Netflix’s new series “Halston” has yet to air, but relatives of the famed designer have made a preemptive strike.
Set to debut Friday with Ewan McGregor playing the New York empire-building designer, the biopic has already gained a lot of buzz in fashion and media circles. The quintessential American designer rose from Midwestern roots to global fame with merely one moniker. His understated minimalist designs emboldened women in the 1970s with a newfound freedom that suited the shifting cultural times.
Having started his career as a milliner, Halston started designing clothing in the ’60s, opening a Madison Avenue store in 1968 and launching ready-to-wear the following year. Associated with the disco-era Studio 54, the designer’s celebrity friends and clients shot his fame into another stratosphere.
The designer’s family has guarded his legacy since his death in 1990 at the age of 57 due to complications from AIDS. With a large family that covers the swath of the globe from Greece to California, Lesley Frowick, one of Halston’s six nieces, said Monday they have always tried very hard to keep the designer’s memory private but to hold him up in the highest light. In charge of his extensive archives, she wrote “Halston: Inventing American Fashion” (with his encouragement) and worked on “the definitive documentary” about his life, “Halston the Original Fashion Mogul.” In the process of establishing a charitable organization to offer scholarships to various institutions and fashion schools nationwide and hopefully worldwide, Frowick said her aim is to keep ”his memory alive in the way that he was so generous in his inner circle and with his clients.”
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No Netflix representatives approached Frowick about the series. “They approached some people from the quote-unquote inner circle, but I don’t know who they are. They did not approach us at all so this is in fact an unauthorized series about my uncle’s life and touching on fiction, I guess. Salacious things sell.”
The essence of the designer has been eclipsed by the “so sensational” Studio 54 persona that people want to hang onto, his niece said. Noting how he was “married to his metier,” Frowick said he used venues like Studio 54 to promote his brand. “It’s sad that so many people are trying to monetize on that,” she said.
Representatives at Netflix did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
A consummate professional, Halston, like the choreographer Martha Graham, used “dilettante a lot. You had to be 300 percent dedicated to your work and he was. He always had a sketch pad. He was always thinking of the next collection, the next trend. Although he did not use the word ‘trend,’ because he thought that put things in a time frame. He wanted his designs to be timeless and they were. You can still wear a Halston gown today,” Frowick said.
Asked if legal action is being considered in regard to the series, she said, “I don’t want to discuss that. I always say, ‘What would Halston do?’ And Halston would say, ‘Rise up.’”
While much of the advance coverage of the Ryan Murphy-directed series has focused on Halston’s hard-charging, drug-fueled nights, the designer’s work days were always well planned out. A secretary would leave his daily agenda on his desk along with a steaming tea in a fine Limoges teacup, thanks to his personal chef Viola. Known to hit the ground running, the designer’s work life intensified over time as the business became more corporate. Meetings gobbled up hours, which meant Halston couldn’t start designing until after hours. “But he did it. He had so much on his plate, but he just hammered away at it,” Frowick said, adding that Halston often arrived at 10 or 11 a.m. and stayed until 2 a.m.
Despite being reluctant to review the trailer for the series, “because collectively it makes our family feel violated,” Frowick did so to speak out against it. Not wanting to “get into the thick of” what she found most troubling, Frowick pointed out “all of his tremendous accomplishments in the fashion world: helping to put American fashion on the map, his marketing abilities, worldwide travels that included a stop in China before it was open to Western visitors and his involvement with the Battle of Versailles.”
While addiction was a prevalent issue for many in the fashion industry during Halston’s reign, asked if the designer ever discussed that, Frowick said, “Look, it’s not anything I want to discuss. It’s a personal issue. Nowadays mental health issues are something that you should be talking about more. My son struggles with mental health issues but in those days it was personal. That’s just the way it was.”
More than anything, his niece urged people to remember what incredible contributions Halston made to “American fashion and American culture. He loved his country so much. He was a great family man and indulged us whenever he could. He was just a very loving person,” Frowick said.
When Graham received the Legion of Honour in 1984, Halston flew her and her dancers to Paris and helped to facilitate a black-tie cocktail party in her honor at the U.S. ambassador’s home. The designer outfitted the troupe, too, which led to a prime photo-op. “He was always thinking about marketing, but also beauty. He just wanted everybody to look their best, like movie stars,” Frowick said.
