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The true story of designer Halston – fashion’s most outrageous victim

The fashion designer who was known simply as Halston loved nothing better than to throw outrageously extravagant bashes for his famous friends.

For Elizabeth Taylor’s 46th birthday celebration, he ordered a cake — decorated with a picture of her in one of his revealing dresses — and served it to guests alongside 46 scantily clad members of the high-kicking Radio City Rockettes dance troupe.

On another evening at the same famous location — the notoriously debauched and celebrity-infested New York nightclub Studio 54 — he arranged for Bianca Jagger, one of his most devoted fans, to mark her 32nd birthday on a white horse which she rode across the dance floor led by a naked man wearing only body paint.

The fashion designer loved nothing better than to throw outrageously extravagant bashes for his famous friends. Pictured: Halston in New York City in 1981 

And we must not forget another Halston party at the club, when dozens of snow-white doves were released, only for the poor birds to be frazzled in the beam of the powerful overhead lights, raining charred feathers on the glitzy partygoers below.

Luckily, few would have been sober enough to notice. And certainly not their host, a man who spent much of his time at Studio 54 snorting cocaine in the DJ’s booth.

Roy Halston Frowick was once acclaimed as America’s greatest fashion designer, specialising in minimalist designs in luxury fabrics and credited with dressing American women for a ‘relaxed urban lifestyle’.

Unfortunately, the success went to his head — not to mention up his nose.

The self-made ‘king of New York nightlife’ in the freewheeling 1970s and master of ceremonies at nightly bacchanals, he soon wound up hooked on drink, drugs and rent boys.

And in a city that prided itself on excess and extravagance, Halston — who once dispatched a private jet just to fetch his dinner for the evening — left the competition standing.

But when, in the shadow cast by Aids in the 1980s, New York sobered up, his Faustian fall was as dramatic as his rise. 

Tragically, after a string of business setbacks that followed his disastrous decision to sell his fashion label at the height of his fame, he died of an Aids-related illness in 1990.

Now, though, Halston is back in the spotlight he craved as Netflix releases a five-part drama series (Halston) starring Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as the troubled designer.

Based on an alternately fawning and brutal biography — Simply Halston by Steven Gaines — the series covers his sordid private life and, just like his life, is anything but restrained.

There is endless substance use and plenty of explicit sex and outrageous behaviour, including one notable scene in which Halston takes his lover’s jock strap to a perfumer as inspiration for his first fragrance.

The designer’s family, however, have condemned the series as an ‘inaccurate, fictionalised account’. Yet if the drama had tried to sanitise Halston’s life, he certainly would have been the first to complain.

The five-part drama series (Halston) will star Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as the troubled designer

The five-part drama series (Halston) will star Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as the troubled designer

At the height of his powers, at Studio 54 and in his spectacular Manhattan home where he would throw dinner parties with champagne, caviar, cocaine and carnality on the menu, the imperious Halston held sway over a court of fawning celebrities, including Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, Truman Capote, Margaux Hemingway, Calvin Klein and Andy Warhol.

He was a genius at marketing and self-promotion, with a squad of models dubbed the ‘Halstonettes’ who accompanied him wherever he went, pouring out of limos dressed in his sexily revealing designs to ensure his entrance was always the most glamourous highlight of any evening.

‘Beautiful people attract attention’ and, ‘You’re only as good as the people you dress’ are two of his oft-quoted pronouncements.

He was 6 ft 2 in and eye-catchingly handsome. Often dressed all in black, he had slicked-back hair and almost always wore sunglasses that hid his piercing green eyes — even in nightclubs.

While some insisted his arrogance was an act, the man dubbed ‘His Highness’ behaved so haughtily that even Andy Warhol was said to be intimidated by him.

Some of the fashion cognoscenti complain that Halston deserves to be taken more seriously for his contribution to American fashion — and it is undoubtedly true that his private excesses often all too easily drowned out his public achievements.

Born in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised in Indiana, Halston had an accountant father who was an alcoholic with a tendency to fawn over rich people that he passed on to his son.

But Halston was talented and, even as a child, knew that fashion and design were his forte. At the age of seven, he was already making hats on his grandmother’s sewing machine.

In 1952, he moved to Chicago and took night courses in art while working as a window dresser. 

By 1953, he had opened his own hat business, with customers including actresses Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson and Deborah Kerr.

Then, in 1957, he made the move to the Big Apple, finding work as a milliner, designing for the famous store Bergdorf Goodman.

His breakthrough came when he made the signature pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy wore for JFK’s 1961 inauguration. It was an instant fashion sensation — although Halston later admitted the design was something of an accident.

It had actually started out as a domed hat, only for Mrs Kennedy to dent it as she patted it down to prevent it blowing away.

In 1968, Halston opened his own fashion couture house on New York’s prestigious Madison Avenue, and soon had America’s wealthiest and most glamorous women eating out of his hand — lapping up his grand persona and outrageously affected way of speaking.

Insiders whispered that he adopted his aloof, languid sensibility only because he thought that was how fashion designers were supposed to behave, and that underneath he was actually a ‘sweet, overgrown Midwestern kid’.

