in some respects but also being profoundly depressed at the superficiality. Do any films/ TV series capture the vibe?)

        PLEASE TELL US MORE!

    • I sometimes play my secret Billy Joel albums in the kitchen when D is out – I love that song and the way it goes into Honesty. The fact he is making of the fact she is wearing a Halston dress (just watched the video on Youtube) shows that it must have been very zeitgeisty and of the minute, a bit nouveau riche even, compared to wearing an Yves Saint Laurent etc. Perhaps that’s why the brand flamed out so quickly.

  7. Tora

    I hope to watch this show soon. My most beautiful bottles of perfume are the
    Elsa Peretti silver and brass Halston Couture Parfum kidney bean shaped flacon, as well as the glass and silver bottle of the EDP. I love Halston Couture in the winter, and at night. It is such a sexy woody chypre. The mossy patchouli and rose are so smooth and beautiful.

    • It sounds gorgeous. I love Elsa Peretti’s fiercely simple aesthetic. When you get a great smell with a flacon that is also as appealing as an objet it’s a wondrous synthesis.

  8. Robin

    Great post. Halston was a big presence in Canada, probably because we’re great consumers of American Vogue magazine and he was ubiquitous there. His style was perfect for the times and wonderfully commercial while it all lasted. The clean, simple, body-conscious lines, the slinky disco jumpsuits, the ultrasuede blazers, all his celebrity muses, the Studio 54 connection. The timing for Halston was just right. He was the American designer who featured largest in my studies in fashion design in Vancouver.

    The fragrance is really good. Pollen-packed chypre, quality ingredients, not at all baroque yet nice and rich and BIG. Something Estee Lauder would have put out, solidly American, but with stronger Euro allusions.

    I have only seen the trailer, but that was enough to make me agree with your idea that Ewan McGregor was miscast. Halston was so, god, what’s the word. Polished, sleek, smooth, great skin and bones, slick hair, androgynous, holding back the tendency to be emotionally shrill with the determination to be elegant and suave. McGregor is physically quite coarse, rugged, brutish, male. His portrayal seems a flamboyant caricature. The voice is all wrong, the accent over the top, the homosexuality a complete gross acting job. He does not inhabit the role to any degree. He may feel he lost himself in the role, but I don’t think he understood the man.

    • Tora

      Great review Robin!

      • Incredibly acute. And how fascinating to have actually been STUDYING all this officially in an academic milieu. Robin, did you have to write a thesis or dissertation on designers from the period?

    • Yes you have it – I am never not aware he is “playing gay” because his performance is so self conscious and his physicality is wrong.

    • Brilliant to read.

      As I said, I knew virtually nothing of Halston, but clicked on a Youtube interview the other day and yes, even from a short clip I get precisely what you write about him here: you can feel something swimming beneath his skin; that drive and elegance and aesthetic pulse; the voice and accent seem odd but no more than say, Audrey Hepburn. People had all kinds of affected pronunciation then, so it doesn’t feel especially out of sync, whereas Ewan McGregor has VERY odd sort of Germanic diction that is too much. There was a femininity in Halston’s features (and he had way too much pancake and blusher on in one clip, blimey), but I had the feeling that he was HIMSELF. That doesn’t come across at all in the series, which is fun anyway just because anything from that time is for me, but still.

      • Robin

        I looked at some reviews of the series and several mentioned the cigarettes. Also the water-torture effect of the dialogue, with people pointedly referring to him as Halston every other sentence. “Halston, you simply have to stop.” “Damn it, Halston, be reasonable.” “We can’t stand this situation any longer, Halston.” (You know: The name. The man. The legend. We GET IT!)

        At tech college we researched and wrote long essays galore about individual designers, specific fashion eras, designers collectively by country. I remember I chose Yves Saint Laurent as my individual French designer. He had always intrigued me. Introverted, complicated, hyper-sensitive, constitutionally delicate, brilliant (he apprenticed under Christian Dior and took over the house at the tender age of 21 after Dior’s death) no head for business, and wouldn’t have given a damn anyway.