Born Roy Halston Frowick, the designer centered on the family name of Halston since it dovetailed into his less-is-more philosophy. Among the first, if not the first, to deconstruct the American women’s wardrobe and men’s wardrobe, “people don’t talk so much about his designs for men. And he was keeping with the American lifestyle. It was less of the debutantes-ladies luncheons and more of the going out and tennis and whatnot.”
”He was proud to be an American and proud to dress America. That’s why he went into J.C. Penney, to create a lifestyle for the American woman of the day,” Frowick said. “Because of the fact that he was mostly a workaholic, he mostly spent his time in his beautiful town house — which wasn’t too shabby spending time in — and the Olympic Towers office. He wasn’t out circulating much in the world. He was at functions. He was approachable enough.”
Elsa Peretti, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson and Norma Kamali were among the glitterati that Halston dressed. Along with designing the dress for Katharine Graham for what she once described as her “midlife debutante party, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball,” his portfolio included designing uniforms for U.S. Olympians, the Girl Scouts and the New York Police Department, during the city’s financial crisis.
During the year or two that Frowick lived with him, a friend visited who had spent time in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. She recalled, “He was just fascinated with that life and how someone could do that with such devotion. He was always interested in what other people had to say and in other people’s lives, especially if they were doing interesting things. He was also always supporting struggling young artists.”
Contrary to his global fame, Halston was a private person, according to his niece, who said he was most himself out in Montauk, N.Y., where he rented Andy Warhol’s house “to escape and as he said, ‘get off the treadmill.’ He would flop around on his chaise lounge, watch the sea roll in and sip his coffee out there.”
In the summer of 1984, Frowick was a frequent guest, often hiking around the nearby woods with her uncle and going to Gosman’s Dock for fresh flounder or lobster. “He was a great cook. Many people don’t know about that,” she said. “He would let his hair down and be silly. He was always sketching but he liked to talk about family, what the next meal would be and planning family reunions.”
For Halston, fame boiled down to “if you could pay your bills and create a name for yourself. He did both of those [things] without stopping,” she said.
All of Halston’s three siblings are deceased. Audrey Schilt, one of his former colleagues from his days at Bergdorf Goodman (where he designed Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat for her husband’s inaugural), an illustrator, has the details about his early days there, Frowick said. The end of his career is well covered, too, in terms of telling his full story, since Frowick worked with him at that point. There are also plans to create a collection of mostly accessories that could potentially be under the label “With love, Halston.” The plan is to develop a business, Frowick said. The yet-to-be-named collection would help sustain the scholarship fund. The first scholarship will bestowed on Halston’s alma mater, Indiana University.
On June 25 the Queens Library will host an event about Halston that will feature Schilt, designer Ralph Rucci and model Pat Cleveland. A photographer in her own right, Frowick is donating some of her photos for puzzles that are being sold to help raise money for artists during the pandemic. That initiative has been organized by Art x Puzzles’ Rachel Vancelette. Photos from Halston’s archives are also being donated for the puzzles.
A solid organizer, Halston always kept track of everything, as evidenced by the compact booklets that date back to when he started his atelier. Daily figures detailed what money came in, how it came in, whether it was cash or check, and what the weather was like. “Weather had a lot to do with sales. If it was rainy, sales weren’t very brisk,” Frowick said, adding that notes and sketches are part of the archives.
Practically “an OCD sketcher,” the designer was rarely without a sketch pad even during intimate dinners at his East 63rd Street town house, Frowick said. Illustrations by Joe Eula and Stephen Sprouse are also part of the archives. Indicative of his career quest, there are press clippings from his high school years in Indiana and others from Halston’s Bergdorf days. It has not yet been determined if the archives will be donated at some point.
Accustomed to receiving inquiries about Halston from all over the world, Frowick compared him to a legend like “an Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe, who died early and left their impression on the world.” Curious about what Halston might design today and how they would be sustainable, Frowick said he was irreplaceable. “A lot of his ‘being’ people don’t know about, but they want to know about that,” she said.
While viewers and critics will have their say once they watch the series, the designer made the most of his life. At the 1990 memorial for Halston attended by 500, Minnelli recalled seeing the designer for the last time. She said he told her, ‘I think about my life, and I’ve had a wonderful life. Always.’”
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