Not only did Roy Halston Frowick change the face of American fashion and redefine how women dress, he also established an iconic aesthetic for himself and his game-changing muses, which included Liza Minelli, future Tiffany & Co. designer Elsa Peretti and a diverse group of models dubbed the Halstonettes.
"Initially, it felt like a heavy baton to be handed," says Jeriana San Juan, the costume designer behind the Netflix miniseries "Halston," based on the book "Simply Halston" by Steven Gaines, starring Ewan McGregor and executive produced (and co-written) by Ryan Murphy. She last visited the '70s in "The Get Down" (and the pre-war era in "The Plot Against America"). For this project, she "absorbed everything" through expansive research, which included personally talking to the real Halston's inner circle — from head tailor Gino Balsamo and assistant Sassy Johnson to Halstonette Chris Royer — for first-hand accounts and even garment loans, to be able to break down the science behind the designer's distinctive methodology.
"I understood the [fashion history] textbook. I knew backwards and forward I could recite it to you. But, I put it away and I just became a costume designer," says the FIT alum, who, early in her career, worked under Eric Daman on "Gossip Girl" and Arianne Phillips for Madonna's "Sticky & Sweet" tour.
San Juan cleverly paid tribute to Halston's recognized personal style and that of his circle, while enjoying creative license for the overall storytelling in director Daniel Minahan's world of "Halston." McGregor cuts an imposing figure in the designer's minimalist turtleneck knits and monochromatic layers in his signature black, cream and red palettes. San Juan used that well-documented color scheme to delineate the chapters of Halston's ascent, decadent career peak and ultimate personal and professional spiral.
In the early days, Halston wears a heathered gray jacket, which the designer in real life referred to as "wild rice," per San Juan, before moving onto crisp whites. Then, flush with fame and money after the epic Battle of Versailles (more on that in a bit) and selling his name to conglomerate Norton Simon, he luxuriates in his grand offices in The Olympic Tower and parties with luminaries into the early mornings at the hottest club in New York City.
"We really bring the white-on-white in with Studio 54 when all of the cocaine was introduced," San Juan says. "Obviously, as soon as the cocaine drops, it's the first time I actually put him into a white jacket."
In pitching the color-coding idea to Minahan, San Juan referenced a 1980 photo of Halston in his showroom standing behind his core Halstonettes. (He wore the same look in 1977, partying with Bianca and Mick Jagger — also wearing a white suits — at Studio 54.)
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Paralleling his new, ostentatious offices (gloriously replicated by production designer Mark Ricker), Halston transitions into donning more red, which also holds symbolic meaning, according to the costume designer: "We introduce red when there's much more turmoil, and I allowed the red to grow alongside his rage. Eventually, at the height of all of that, he's in all red... He's at his tipping point."
San Juan also pitched a scripted moment, seen in the first episode, to help demonstrate Halston's famed design technique, which involved diagonally slicing a piece of fabric, straight from the bolt, to drape and design a languid silhouette directly onto one of his models. As McGregor's Halston prepares for what would be his breakout runway show, assistant Joel (Rory Culkin) brings in a blue fabric tie dyed with an abstract floral pattern — "it's my design, as Halston," says San Juan of the graphics — conveniently set in the center where a hole for the head could be cut. "I really wanted to celebrate the caftan because it's what's synonymous with Halston," she says, noting that she chose vibrant hues to stand out from the show's replica of Halston's earlier Moroccan souk-inspired Madison Avenue showroom, which was designed by friend Angelo Donghia in 1967. "And [it's] something that we could do on the bias, which is a cornerstone to his creative voice."
As a biographical piece, Halston's revolutionary "cut-on-the-bias" approach not only needs to be highlighted, San Juan asserts, but also demonstrated — especially for the viewers: "What would it be like in a scene, if he draped a piece of fabric on [Rebecca Dayan as Elsa Peretti], turned it on the bias, so that people who don't know what 'the bias' is, will visually see a square turn into a diamond?"
Emmy-nominated McGregor then needed to accurately portray the craft on-camera, with a little help from the experts. "I, myself, trained Ewan on how to make it from beginning to end and worked with him on little notions, like how to hold a pin — and, you know, not stab Rebecca — or hold scissors," San Juan says. "Think about the way an artist holds a paintbrush. It's as if it's a second nature."
