“Am I a businessman or an artist?” asks the eponymous, mononymous fashion designer in the second episode of Netflix’s new five-part miniseries Halston. This clichéd but complicated question is at the crux of this stylish, uneven portrait of the man who gained iconic status with his bias cut gowns and constant presence at Studio 54. Ewan McGregor plays Halston with a highly mannered delivery that verges on vocal fry. Chain-smoking, frequently clad in black, and often hanging out with Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez), he’s presented as a campy queer icon. When he says “Orchids are part of my process,” we have no choice but to believe him, and may even consider a trip to the florist. It’s no surprise that the show is produced by Ryan Murphy, the tireless producer behind numerous contemporary over-the-top, gay-friendly television programs.
As is often the case with Murphy projects, the dialogue frustratingly tends toward the obvious and expository. Even if you go in with minimal knowledge of Halston’s life, you’ll likely be able to predict nearly every major plot development. The moment businessman David J. Mahoney (Bill Pullman) appears like a suit-clad devil at a crossroads, you know precisely where he’ll be leading Halston. The real designer’s story is ultimately a sad one — foreshadowing the increasing loss of artistry in the fashion industry, a tricky business deal stole his name and creative freedom, and he and much of his cohort died young of AIDS. But his clothing stands as gorgeously minimal yet extravagant encapsulations of the ’70s. The show captures the turbulence of Halston’s life in a neat package, but would benefit from a closer look at the work that made his name. Halston is at its best when we see the designer draping his vibrant dresses or working a fashion show. All the drama in his story can’t be avoided, but the dresses themselves deserve more focus.
Halston is available to stream on Netflix.