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What Halston Doesn’t Understand About Fashion

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The final and fifth episode of Halston, the new Netflix miniseries starring Ewan McGregor as the mononymous designer, is named for the fashion designer’s feared adversary: “Critics.” The finale takes place after Halston’s interest in orgies and cocaine binges, and a perilous licensing agreement, have overtaken his life. The designer asks his last gal standing, a secretary named Sassy who is mostly charged with procuring cocaine for the office, to read him the reviews of his latest collection, a low-priced iteration of his wares for mall retailer JC Penney. Spoiler alert: they’re bad. Embittered and tearful, he proclaims, “Reviews don’t matter.”

This is true, actually, on the occasions when consumer desire overrides a critic’s ire, but Halston is near tears because he knows the reviews are right. And Halston is currently in Netflix’s Top 10 streamed programs on the homepage. That leaves the question: is Halston, the series, good? The casting—the film’s own entourage of Halstonettes, if you will—is terrific: McGregor stalking around in ever-longer coats; Bill Pullman as a pushy then greedy backer; Kelly Bishop as a foul-mouthed Eleanor Lambert, creator of the International Best-Dressed List and New York Fashion Week, calling the French fashion establishment “motherfuckers.” You’ll love Victor Hugo, Warhol hanger-on with the perfect mustache. Villains with mustaches—don’t see those very much anymore!

Ewan McGregor as Halston.

ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/NETFLIX

And aside from the casting, Halston gets one crucial thing right: the costumes, by Jeriana San Juan. I smiled at the savage stiffness of grand dame Babe Paley’s hair; the out-of-date leopard suit on Halston’s first backer, illustrating why women like her needed a man like him; Elsa Peretti with her bone cuffs and caftans; and of course, the man of the five-plus hours in his turtlenecks and shield sunglasses. (You can see how and why Tom Ford was taking notes.) The best scenes are of Halston snipping a piece of fabric with savant simplicity and shaping it on the body, and of dresses twirling and moving down a runway, though of course that’s just the beginning of life in Dress Years.

But how the dresses changed women’s lives—their raison d’etre, in Halston’s world—isn’t seen. A Ryan Murphy production, the show sets out to portray the life and influence of Halston, the American designer who, after finding fame as the designer of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, launched his own brand of American clothes that blended the ease and wearability of sportswear with the taste and culture of couture. The miniseries format mostly means that little is spared—we see things even a generous biopic would admit, like his forgotten first and failed attempt at couture, and Halston begging the filmmaker Joel Schumacher to get sober. With its didactic structure and dialogue—early on, there’s a strange rehashing early of Ralph Lauren hawking his wide ties—the series is emblematic of a mass camp that seems to have taken over film and especially television. The sly wink has become the overly articulated one, the secret language has become a string of cliches. (If writing about camp is to betray it, then Murphy’s oeuvre amounts to camp treason.) There is nothing secret or sensual about the series—qualities that defined Halston’s work.

What we’re left with is essentially a cautionary tale about licensing your name, although you might recall that Pierre Cardin did the same thing and seems to have turned out relatively okay. Other critics have also pointed out that Halston’s deal with JC Penney was perhaps ahead of his time, a precursor to luxury collaborations with H&M and Target, but in fashion, to be ahead of your time is simply to be wrong. Fashion is about nothing but timing. Halston learns this lesson firsthand when he refuses to make blue jeans and, in the words of his investor David Mahoney (the ever-excellent Pullman), “misses the window.” And thus Calvin Klein topples Halston as America’s fashion superstar.

Mass camp has defined fashion in America over the past five years, making it into a cornerstone of popular culture. But it’s also absolutely at odds with Halston’s work and life, and so the tone and source material make for strange bedfellows. Mass camp is the language of the red carpet and celebrity fashion; fashion is now one of the main tools at a public figure’s disposal to indicate they stand on the right side of history, that they’re using their platform for positive means. It’s a blunt and obvious instrument, with many puppeteers (stylists, designers, publicists, influencers) pulling the strings. Its rhetoric is meant to be inarguable, its messages carefully constructed so as to be impossible to disagree with. In other words, it’s the opposite of what Halston represented: freedom, hedonism, feelings instead of statements. Contemporary clothing is all about what fits in the image, literally and figuratively. Halston was about what existed outside of it—evocative garments that were meant to expand. As Pat Cleveland, one of his favorite so-called Halstonettes, said in an interview last week, “Our whole life was about moving chiffon, cashmere and bugle-beaded dresses, that was our life. Moving those clothes, animating those clothes.” But Cleveland is but a bit player in Halston, and the act of animating those clothes is, too.

The show’s dramatization of one of Halston’s collections.

ATSUSHI NISHIJIMA/NETFLIX

Halston, perhaps unsurprisingly, fails where so many films and shows about fashion fail: like a bad red carpet look, it’s simply too obvious. Why is it so hard to make a good fashion film? In the words of Johnny Thunders, you can’t put your arm around a memory! But you should be able to slip your arms into its sleeves. And all fashion people care about is film—movies are constant references for collections and photoshoots. Still, when Robert Altman, master of the immersive satire, released Pret-a-Porter, the fashion world sniffed at it as a lazily observed caricature; when The Devil Wears Prada was released, the Times ran a story about the inaccuracy of the clothes. In recent memory, only Phantom Thread has captured the obsessive, tormented nature of the genius fashion designer—the urgency of glamour, the bewildering conflation of surface and depth. Obviously, the dresses were a nightmare.

Generally, documentaries deliver. There is an excellent Halston documentary from 2019 by Frédéric Tcheng, and an accidentally-excellent one, 2010’s Ultrasuede, directed by Whitney Smith, the creator of the Bravo reality series Southern Charm. Smith goes door-to-door—or, more accurately, Michael’s table to Michael’s table—courting Andre Leon Talley and Liza Minelli, though they mostly admonish him for his flimsy grasp of the subject matter. It is unexpectedly revelatory, a quality that has stayed with me since I first saw it last year, because everyone in it is giving away their secret code, the usually unspoken rules of fashion. (It’s classic camp!) Maybe documentaries are good because it’s so impossible to perform people who are performing themselves. And yet, inarguably, the best part about Halston is McGregor, who portrays the designer with extraordinary care. It’s the rest of the production that lets his performance down.

What’s left out of the story is the more recent history of the brand, after his death; the closing postscript, displayed over the Cocteau Twins “Pearly-Dewdrops’s Drops” (nice!), don’t include the Harvey Weinstein years (you read that right) or the attempted revival under Sarah Jessica Parker, or the Halston Heritage project that recreates old Halston designs in contemporary fabrics. As these projects suggest, there was always something sort of doomed and decadent about the Halston name, which outlived the man himself and his ever-declining run of licensed luggage and carpet, the scrapped plans for jeans, the flop JC Penney line. The show nearly suggests this—the final episode sees our antihero legally barred from designing under his own name—but is too sheepish to admit it, instead giving Halston a Hollywood ending doing costumes for Martha Graham and driving up the California coast before dying of AIDS in 1990. It’s a very neat ending. Suspiciously neat.

Of course, films, especially those about fashion, often stumble into their greatest meaning by accident. If the big lesson the series wants to impart is that you should never give away your name, it accidentally delivers on that with a cruel irony: alongside the release of the series comes a capsule collection of dresses called Halston x Netflix.

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