Netflix’s prestige fashion industry drama ‘Halston’ is highly entertaining trash

Our appetite for rise-and-fall narratives is absolutely limitless, especially when they involve fabulous costumes, astronomical quantities of drugs and Liza Minnelli.

Netflix’s 1970s biopic “Halston” could not deviate less from that script. The show is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, except the proverbial rags were actually made of ultrasuede, the defining synthetic fiber of discotheque mayhem. Directed by HBO workhorse Daniel Minahan and adapted from Stephen Gaines’ biography “Simply Halston,” the series is a portrait of the brilliant, vicious man who made aspirational fashion possible for generations of American women. Unfulfilled as a hatmaker for Jackie Kennedy, he rose through department store Bergdorf Goodman to become the equal of heavyweights like Yves Saint Laurent, fulfilling postwar America’s thirst for Europhilic culture by day and getting high at Studio 54 by night, until he died in San Francisco of complications from AIDS.

The cast of Netflix’s “Halston.”

Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

“Ultrasuede is a miracle,” John Waters’ character says on one of the all-time best “Simpsons” episodes. But “Halston” isn’t a miracle, it’s prestige trash. Although visually gratifying, the show has all the heft of the designer’s late-career deal with JCPenney. Ewan McGregor — who, at 50, looks credible playing this protagonist from his early 30s through his late 50s — endows the Hoosier-born Roy Halston Frowick with maximum haughtiness. He has to suppress his boyish smile whenever he can, lest his natural charm and the laugh lines that he’s gained over the years overtake his commitment to the part.

McGregor’s Halston is as supremely self-assured as any startup bro who’s certain that failure only ever means he’s misunderstood. He sizes up every room he’s in and concludes that he’s too big for it, schmoozing until he gets what he wants. But he’ll leave millions on the table if it means licensing his name to untrusted rivals, actions accompanied by infuriatingly oblivious pronouncements that are bitchier than they are witty. 

“There’s something so Long Island about it,” he says of Calvin Klein’s collection while sitting in his own Long Island beach house. Elsewhere, he pronounces, “You’re only as good as the people you dress.” Are we supposed to laugh at these remarks, scoff at him for uttering them, or both?

Ewan McGregor plays an iconic fashion designer in

Ewan McGregor plays an iconic fashion designer in “Halston.”

Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

For all the bombast, Halston’s undoing couldn’t be more prosaic. After a foray into leisurewear fails, the overstretched, orchid-obsessed genius couldn’t fathom how designer jeans would be anything more than a passing fad, and the empire crumbled amid the mergers-and-acquisitions mania of the 1980s. It’s hard to feel pity for someone who secretly expenses trips on the Concorde, although the third episode’s look at the creation of Halston’s fragrances and their signature bottle have moments of real pathos.

It’s the women in Halston’s life — choreographer Martha Graham, grandiose fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, model and jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, and of course Liza — who fuel this miniseries. They chat on the phone, read the reviews aloud and have ghastly fallings-out, all of it signaling to viewers whether Halston’s stock has risen or fallen. 

At least one notable figure from his orbit is missing. She may not have been among the swans laying next to the ottoman while rubbing drugs into their gums, but Anjelica Huston’s absence feels odd. (Then again, she was among the few “Halstonettes” who didn’t participate in Frédéric Tcheng’s 2019 Halston documentary, either.) 

Linking this circle to the Andy Warhol set was Pat Ast (Shawna Hamic), a big, brashly confident woman who steals every scene she’s in. These dynamics are much more interesting than Halston’s engagements with various fashion executives, although David Mahoney (Bill Pullman, made to look oddly Trump-like) exudes gravitas as he capably explains the industry’s workings.

A scene from Netflix's

A scene from Netflix’s “Halston.”

Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

Matters with Halston’s lovers are murkier. The volatile, mustachioed Victor Hugo — who initially refers to himself as “HUGE-o” — was Halston’s partner and a visual artist in his own right. We don’t get much of his art, apart from accusations that he stole more than a few of Halston’s Warhols. Played by Gian Franco Rodriguez, he’s like a cross between Jake Gyllenhaal with Oates from Hall & Oates, or possibly a hot Borat.

It’s strongly implied that Halston liked well-endowed lovers, that much is made clear. But other important relationships are left hazy, such as Halston’s attachment to his mother, or how things ended — or maybe didn’t end — with his first partner, Ed (Sullivan Jones). There are fewer dramatic clashes than you’d expect, because “Halston” is heavy on the I-heard-what-she-said-about-me method of building tension, without actually showing events on screen.

Still, the series also makes brilliant use of archival footage (Brooke Shields for Calvin Klein!) and recreates iconic commercials with McGregor grinning right into America’s living rooms, a Liberace of mass-manufactured caftans. Forgotten icons like Braniff Airways have exactly as much screen time as they deserve. Slipping a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to the extended Trump family seems like a 3-pointer that shows like this can’t resist sinking.

Ewan McGregor plays an iconic fashion designer in

Ewan McGregor plays an iconic fashion designer in “Halston.”

Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix

Mostly, though, it’s cigarettes, jealousy, HIV, saturated colors and coke — infinite, paranoia-inducing quantities of coke. “Halston” doesn’t shy away from graphic sex, including a scene involving poppers (amyl nitrate) that puts the one between Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” to shame. Halston liked having lots of sexual partners, but he liked cocaine even more. Let it be said that the most hilarious scene involves drug abuse and phone repair. It’s more effective than the haphazard comeback sequence involving costumes for Martha Graham’s “Perséphone.”

Highbrow television has evolved away from the days when David Chase and David Simon seemed hellbent on proving the small screen could rival the big screen. Watch an episode of “The Sopranos” after bingeing on “Halston” and you’ll be amazed at how shadowy its cinematography feels compared to today’s lush palette. “Halston” is all about blood red: the color of lips, the color of opera curtains and corporate lobbies, the color of vitality itself. When Halston died of complications from AIDS in 1990, he had been driving up and down the California coast until he was drained of that vitality. Propped up by the comfort of a beige turtleneck, he might have lost his name and his fortune, but found at least a measure of peace.

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the communications manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.