        This paragraph from Wiki gives you an idea of how life tended to treat him:
        “Saint Laurent was in the military for 20 days before the stress of hazing by fellow soldiers led to him being admitted to a military hospital, where he received news that he had been fired from Dior. This exacerbated his condition, and he was transferred to Val-de-Grâce military hospital, where he was given large doses of sedatives and psychoactive drugs, and subjected to electroshock therapy.[14] Saint Laurent himself traced the origin of both his mental problems and his drug addictions to this time in hospital.[10] ”

        The homes he shared with long-time personal and business partner Pierre Bergé, particularly in Marrakech, were fabulous.

      • Absolutely.

        There have also been several Yves Saint Laurent biopics (I HATE biopics!) recently, but I haven’t seen them: I was just watching a very typical documentary about The Battle Of Versailles, and YSL was so cool it is unbelievable. It must have been fascinating to study him.

        I am something of a neurasthenic neurot myself, but Yves seems to have been otherworldly in that regard. The combination of the army story and being fired by Dior (I have never heard about this before) sounds like total nervous breakdown central.

  9. I haven’t watched the series but I can not even imagine Ewan McGregor as Halston, not even for a second, not even if I were intoxicated. Halston was just one of a kind. He was his own special creation and his mannerisms were very affected. Can’t imagine dear Ewan pulling that off.
    Anywho, onto the fragrance. I have known of Halston fragrance since I was a little girl and in the early 80s I had a miniature bottle of the perfume from Bloomingdale’s that I adored. I still have the empty bottly in amongst my saved treasures. While I still own a somewhat vintage bottle, it is not a 70’s vintage bottle, but I am still hunting for one, and when I get my hands on one I will share the love. It is a glorious scent.

    • Ooh ooh I would love just the TINIEST vial.

      And I WAS intoxicated – it was the weekend, after all, so I could put up with it, just about .

      • That would make a most wonderful fan letter to dear Ewan, “Your performance was so amazing, it only took me a bottle of wine to enjoy it.”
        I shall definitely share some when I procure a suitable bottle.

      • !

        I have truly nothing against him as a human being but yes….

        If you have Netflix give it a try and tell me what you think

  10. David

    I first heard about Halston in ’78 or ’79 when I was just a kid because of the song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” by Sister Sledge (they also sang the anthem “We Are Family”). The lyrics go: “He wears the finest clothes/the best designers, heaven knows/From his head down top his toes/Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci…” Around the same time, I saw a news report about Studio 54. I think I also learned the word “debauchery” from that report and I was like where can I sign up for that. Studio 54 is long gone, but we still have our kitchen discos.

    • I love that you remember where you learned the word debauchery!

      • Me too.

        My brother has a phobia of that Sister Sledge song: he is a sound engineer in London and some of the clubs he works at often play He’s The Greatest Dancer – for some reason his toes curl to the point of fury at the way they pronounce Fiorucci, whereas that is the name I always notice ( and I love that part of the song). I HADN’T noticed the Halston name, though, so am slightly shocked to read this. Maybe the name didn’t register with me in the first place : I need to hear it again.

  11. If I recall correctly, Hallston was an American designer who partied back in the days at Studio 54 in New York City with the likes of Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and others. His fashions were worn by many movie stars and other international icons and his Hallston perfume was worn by lots of people, including people who were not famous and just everyday people, most of whom couldn’t afford his designer clothes but could manage to buy a pear shaped bottle of his iconic perfume. I believe I went through several of those little pear-shaped bottles and although I haven’t smelled it in actuality for a long time, I can still perceive it’s smell.

  12. Keith

    I thought the documentary fascinating; will compare with the series, but I suspect reality, in this case, was quite enough to outdo the inevitable telescoping and ellipses that take place in such frothy creations. Just checked YouTube and the documentary has been removed (something orchestrated by Netflix, perhaps?), but look for it if you can; directed by a Frederic Tcheng.