For a glittery Studio 54 scene, Halston, in his euphoric white, swans into the club with best friend Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) wearing a fully-beaded jumpsuit (above). The dazzling look is inspired by the Halston styles favored by the legendary triple-threat, like a blue ensemble worn to her birthday party in 1979. "It's a very documented jumpsuit, but I have no evidence that it actually even was at Studio 54," San Juan says. Her version includes a matching kimono sleeve robe and silk-satin obi belt — Halston signatures — but in a radiant raspberry-orchid hue to really pop in the scene.
Then, for the jumpsuit's elaborate beadwork, San Juan turned to New York-based designer Naeem Khan, who began his career as a Halston apprentice in 1978, when he was just 20 years old. The connection between the designers goes back even further: Halston also worked with Khan's father, who created pieces for royalty in India, for his evening-wear collections. "He was so lovely in being able to recreate it within his workroom," says San Juan.
She really had to artfully mesh her fashion history with creative storytelling for the portrayal of the renowned 1973 Battle of Versailles, planned by fashion power publicist Eleanor Lambert (a delightfully foul-mouthed Kelly Bishop). The spectacular fundraiser pitted the French vanguard — Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro and Marc Bohan's Christian Dior — against American revolutionaries: Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows and Halston. At first, Halston refused to participate, but the event ended up bringing international reverence for American Fashion, as well as marking Halston's career turning point.
As depicted in the miniseries, Halston and his entourage (including Dilone as Pat Cleveland) parade into the workroom at Versailles looking like "New Yorkers living their most fabulous fantasy in Paris," San Juan says (above). Halston steps up his trademark monochrome with a gleaming patent trench, while Elsa, Liza and fashion illustrator Joe (David Pittu) are swathed in chunky fur flourishes and plush headwear.
San Juan admits that designing for multiple fake runway collections — and for Liza, who opens and closes the American portion — proved a creative and "daunting" challenge. Combining her fashion and costume design acumen, she focused on just evening-wear for the montage of the American collections. "So that it felt like a crescendo to the show," she says.
For Halston's "disco-before-disco" runway, San Juan created gowns featuring the designer's flair with clear sequins (below) — "which absolutely glittered and underlines stage light, which he knew, and so it wasn't all chiffon, you know, that would all fall dead on on stage."
However, San Juan took "a lot of creative liberty" with her interpretation of the Parisian collections, which are briefly seen, with members of international society snoozing in the audience. "I did nod to some of the silhouettes, but my most important thing was just to show a contrast to the American clothes to show a much more traditional sensibility versus a more youthful and free sensibility," she says.
For Liza's finale number, San Juan created a black sequined halter jumpsuit, top hat and bow tie (below), an homage to Minnelli's Academy Award-winning performance in "Cabaret." In real life, Minnelli wore an ombré-beaded high-low gown for the Paris performance. (Plus, fun fact: She accepted an Oscar for "Cabaret" in a yellow Halston gown that same year.) "I had to leave my my textbook brain about doing it accurately and authentically and perfectly, and take a little creative freedom [to just make] a beautiful moment on screen that feels like a fabulous show," says San Juan.
San Juan developed relationships with brands like Tiffany & Co. to borrow authentic Elsa Peretti pieces from the era (when the Halston muse began her design role at the famed jewelry house), but mostly custom-built the costumes, with the help of a "wonderful, wonderful tailoring team that worked themselves to the bone every day" and through extensive Covid-19 protocols. She also teamed up with the Costume Industry Coalition to employ Broadway artisans and crafts shops, as their livelihood has been pummeled during the pandemic. "[We] brought as much of the work that we could, including millenary or finishing work," she says.
Finding original and workable Halston pieces from the period proved most difficult and even "heart-wrenching" for the costume designer. But, in a way, the scarcity. offered a silver lining that Halston himself may have appreciated.
"Quite often [the pieces] were damaged or worn, and part of me loves that," says San Juan. "Because I'm sure that women actually enjoyed wearing them and actually drank and danced and and enjoyed the night away in their Halston clothes."