It seems inevitable that reviews for Halston, the new Netflix biopic about the eponymous fashion designer, will end up comparing the career of its subject to that of its most famous executive producer: Ryan Murphy. Although this miniseries is created by playwright Sharr White and based on author Steven Gaines’s biography Simply Halston, it comes as part of Murphy’s ridiculously large Netflix deal. And at this stage of his career, simply saying the name “Ryan Murphy” means something. The shows he has produced (with others) for FX like Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story, and Pose helped TV fans come to associate his name with boundary-pushing and the promise of a you-ain’t-seen-nothing-like-it story. Teen dramedies like the WB’s Popular and Fox’s Glee trafficked in the sardonic and gave that genre more bite.
Murphy was one of the first household-name producers to make the switch to the streaming giant — Shonda Rhimes struck a deal there a few months after Murphy, and Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss followed a year later — but the programs that have come out of Murphy’s Netflix deal haven’t seen the same cachet. TV shows like Ratched and The Politician have failed to hit. The movie adaptation of the musical The Prom was both panned and criticized for not being, as Vulture wrote when it was released, “the gift to queer teens it thinks it is.”
Similarly, in the latter half of the 20th century, Halston the brand sold a contagious mixture of luxury, sex, and feminist statements. Vibrant-colored gowns and patterned caftans embraced the new era of braless beauty, while his Ultrasuede shirtwaist dresses — i.e., model No. 704 — celebrated the upwardly mobile, fashionable career woman. Meanwhile, Halston the person (who is here played by Ewan McGregor) would be seen at Studio 54 and photographed on the arms of the likes of Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli. He was a celebrity fashion designer and his own brand, before people actually used that term. Then he made a deal with the Devil in the form of a partnership with JCPenney. While partnerships like this may be expected — and essential — now, the move marked the beginning of his downfall.
But before any of this, he was just Roy.
A little boy from nowhere America who grew up during the Depression, young Roy Halston Frowick (played here by Maxim Swinton) started accessorizing hats with chicken feathers he found around the farm. The miniseries uses its opening shots to show that he would present his creations to his trembling mother as tokens to help her forget his alcoholic father’s latest abuse, and she’d tell him, “You are far too special for this place.”
It’s clear that Halston believed his mother’s words. He is next seen as an adult, having perfected the talents he showed at an early age to land a gig as the head milliner at New York luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman. And what a head he is now designing for: Halston is the genius who thought to put a pillbox hat on Jackie Kennedy for her husband John’s presidential inauguration. Suddenly, as with Jason Wu’s inaugural ball gown for Michelle Obama, he’s a household name and his shop is overflowing with rich wives wanting to look like they just stepped out of the new Camelot.
Halston’s brush with fame doesn’t last forever. In a few years, Kennedy has stopped wearing hats, and so have a lot of women. Knowing when it’s time to pivot, he convinces Bergdorf to let him design his own line. He also feels confident enough to buy a drink for the handsome man in the bar (Sullivan Jones’s Ed Austin).
While Ed will stick around for some time, the line’s a bust. Not knowing exactly what his voice is yet, Halston tries to put the new world of mod black-and-white prints and patterns on heavy, matronly fabric. Awkward murmuring fills the air during the show as the audience members aren’t buying it. They politely deign to clap at the end. Yet, Halston does clock something of use from the experience: a young woman in the audience who, among the sweater sets, is wearing a colorful silk hat.
While walking through New York to clear his head, Halston sees that the world is changing and there’s a divide between the wannabe astronauts’ wives of yesteryear and the flowy flower children of the late ’60s. A trip past the Metropolitan Opera Club gives him even more inspiration: Big dreams call for the best team.
In an attempt to become New York’s answer to Balenciaga, Halston quits Bergdorf and plans to set up his own atelier. But like all success stories, it’s not just about looking the part; it’s about who can help you fake it until you make it. He pleads with his friend, interior designer Angelo Donghia (Andrew Elvis Miller), who designed the Opera Club, to create his interiors at cost. The space will be boho chic and include orchids, Halston’s favorite flowers.
Illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu) joins the group, mostly — it seems — out of curiosity to see how this thing pans out. A youth named Joel Schumacher (Rory Culkin), who before he would go on to direct the cinematic masterpiece that was Batman & Robin was designing the window displays at mod-fashion headquarters Paraphernalia, joins up even though he is completely out of his element. Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), a model and the estranged daughter of an Italian oil baron, comes on as a fit model, muse, and creative genius in her own right.
All of these people with their own talents and skill sets agree to help one man prop up his name and his vision. But what is a (wannabe) celebrity fashion designer without a celebrity friend who will wear his creations? During drinks with Joe, Halston catches Minnelli’s (Krysta Rodriguez) one-woman performance of “Say Liza (Liza with a ‘Z’).” Backstage, he tells her that her black sequined drop-waist dress and large white frilly collar look like a “Buster Brown getup” and that she needs a better look. They commiserate over wanting to step out of other peoples’ shadows (she with her mother, he with Kennedy) and strike a mutually beneficial partnership that results in her wearing one very saucy red dress.
The episode also hints at what will become bigger issues throughout the series. Halston is a genius who can make an immediately iconic design just with a couple snips of scissors. But he is also a totalitarian boss who treats his employees in ways that would make Scott Rudin uncomfortable. Joel, who came into the situation with a substance-abuse problem, can’t handle it and sneaks off to the bathroom to do speed. And it’s Elsa who almost always can fix the problem, be it figuring out that the breezy caftans Halston designs from Joel’s rich dyed prints look best when paired with a tight hair bun or simply calming the visionary down when he is too stressed out. There also always seems to be a risk of the company going under tomorrow if some wealthy wife or widow doesn’t swoop in to save it. (First it’s Karen Mason’s Mrs. Marsh, who invests $100,000 in the fledgling company as long as Halston gives her son a job. Next it’s Regina Schneider’s socialite Babe Paley, who goes berserk for the Ultrasuede shirtwaist dress).
We also see the emergence of the brand, Halston the Person. He shuts out any attempts from Ed or others to get close to him and tells half-truths like “I had a magical childhood.” (Yeah, he did. But that magic was the make-believe he created as a coping mechanism.) As his star starts to rise, he embraces an all-black wardrobe, accessorized by self-tanner, dark sunglasses, and a more domineering baritone. The little boy with the chicken-feather hat is no more, as the prototype for the aloof celebrity fashion designer has emerged.
• The episode also gives us a taste of the infamous siren-hued shade of red that would be a signature of the designer’s. It’s seen here when he makes a gown for Minnelli. Series costume designer Jeriana San Juan and, in later episodes, production designer Mark Ricker will use the color to punctuate fame’s elongating hold on Halston.