    • Thanks for the reference. I know I would enjoy watching that immensely. ‘Telescoping and ellipses’ – a great way of putting it. Yes. These things never feel ‘lived in’ for a moment; they are always going at such a frenetic pace that they don’t capture any stillness or sense of real time passing.

  13. Bjorn

    Surprised at your assessment of the perfume development scenes – those rang as flatly false as everything else in the show, with a more specific sense that whoever wrote them had put them together from bits and pieces of online forums without consideration that, for example, it’s unlikely anyone would have offered an oud note for consideration in the mid-seventies, and unlikely anyone offering such a note in general would find the assessment that it was reminiscent of a barnyard “interesting”, as if it were a unique reaction. As with so much of the series, if they’d actually documented the logistics of perfume development at that time, it would have been really interesting, but instead we got cliched flashbacks and bromides about scents being tied to memory. I did feel sympathy for Vera Farmiga’s character: she can barely get through presenting one note without her client collapsing into tears and leaving the room. Coming after one truly execrable documentary and another mediocre one, this continues the trend of Halston’s legacy being poorly served by media. And the fragrances have also been reformulated into erasure.

    • I actually completely agree with your assessment of my assessment.

    • It WASN”T realistic at all, but I was drunk and swept up in the drama of it all – just wanting to forget the real world outside. I find Vera Farmiga’s face really absorbing as well so probably was just looking into her eyes and not thinking about the realities/logistics.

      What was so terrible about the first documentary?

      (‘the fragrances have also been reformulated into erasure’ is an amazing phrase).

      • Bjorn

        Thanks for the lovely compliment! Vera Farmiga sold the hell out of her scenes considering how abjectly ridiculous they were, so I can understand why you were captivated! “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” is one of those awful documentaries in which the filmmaker thinks they are actually the subject – and since it was the first out of the gate, a lot of people gave the guy interview time that could have been donated to a better film. The filmmaker wanders around in a series of bizarre costumes and hairstyles, seeming to know almost nothing about Halston. Looks like the whole thing is available on YouTube at the moment – this link cues it up to when the filmmaker gets a call on his cell while interviewing Andre Leon Talley, who is not amused: https://youtu.be/67P9-1TpoNM?t=715.

  14. Very keen to watch this one. He really went from the highs to nothing. The 2019 documentary Halston is also worth watching.

    • I was quite pleased that he didn’t go to ABSOLUTE nothing, though – the ending isn’t entirely tragic – not many of us can afford to just drive along the coast for two years in a limousine!

  15. georgemarrows

    > the slightly miscast Scottish actor Ewan Mcgregor

    Ewan Mcgregor is always miscast. I haven’t seen him good in anything.

    • !!

      Well if I am honest… I do rather think he struck lucky. He was fine in Shallow Grave and suited the role in the detestable Trainspotting (he is adored by a lot of Japanese women, something I have never understood), but if I think back to Moulin Rouge etc he is only ever serviceable. I wanted to watch the ‘sequel’ to The Shining, but because he was in it I couldn’t bear to rent the DVD (yes, in Japan you can still do that!)

  16. Tora

    I lasted about 5 minutes into watching Halston. He was supremely miscast and unbelievable. Halston was sleek, otherworldly, and had the most gorgeous skin. Ewan McGregor’s acting made me want to yell at the screen. Darn.

    • Totally understandable. I had never seen the real person until after watching the series, and was stunned by the wrongness. As you say, when looking at archival footage of Halston he was naturally elegant with real poise and stature and a gleaming complexion.

      Still, it was interesting that so many people commented on this post – the whole subject seems to have really struck a chord for some reason.

      • Tora

        He was an icon and I think many of us, especially those of his era wanted to see a well-done biography.

      • Well I am glad at least that my primal instincts that Ewan was WRONG AF have been corroborated by those who were Halstonic. It has all been quite educational: I have looked at things on Youtube etc and the more I see, the more I realize. At the same time, I would watch it again because there was something I liked about it.

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