A meteoric rise in the fashion industry made American-born designer Halston a household name by the 1970s, as he revolutionized women’s fashion from the head down.
But his fall from grace, part pride, part bad business decisions, was even swifter. By the mid-’80s, he had nothing.
In “Halston,” the Netflix series that premiered Friday, Ewan McGregor stars as the famed designer who hailed from a middle-class Indiana family but became a staple at wild nights inside Studio 54 in New York City with other famous figures.
“These people lived large and they lived larger-than-life lives,” director and executive producer Daniel Minahan told the Daily News of Halston and his entourage, which included Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and muse-turned-jewelry designer Elsa Peretti.
“To tell the story, we had to express the incredible genius of this character so when we take it away, you really feel it.”
Halston is not always likable, and is prone to fits of rage and cruelty propelled by drugs and failure, particularly as he sees his world beginning to crumble. He shuns his friends when they get too famous for him, or when they ask for too much. He lashes out at those trying to help. He rejects the idea that anyone can do what he can do.
But at the same time, you understand his anger and frustration. You’re watching a man lose everything.
“It’s the story of an artist who creates himself whole cloth and then has that taken away from him,” Minahan said. “It’s about the human spirit and the soul of an artist.”
By the end of the five-episode limited series, Halston’s soul is shattered by the ups and downs of capitalism. But the journey to his AIDS-related death in 1997, at just 50 years old, is one of opulence and decadence.
“They were soulmates, really,” Krysta Rodriguez, who plays Minnelli, told The News. “They stuck with each other through thick and thin.”
Unlike Peretti, Halston couldn’t take credit for Minnelli’s fame. Instead, the two soared together. But “Halston” focuses too on the quieter moments of their friendship, the dinners at home and the stern, but well-meaning lectures in the back of limos.
His and Peretti’s relationship was more volatile.
“It’s a love affair without the physicality. It’s a friendship. It’s a mentorship,” Rebecca Dayan, who plays the model and Tiffany’s designer who died earlier this year, told The News. “He was probably one of the great loves of her life in the way that he understood her (like) very few men (did) and gave her that push to be creative, to be who she wanted to be.”
Their collaborations were legendary but so, too, were their fights, including an infamous one during which she threw a fur coat into the fire at his townhouse.
“Eventually, because of all the things that happened, they grew to the point where it was too much having both of them in one space,” Dayan told The News. “They had to take their separate routes.”
And then there’s David Mahoney, the CEO of Norton Simon, Inc., who lost Halston’s company in a poorly planned business move. Mahoney, who funded the designer as he rose, could easily be blamed for his collapse as well.
“It was in talking to (Minahan) and then eventually (executive producer Ryan Murphy) that I realized that Mahoney wasn’t just the bad guy in the story,” Bill Pullman, who plays the stoic businessman, told The News. “He really had a great sense of wanting to steward someone who had the creativity that Halston had so he could do what he did best. That was his job, to let the people that he’s engaged do the best job they can.”
Mahoney, for a minute, stood atop the mountain with Halston as the pair expanded the fashion empire to JCPenney, making Halston designs accessible to everyone. But it was Mahoney, too, at the helm when Norton Simon was taken over by Esmark in 1983. A year later, Halston was tossed out, paid for the next five years not to work.
“It was a Hail Mary pass,” Pullman said of the sale. “They were sinking and he wanted to do something bold.”
So inexorably tied were Halston the man and Halston the brand that the downfall of the latter took down the former as well. The designer fell apart as his empire fell apart and, internally, as his body began to fall apart, ravaged by AIDS. Two years after he was diagnosed, he died.
But for several decades, in the spotlight of New York, Halston burned brighter than almost anyone.
“We explore those moments of the difference between genius and mania and what you sacrifice for your art. Is it still art if no one can see it?” Rodriguez said.
“They were people who were broken and had to use their artistry to survive.”