Fashion, wild parties and orchids: Inside the incredible true story of Halston’s life
He had a $100,000 yearly budget for orchids
Netflix has just released a five-part series based on the true story of fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick. He became the most iconic designer in 1970s New York, with Calvin Klein calling him the “greatest American fashion designer who ever lived”. However, his lavish lifestyle led to his downfall and Halston lost control of his fashion house and his spending before he died.
The Halston family has called Netflix’s depiction of the designer’s life “inaccurate” and sensationalised, so here is the full true story of legendary fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick.
Halston was born in April 1932 and had an interest in fashion from an early age
Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 2rd, 1932 in Des Moines, Iowa. He was the second son of Norwegian-American accountant James Edward Frowick and his wife Hallie Mae. Halston is said to have taken an interest in fashion from an early age, after watching his grandmother sewing. He began creating hats and alerting clothes for his mother and sister.
According to reports, Halston’s father was known for his hot temper, but the scenes in the Netflix show where Halston is seen making hats to comfort his mother after her husband had been abusive have actually been reported as fictional. According to friends and family, Halston’s childhood was wholesomely middle-class middle American.
At the age of 14, Halston moved to Indiana and later briefly attended Indiana University before enrolling on a night course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the same time, Halston was working as a window dresser.
Halston’s first big moment was *that* pillbox hat
In 1953, Halston started his own hat business. In 1957 he opened his first shop, and it is then that he began trading under just his middle name. This was a huge break, but his big step into the door came a few years later when the American First Lady would wear one of his designs. Former First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, was a fashion icon of her time. The first time she wore a pillbox hat was for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, which was by Halston. This moment catapulted Halston’s name into the public eye.
In an interview with Vogue magazine in 1966, Halston revealed: “Funny thing about that pillbox hat, it was made too small for her. But Mrs Kennedy wore it anyway. When a gust of wind threatened to topple it from her head, she dented it hanging on to the hat. The Seventh Avenue copycat hat makers reproduced the design by the thousands so accurately that each pillbox had a dent in it.”
Halston did date a man called Ed Austin and he was a designer too
As shown in the Netflix series, Halston did date a man called Ed. In real life, Ed Austin and Halston met in 1964, at a tea dance on Fire Island – a famous gay vacation spot in New York. The exchange at the bar in the Netflix series where Halston sends Ed a drink, to which he replies “I don’t accept drinks from strangers” did actually happen. However, in the true story, Austin was out with friends and reportedly sent a drink back to Halston and later sought him out.
The pair dated casually for six years, but Austin told Halston biographer Steve Gaines: “He kept me hidden away from his friends. He wouldn’t take me out to dinner publicly. I still don’t know the reason for that, unless he was trying to protect his image.”
Austin, who was a designer in his own right, became the manager of Halston’s boutique and was also a dresser of its windows until Victor Hugo took over.
Halston then moved into dress design and using ultrasuede
When hats went out of fashion, Halston moved into dress design. And yes, it is a true story that all this was made possible for Halston by millionaire Estelle Marsh. Marsh is said to have come from a family blessed with an abundance of oil, gas, cattle and land – and she invested in Halston.
Halston opened his first boutique in 1968, on Madison Avenue in New York. He moved into producing garments such as an ultrasuede shirt dress, printed kaftan dresses and he often used silk and chiffon. It was at this point that Halston was really carving his way into the fashion world, and began working with a huge array of celebrity clients including Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. From 1968 to 1973, his line earned an estimated $30 million.
In 1973, Halston sold his line to Norton Simon, Inc. for $16 million but remained its principal designer. The chairman of Norton Simon was David Mahoney (played by Bill Pullman in the Netflix series), the business conglomerate who also owned Max Factor. Under Max Factor, a Halston fragrance was launched and is believed to have generated $85 million in sales in its first five years.
After this, the range expanded to include menswear, luggage, handbags, lingerie and bedding. Later, Halston struck up a deal to design the uniform for Braniff Airways flight attendants and he created a more affordable range called Halston III.
Roy Halston Frowick had a pretty wild social life
As Halston began working with celebrities, he was mixing in the most exclusive social circles. He hung around with an entourage of models, who were dubbed the “Halstonettes” by the media. He lived the high life, had a luxurious home, spent thousands on drugs and a swanky office and was often out partying at celeb favourite nightclub, Studio 54 in New York.
He famously arranged for Bianca Jagger to ride on a white horse across the Studio 54 dance floor led by a naked man, for her birthday. He also had doves released in the club once, and became dubbed the “king of New York nightlife”. He reportedly despatched a private jet to pick up his dinner one time and was becoming addicted to drugs.
The Halston brand then began to fall
Halston went on to lose control of his spending, wild social life and made a number of bad business deals which would see his brand come crashing down. And yes, he really did spend a hell of a lot of money on orchids – he reportedly had a yearly $100,000 orchid budget.
In an interview with Esquire, Hal Rubenstein, who brushed shoulders with Halston, said: “He [Halston] was running through money like crazy to finance his drug addiction. He spent thousands a year on orchids. He wasn’t as professional as he should have been. A lot of the hangers-on around him sponged off of him, like Victor Hugo, who had no talent whatsoever other than one appendage. They call him an illustrator—go find an illustration by Victor Hugo. You won’t find any. He claimed he did Halston’s windows, but Halston’s windows were terrible. The guy had zero talent. He stole from Halston as he was dying.”
In 1983, Halston limited was acquired by Esmark Inc and this is where Halston ultimately sold his name. By 1984, he was banned from designing for the company.
Rubenstein added: “If you’re out all night, getting up late, missing appointments, and not cultivating that circle of admirers who buy your clothes, eventually they move on.
“It’s a sad story. The man had an extraordinary talent, but tragically, he was an addict. Like most great artists who fall prey to their neuroses, it destroyed him. It hurt his brand, hurt his name, hurt his legacy, and that’s a shame. I wish he’d had more people of purpose around him.”
Halston died in 1990
In 1988, Halston tested positive for HIV. After his health began to fail, he moved to San Francisco, where he was cared for by his family. On March 26th 1990, Roy Halston Fenwick died in his sleep of AIDS related lung cancer. In the room where he passed away, there were clay pots of white orchids on every table.
Halston is available on Netflix from May 14th. For all the latest Netflix news, drops, quizzes and memes like The Holy Church of Netflix on Facebook.