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Halston review: An aesthetically luxuriant, emotionally vacuous biopic on American minimalist fashion designer

·5 min read

Halston (Ewan McGregor), the minimalist fashion designer, is a bottom €" that much is established within the first ten minutes. That sex-and-everything-else later, he loves to sleep alone in silk serenity, comes an episode in. That he is averse to intensity in love, comes two episodes in. That he has unresolved childhood issues becomes amply clear three episodes in. And slowly, over the course of 5 episodes, the biographical portrait of the American fashion designer €" famous first for fashioning Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat for the 1961 Presidential Inauguration€" is filled in with colour, detail, and intention.

Based on the book Simply Halston by Steven Gaines, the limited series by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, doesn't labour Halston's journey from Alabama to New York, or from struggler to juggler within the New York biome of fashion. It opens with one airy shot from his childhood where he fashions a hat for his mother, "to lift her spirits". Right after, he is an established and sought-after milliner after Jackie Kennedy wears him. And right after, we have a flash forward to the demise of the hat as a fashion staple, and now the rich, and recognized Halston has to rebrand, and engage with fashion from a different entry point. And so the show's drama untrolls €" with experiments with scent, a charity fashion show in Versailles to fix the palace's leaking walls, American malls, luxury luggage, red carpets, and even socks.

The show briefly comes back to his childhood twice, and both times Halston is wrecked by an emotional eruption of howls and tears. But both scenes play out with a cosmetic sadness, given that his childhood, and his relationship with his mother were established in slow-motion sun-drenched montages which suggest but never evoke love. So the mourning of this childhood too is only suggested and never evoked. This is symptomatic of the larger emotional vacuousness of the show, which is rooted entirely by McGregor's physicality €" his gaze, his hairline, his gait that slowly bends with age and AIDS. The physicality is important because for Halston clothes and personality is not as much glamour as it is armour, keeping at bay the indiscrepancies that he doesn't want light on.

When asked, "Halston, aren't you from Indiana?", he replies, "Was". When questioned about his accent that leaks now and then with his Southern roots, he becomes defensive. For him to slip up on appearance isn't a faux-pa, it is a crack through which he is revealed. And the tragedy of the show is how over time, the armoury breaks.

There is an egregious beauty to the show, where bales of fabric unroll as if they were sculpted out of air; a tactility that makes you want to reach out and hold the fabric between your fingers, rub the satin, cut yourself against the sequin, twirl around in tulle. The aspirational aesthetic is there €" Bianca Jagger coming into Andy Warhol's Studio 54 on a white horse, the fashion shows with dye-prints so deep they look like they have depth, the black models that he fronted at a time when no one was, the cheerful catwalks unlike the funereal ones we see today, the American socialite Babe Paley debuting Halston's waterproof suede trench coats which became the craze of the decade. But there is also an accompanying emptiness here, an emptiness that one often directed towards the fashion industry, who are considered, rather uncharitably, a glamorous and vacuous lot. There is little in this show to subvert that. On the contrary, it pads it with heroin and hurrahs.

The minimalism of his clothes leaks onto Halston's environment €" his monochromatic house that doesn't have a speck of colour, his black-on-black outfits, with maybe a cream coat, which he wears to an office with red carpets, and red furnishings, with walls of mirror, mirror, mirror, always a cigarette turning to ash, dangling on his fingers. It is so controlled, precise, and neat, providing the exact contrast to the chaos that his life is becoming. A callousness that becomes careless, a stoicness that becomes toxic, an irony that becomes irreverence.

The show beautifully captures the crux of the creativity conundrum €" to want greater money so one can work with greater freedom, but with greater money, also come greater stakes, which require a curtailing of this freedom. The villain here is corporate America. But unfortunately, so are the customers. There is a moving scene where out of nerves Halston is willing to give up his name, as long as he feels protected, secure, unworried. Money gives him that. Money also took it all away. Ultimately, that is the clash which Halston must brave, "I must be a real artist because I am a terrible businessman."

Certain narrative choices are made in plotting the show that have both a pay-off and push-back. As mentioned, the series isn't interested in how he grew up, how he took to fashion. It is about the aftermath of fame, firmly entrenched in the fashion world from the very beginning. So you never get a full grasp of Halston as a character, not even enough to empathize with him at his worst. His genius is established and the tension of the show seems entirely about how that genius, indistinguishable from who he is, endures the world of commerce, cocaine, and cock. It's a relentless onslaught, not too bawdy or bold with the sex, thoroughly compelling as a narrative, but also lacking as a character study.

But I think the series has a good understanding of this trade-off, content with its product. At one point, a perfumer Adele explains that every scent has three notes €" a base, which is about the past, the heart, which is the soul of the perfume holding it all together, and the top, which is ephemeral, and once enjoyed, is vapour. While you need the first two, it's often the last whose impression strikes urgently, but is forgotten just as easily. At the end, the scent Halston produces smells of rare orchids, candied tobacco, and jockstrap cock. The perfumer is ecstatic in appreciation at this concoction of scent. I am sure it must have smelt good, the olfactory counterpart to this limited series €" fresh, lush, leud, extravagant, enjoyed just as thoroughly as it is forgotten.

Rating: ***

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