Two weeks’ supply in a day

Fashion, excess and cocaine decor in Netflix’s Halston


Recounting the rise, ‘highs’ and fall of the eponymous Studio54-era fashion designer, Halston is Netflix’s latest series from ‘streaming king’ Ryan Murphy. Murphy is the man who brought you American Horror Story, Ratched and (perhaps this show’s closest cousin) The Assassination of Gianni Versace, so that might give you an idea of what to expect: a cinematic style that’s been likened to a “velvet-lined sledgehammer”, glamour and decay sucked up into a moral and spiritual vacuum. Halston could be one of Murphy’s best shows yet, with Ewan McGregor lending gravitas in the titular role, plus an energetic performance from Krysta Rodriguez as a wide-eyed Liza Minnelli.

In 2021, Halston is less of a household name than Murphy’s previous subject, Versace. As we see in the series, financial woes and bad business decisions led to the dilution and downfall of the fashion house. With no Donatella to step in and save the day, Halston’s line has been ‘relaunched’ numerous times since it’s heyday but with no lasting success. In his time, though, Halston was at the forefront of American fashion (the “first American couturier”, they exclaim in the series, though I’m pretty sure that honour goes to Mainbocher). He reinvented women’s fashion, liberating it from the structured and boxed-in silhouettes of the 1960s and creating the free-flowing, slinky drapery of the 1970s. Cut on the bias, Halston’s designs drape over the body in a soft and natural way, allowing greater freedom: freedom to swoosh, freedom to lounge, freedom to move your ass on the dancefloor of Studio54.

Like Murphy, Halston grew up in Indiana: not a good place to be gay in the 1930s. The series flashes back to reveal a prodigious young Halston fashioning hats for his mother and hiding under chairs from an abusive father. Forged by this traumatic Midwestern childhood, by 1961 Halston is in New York making pillbox hats for Jackie Kennedy’s Inauguration Day. Halston’s vision is bigger than the bill for his orchids (“one can never put a budget on inspiration”) and by the end of the decade he’s secured backing for a full couture studio, decked out with exotic palms and printed drapery. On a whistle-stop tour of Halston’s rise to success, we take in 1973’s famous ‘Battle of Versailles Fashion Show’, in which French designers are pitted against Americans. The French bring high culture, ballet and patrician clout; the Americans Liza Minnelli, cosmic sequins and disco-era groove. Versailles is framed as the old guard standing off against the new – and in fashion, the new always wins. 

Aesthetics don’t just reflect but shape the culture: this is something Halston, both man and series, understands. Kudos to the costume and set designers, who use design not just as eye candy (though they provide plenty) but as a narrative device. As Halston climbs to success, his style becomes austere, minimal. Slicked back hair, sunglasses and a black polo neck usher in the oncoming of his cocaine era. The bohemian eclecticism of his palm-filled couture studio is stripped out to a glass box in Midtown’s Olympic Tower. Fitted with mirrored doors and all-red furniture, it makes American Psycho look like Grey Gardens and sets the scene for an intoxicating montage of decadence and excess: vases full of cocaine, orgies in the office, Liza Minnelli passing out in Studio54, “we’ve gone through two weeks’ supply in a day!”. Watching Halston made me want to buy red carpets, orchids, cigarettes, roach clips, mirrors and metal straws, so seductive was its articulation of ‘cocaine decor’. This is the height of disco-era excess, hedonism’s baroque phase, just before anyone knew of the mysterious illness that would soon tear it all apart.

Halston’s humble roots push him on to do great things, but also poison him with a kind of snobbishness and elitism. At times, the designer’s exacting and rarefied taste pays off: insisting on hand-blown glass vases for his perfume, rather than mass-produced flacons, turns out to be a master stroke. And yet his scorn for MaxFactor, for blue jeans and all they represent, contribute to his downfall. The problem with being the New Guard is that you don’t stay new for very long. In time, a Calvin Klein will come along and reinvent fashion all over again. The series lingers on this point: as a designer, how do you continue to reinvent yourself without diluting your brand? How do you toe the line between commercial and crass? This conundrum is by no means limited to fashion designers, but as the art form most bound up in commerce it’s a question that permeates the sector to its core. Fashion is only ‘art’ for as long as the tills keep ringing.

There is, of course, a formula to this kind of show. Be nice to who you blow on the way up, you’ll blow them again on the way back down, etc etc. Murphy was wise to cap this at five episodes. Like one of Halston’s nights out on the bag, most Netflix series are bloated, repetitive and go on far too long. Instead, Halston is snappy from the get-go, simmering away gently before exploding into a disco-era drug fest by the mid-way point, then coming down into a somber ending (I won’t give too many spoilers). A series this full of celebs, disco, coke and sequinned dresses could easily spiral into pastiche. Of course I’d still love it, but McGregor’s empathetic performance succeeds in giving Halston warmth, humanity and depth of character, even in his tyrannical moments. As the series draws to a close, it switches from being riotously entertaining to really quite poignant and touching, which is a rare feat for a series of this genre.

~ Rosa xo

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Halston is streaming now on Netflix.

TIME FOR AN AMARO?

A series of quick-fire recommendations to help you digest

🎶 Lana Del Rey is back again. A mere two months after Chemtrails Over the Country Club (read Bad Taste’s review here) the queen of sad-girl crooning brings us three new tracks including ‘Blue Banisters’, an ethereal, stripped-back chanson about pain, diamonds, Russian poetry and smoking by the pool. It’s incredible.

📺 I watched Eurovision as I wrote this parts of this newsletter. And it seems, in turn, that Eurovision’s Italian winners have been watching a bit of Halston if this clip is anything to go by

📚 I’m mid-way through Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, which I know I mentioned last week but ya girl’s got some catching up to do after the tome that was Everybody. So far it’s as good as I’d expected: Levy’s voice is so singular, so compelling I’d read her describe taking the trash out, to be fair

👁 If anyone thinks painting is a dead medium, send them to Walter Price’s new show at Camden Arts Centre. Expansive, open, beautiful works with an omnivorous approach to materials. Footprints and gaffa tape are mixed in with thick slabs of acrylic paint and dribbled black ink. The result is a messy, tangled suite of paintings, pulsating with life. Stunning!

As always, leave your own culture recs in the comments. Ciao! xo

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