Halston: The fascinating true story that inspired the new Netflix series

How accurate is Halston? The real events that inspired Ryan Murphy's mini-series.

Halston (Netflix)

New Netflix drama series Halston sheds light on the life and relationships of one of America’s best known fashion designers – Halston.

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As played by Ewan McGregor, Halston became the most popular designer of the late 1970s and early 1980s before bad business deals, lavish spending (he apparently spent over $100,000 on orchids each year), excessive partying and a large drug habit led to him not only losing control of his company but his name as well.

Packed with sex, drugs and disco – as well as celebrity names like Liza Minnelli, Jackie Kennedy, jewellery designer Elsa Peretti, Bianca Jagger and Calvin Klein – the series tells Halston’s story while celebrating the excesses of the era. You can read our Halston review to find out what we thought – but how much of what you see on screen, swathed in silk and sequins, is really true?

How accurate is Halston?

Based on Steven Gaines’ acclaimed 1991 book ‘Simply Halston’, the new Netflix series does feature many true events that happened in the designer’s life.

Memorable moments such as the Battle of Versailles – where French and American designers displayed their collections in 1973 at the French palace – are true, including the moment at the end of Halston’s collection where the audience jumped to their feet in excitement. “They went bananas,” Liza Minnelli said in 2019 documentary Halston, about the audience wildly throwing their programmes in the air.

The series also features Halston’s relationships with men, including Ed Austin and Victor Hugo, and his well-documented drug use. It also shows Rory Culkin as Joel Schumacher (best known as the director of The Lost Boys and Batman Forever, he started his career as Halston’s assistant) being fired for injecting drugs at the studio. However, in the 2019 documentary, Schumacher said: “I was deep into drugs at that time [he met Halston]. But I did stop intravenous drugs when I went to work with him.”

Most impressive of all is the production department’s incredibly accurate recreation of Halston’s stunning, modern, and rather impractical home on East 63rd Street, and the red carpeted, mirror walled office with floor to ceiling windows he had at Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. Lavish doesn’t begin to describe it.

What do we know about Halston’s childhood?

Netflix’s Halston mainly focuses on the designer’s rise and fall in the world of fashion and the reasons behind it, but there are some brief flashbacks showing Roy Halston as a boy, hiding from his father’s temper and decorating a hat with flowers for his beloved mother. While there is little evidence regarding his relationship with his dad, according to his obituary in People Magazine the first hat he ever designed was a flower-decorated one, aged seven, for his mother.

The 2019 documentary film Halston didn’t reveal much more about his childhood – hardly surprising when you realise that Roy Frowick Halston reinvented himself when he arrived in New York and rarely talked about his upbringing.

Intensely private, Halston did admit that he was born in Des Moines, Iowa and raised in Evansville, Indiana. Everything else he kept to himself – including the fact he has two brothers and a sister (he also has a niece, Lesley, who he employed at Halston Enterprises in the company’s later years). It was his family he turned to when he was dying, and he spent the last months of his life with them in California.

In a press conference following Halston’s death in 1990, his older brother Robert talked about revealing that Halston’s had died from an AIDS-related cancer. “We decided we would be straightforward with everyone. We think it’s best for all concerned to know the reality. We profoundly hope it has a positive impact on the public.”

Did Halston really revolutionise the fashion world in the 1970s?

Ewan McGregor as Halston
Netflix

Quite simply, yes.

As shown in the series, Halston’s use of flowing fabrics like silk and chiffon, and his comfortable designs that were so different to the structured, flamboyant styles of the sixties, were revolutionary.

American fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily wrote that “his clothes defined all-American style”, and many designers including Isaac Mizrahi and Diane Von Furstenberg have said Halston was an influence.

Even the business deal that contributed to his downfall – he agreed to supply affordable fashion to department store JC Penney, which many believed cheapened the Halston brand – was pioneering. While it may not have worked for Halston, in the years since that deal, many designers from Donna Karan and Calvin Klein to Ralph Lauren have successfully created ready to wear ranges for department stores as well as fashion collaborations with the high street, such as Karl Lagerfeld’s with H&M.

What was Halston’s relationship with Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol?

KRYSTA RODRIGUEZ as LIZA MINNELLI in HALSTON
Netflix

Halston the series does touch on the designer’s friendship with Liza Minnelli, including a scene in which he creates the yellow trouser suit for her 1974 wedding to Jack Haley Jr.

The pair were perhaps even closer than is depicted in the series. In the 2019 Halston documentary movie, Minnelli describes Halston (who she called ‘H’) as her ‘best friend’ and refuses on camera to say anything bad about him. “We got along instantly, and he became my fashion mate,” she said in an interview with Harpers Bazaar in 2011. “I did what he said. He really took care of me. H was wonderful. He had a great sense of humour about himself, and he pushed the envelope. He put us on the map.”

Halston made clothes for Liza (she still wears his designs), and supported her through two of her failed marriages. In turn, Minnelli tried to get Halston to go to rehab, and following his death she sponsored a tribute to him at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Another figure who was important in Halston’s life was Andy Warhol, but he is barely seen in the series. In fact, it was Halston who introduced Warhol to a shy Liza Minnelli (later the subject of one of Warhol’s famous print series): “Whenever there was a dinner or something at H’s house, he would be there,” she said. “He was lovely, an interesting man.”

Liza, Bianca Jagger, Halston and Warhol were often photographed at Studio 54, and Halston’s on/off lover Victor Hugo Rojas was one of Warhol’s assistants and models at The Factory (he destroyed one of Warhol’s paintings as a ‘sacrifice’ for a 1978 short film, reportedly ending their friendship), so it is a surprise that Warhol is only seen fleetingly in the series.

Did a woman really die trying to get into nightclub Studio 54?

Halston (Netflix)
Netflix

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Studio 54 was the hottest nightclub in New York City. Opened in 1977 by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, it became known for both its celebrity clientele – including Mick Jagger, John Belushi, Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli and, of course, Halston – and its strict entry policies (if you didn’t look stylish and cool enough, you weren’t let in).

As shown in Netflix’s Halston, it was the place to be seen, and eagle eyed viewers will be able to spot actors portraying some of the well-known guests, including Warhol, drag queen Divine, and Bianca Jagger, who really did sit on a horse in the nightclub and pose for photos, as depicted in the show. (It was her birthday).

Warren Beatty and Chic (whose song, Le Freak, was inspired by them being turned away from the club despite having an invite) were among those who were refused entry, but in the series, it is a nameless New Jersey girl who is shown to be so desperate to get in to Studio 54 that she climbs into a ventilation shaft to crawl into the club, only to get stuck there and die. But did that really happen?

Unbelievable though it may sound, the story is true – sort of. In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Studio 54 associate Baird Jones told the true story: “This guy got stuck in the vent trying to get in. It smelled like a cat had died.” The man’s body was reportedly discovered in black tie wear.

The club was shut down in 1980 following a raid and the owners were convicted of evading taxes. It was reopened under new ownership in 1981, and closed again in 1986. In 1998, the Broadway production of Cabaret was performed there, and the legendary Studio 54 now continues to be used as a theatre.

Halston is streaming now on Netflix – check out our guides to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix.

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