Magnetically charming, he lavished flattery on clients — cleverly downsizing his clothes so customers thought the size 14 they were slipping into was actually a size 10 — while affecting a nonchalance about making money that hid his razor-sharp commercial instincts.

He described his customers as his ‘friends’, with whom he’d sit on his store’s zebra-striped banquette listening to jazz as they tried on his wildly expensive creations ‘just for fun’.

Those ‘friends’ ranged from the wives of American multi-millionaires — the Fords, the Astors and the Mellons — to film stars such as Raquel Welch, Lauren Bacall, Catherine Deneuve and Ali MacGraw.

Between 1968 and 1973, his fashion line was estimated to have earned $30 million ($200 million today) in sales, and he was spending the money just as fast as it came in.

Hailed as America’s first internationally renowned fashion designer, his weakness for epic self-indulgence threatened to bring his respectability crashing down at any minute.

He permanently ‘lived on the edge’, as his biographer put it, once being arrested for committing a sexual act in Central Park in the 60s.

He bought the affections of celebrities with gifts of drugs and sometimes hard cash — a typical birthday present from Halston was an orchid (Halston spent £110,000 a year on the flowers) accompanied by a vial of cocaine.

He loved to host wild dinner parties for his Halstonettes, for members of Andy Warhol’s ‘Factory’ movement and for male prostitutes at his chic, all-grey home on East 63rd Street. 

He usually served steak followed by drugs — cocaine or Quaaludes, an immensely powerful sedative — and sex for ‘dessert’.

‘Put it this way, they weren’t about the food,’ one of Halston’s guests said of the soirees.

The cocaine — kept in such huge quantities that it was stored in a safe whose keys were held by Halston’s Venezuelan boyfriend, Victor Hugo — was presented on silver ashtrays and snorted through matching silver straws.

According to biographer Steven Gaines, guests would watch Moroccan-themed sex shows that even featured bestiality and, if the mood took them, indulge in orgies which Warhol reportedly photographed.

The industrial drug-taking often caused tempers to flare, and Halston once got into a fight with Elsa Peretti, his muse and later a jewellery designer for Tiffany, who flung a black sable fur he’d given her for Christmas into the open fire.

But, ‘being trash was venerated,’ wrote Gaines of those untrammelled, pre-Aids years. ‘The trashier you could be, the more you could get laid, the more drugs you could take.’

So, when Studio 54 opened in 1977 — instantly becoming the epicentre of New York’s night-time hedonism — the partying became even more frenetic.

Everyone who was anyone — from Mick Jagger and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev to Cary Grant and Salvador Dali — came at least once, some many times more.

As was the case at Halston’s home, there was an ‘anything goes’ policy as soon as you got through the club’s doors.

When Halston sidled off to the DJ’s booth, he would sometimes find an equally attention-shy Michael Jackson dancing there.

The celebrity-obsessed management would dole out drugs to stars virtually as they walked in, or leave discreetly concealed silver sachets of cocaine in the limos they’d send to collect them.

When club-goers were too frazzled by drugs to keep dancing, they would go up to the balcony area or down to the basement VIP lounge, where mattresses were tucked away in alcoves for sex.

‘It was like Rome before the fall,’ recalled one stunned guest.

Indeed, there was said to be so much cocaine floating around in the basement air that the cleaners would get high when they arrived the next day to clear up.

Among all the revelry, though, was a darker side — there have been disturbing claims of promoters encouraging underage girls from local private schools to come to parties.

But it was Halston’s domain, and its rakish reputation and the endless parade of celebrities who went there only fuelled his fame. He even appeared in an ‘I Love New York’ advert to promote tourism, lowering his sunglasses to say, ‘Especially in the evening!’

And yet, even before the club closed abruptly in 1980 following a tax investigation — at a time when the ranks of the flamboyant gay men that had packed it out would soon be ravaged by Aids — Halston’s star was already fading.

‘By the end of the 1970s, there was some imperceptible moment, some small threshold of time, when Halston crossed the line of ubiquitousness, when he was too much in the news and at too many parties,’ wrote Gaines.

In 1973, he had sold his company and the Halston trademark to a retail conglomerate for the then huge sum of $16 million. The deal allowed the company to put the Halston name on clothes he hadn’t even designed.

Having once said he wanted to ‘dress all of America’, Halston — who received a huge salary and a handsome share of the profits — proceeded to design outfits for everyone from the American Girl Scouts to Avis car rental workers and the 1976 U.S. Olympics team.

Then, in 1983, he made what proved to be a catastrophic mistake by agreeing a $1 billion deal to make clothing for the High Street chain JCPenney. His glamorous clientele were horrified and shunned him, while ordinary Americans refused to buy the clothes.

Revlon bought the Halston name in 1986 and used it for a perfume. Meanwhile, Halston fast disappeared from the social scene.

Asked in 1987 why he no longer gave parties, he replied: ‘There really isn’t much to celebrate.’

A year later, Halston tested positive for HIV and moved to California, where he spent his final days being looked after by his family outside of San Francisco.

For all his previous ubiquity, he died in relative obscurity in 1990 of complications from Aids-related lung cancer, aged only 57 — described at the end as a ‘broken man’.

Fashion is ephemeral, and Halston learnt the hard way that fashion designers can be, too.

HALSTON is available to watch now on Netflix.

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