From Jackie Kennedy’s blush-pink pillbox hat, which she wore to JFK’s presidential inauguration in 1961, to the off-the-shoulder red dress Bianca Jagger wore to ride into Studio 54 astride a white horse, Roy Halston Frowick’s disco-era designs, beloved by ’70s stars such as Liza Minnelli and Elsa Peretti, have been enshrined in fashion lore. But until recently, the man behind the creations, known mononymously as Halston, has been something of a mysterious figure.

Halston at work
Halston at work © Jean-Claude Sauer/Paris-Match via Getty Images

In 2019, the designer was the subject of a documentary made by Frédéric Tcheng, the director behind cult fashion documentary Dior and I. Now, Halston’s story is being spun into a big-budget Netflix bio-drama, directed by Daniel Minahan and produced by Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee and Pose.

Starring Ewan McGregor as the impeccably groomed and comely Roy Halston Frowick, the five-part series charts the designer’s rollercoaster career from the decadent Studio 54 years, where he partied with the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger, to the eventual loss of control over his brand.

The five-part Netflix series is directed by Daniel Minahan and produced by Glee creator Ryan Murphy © Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix 2021

Halston began his career as a milliner and rose to international stardom after designing that pink pillbox hat in which Jackie Kennedy stood out like a “gorgeous petal in a dowdy bouquet of fur”, as American historian Thurston Clarke observed in his book Ask Not. Following in the footsteps of other milliners-turned-fashion designers, such as Coco Chanel and Jeanne Lanvin, Halston launched his eponymous label in 1969. Within a few years he had become one of the most lauded names in American fashion and was chosen as one of five designers to represent America in the infamous 1973 Battle of Versailles show, which pitted American designers against French figures such as Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin.

“He made this quantum leap from designing a midcentury, almost antiquated accessory as a milliner to making modern, packable, wearable, contemporary clothes,” says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, who curated the designer’s work in the 2015 Museum at FIT exhibition Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s.

Halston with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54
Halston with Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 © The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Halston (right) with Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in New York in the 1970s
Halston (right) with Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in New York in the 1970s © Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images

His hot pants and easy-to-wear zipless clothes rendered in crease-resistant fabrics such as Ultrasuede found favour with the disco-going women of the ’70s and came to define the era’s style. “His clothes just made you feel good,” says Pat Cleveland, who was among Halston’s favoured coterie of models, dubbed the Halstonettes. “All the fluid chiffons and the bugle-beaded dresses and the way he cut along the bias… there was a lot of spaciousness in his creations.” He also championed diversity on the runway, and one of his muses was Pat Ast, the plus-size performance artist who had worked with Andy Warhol. “He chose us because we represented a different kind of woman,” says Cleveland.

Halston was among the first designers to recognise the potential of licensing, turning his name into a fashion empire that included not only fashion but perfume, make-up, luggage and bedding too. He also designed uniforms for the Girl Scouts, the New York Police Department and the 1976 US Olympic team. “He would always say how he wanted to dress every woman in America,” recalls Cleveland. 

But ultimately this expansion would be his downfall. While his licensing deal with the high street store chain JC Penney in the early ’80s predated the high-street and designer collaborations that are commonplace today, the deal was ill received. Halston was unceremoniously dismissed from his own label in 1984 and died from Aids-related cancer in 1990 at the age of 57.

Yet he left behind an extraordinary legacy, pioneering easy-going yet elegant fashion and business concepts that brands take for granted today. The way he draped fabric on the body (something Ewan McGregor had to learn how to do with the costume designer Jeriana San Juan and her team of seamstresses) “really required discipline and focus, something we don’t think about when we think about Halston,” says Mears. “We see the glitz and the glamour but there was a very calculated craftsman’s approach to the way he made clothes. I hope that his talent is able to come through.”

Halston premieres on Netflix on Friday 14 May

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