The mononymous fashion designer Halston had Botticelli’s eye for beauty and Boris Johnson’s head for numbers. He made his name in 1961 by designing the pillbox hat Jackie O wore to John F Kennedy’s inauguration and went on to redefine American style with his clean, minimalist designs. Then, at the height of his fame, he lost control of his fashion house and even his own name thanks to a string of terrible business decisions and his lavish personal spending. At least all that money didn’t go to waste though: it did buy an absolutely tremendous amount of cocaine and orchids.
Halston’s life story is now being given the Ryan Murphy treatment by Netflix, although “Ryan Murphy treatment” is not quite accurate. The often-audacious visual style that Murphy has made his signature with shows like Ratched and The Politician is dialled down here. For good reason. Aesthetically speaking, this isn’t really a Ryan Murphy series – it’s the Halston show. That’s not just because of the iconic clothes, but also the designer’s famously fabulous interiors, which are lovingly recreated throughout, from his much-copied first New York boutique to the breathtaking Manhattan office of glass and mirrored walls he ended up in. Needless to say, it’s all très chic.
Ewan McGregor is hugely enjoyable and compelling as Halston, a man creating himself in his own image, which is good news because he’s in pretty much every scene of the five-episode series. He seems to particularly relish Halston‘s profligate attitude to money. “Orchids are part of my process,” he purrs at one point. “You can’t put a budget on inspiration.” McGregor is surrounded by a vibrant cast that includes Bill Pullman as David Mahoney, the twinkly-eyed tycoon who promises to keep Halston safe in the big bad world of business before his idea of fashion production turns out to be more Henry Ford than Tom Ford. Krysta Rodriguez is riotously fun as Halston’s best mate and muse Liza Minnelli, both onstage and off, although one might be tempted to wonder how the famously lean and louche 6ft 3in Joel Schumacher would feel about being portrayed by 5ft 6in bundle of tweaking energy Rory Culkin. If there’s any justice in the world, Halston will be a star-making turn for Gian Franco Rodriguez, who has charisma to burn as the designer’s on-and-off boyfriend Victor Hugo.
Murphy, like Halston, grew up in Indiana dreaming of a glamorous life not in Indiana. He has described in interviews how the designer was one of the few local celebrities when he was a child, and how inspired he was by the notion that someone could actually complete the journey from the land of cornfields and churches to partying at Studio 54 with Minnelli and Warhol. Halston’s treatment of its subject feels reverential, the work of a man paying sincere tribute to a childhood idol. It also gives Murphy a chance to offer his own take on the well-worn tale of an artist torn between being true to his muse and making an absolute truckload of money, but there’s little that really interrogates what made Halston tick. Those formative early years are seen only in the briefest of flashbacks.
What we do see is Halston building his fashion house from scratch, triumphing at the Battle of Versailles (the historic 1973 fashion show that pitted American designers against the snooty French), battling the suits to get the desired shape for his perfume bottle and eventually becoming a household name, but in the end all that success does little to change him: he carries on being extravagantly rude to everyone around him, especially his staff, and relying on his sheer talent to save him from ruin.
The show leaves us in no doubt of Halston’s genius, and the sequences in which we see him conjure sublime dresses out of simple fabric are often unexpectedly moving. Yet for all the sex and drugs that surrounds it, the story itself ends up feeling somewhat sanitised. Like one of its titular character’s own designs, Halston is clean, sleek and beautiful to look at – but you might find yourself wishing it was a little messier around the edges.
Halston arrives on Netflix on 14 May