Costume designer brings ‘Halston’ back into the limelight

Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli in "Halston."
Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli in “Halston.”
(Patrick McMullan/Netflix )
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Creating the costumes for “Halston” was both a dream job and a daunting task for costume designer Jeriana San Juan, who received an Emmy nomination for her work. Netflix’s five-episode miniseries, based on the book “Simply Halston” by Steven Gaines, involved more than 2,000 costumes, most of which were made from scratch. Throughout the process, San Juan was designing clothing lines on behalf of the titular designer, played by Ewan McGregor, and trying to reflect the designer’s real-life sensibility as well as director Daniel Minahan’s dramatic aesthetic.

Creating the costumes for "Halston" was both a dream job and a daunting task for costume designer Jeriana San Juan
Creating the costumes for “Halston” was both a dream job and a daunting task for costume designer Jeriana San Juan, picured with the inspiration board for the costumes.
(Julia Hirsch)

“It was always going to be a challenge that I had this very thin rope to walk between paying complete homage to Halston and what he did as a designer and his beautiful clothes, but also remain a storyteller as a costume designer,” says San Juan. “I found myself wearing two different hats and finding the moments in which I really needed to take more creative license and moments where I wanted to feel authenticity. I really had to achieve both of those things to, in my mind, do it correctly. I wanted to affect people who didn’t know anything about Halston and I wanted it to feel celebratory and authentic to the people who are great fans of his.”

Ultrasuede shirtdresses and caftans galore: We dig into the story behind the clothes that made the mononymous designer a household name.

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While the series spans only five episodes, it covers several decades of Halston’s life, including pivotal moments of his career, like the debut of his iconic Ultrasuede fabric and the looks he created for his muse Liza Minnelli. One piece San Juan painstakingly remade was the red sequined halter minidress Halston designed for Minnelli when she performed “I Gotcha.” The dress in the series is an almost sequin-for-sequin replica of the original.

“That is a documented piece of footage that people can very easily YouTube,” San Juan says. “That ‘I Gotcha’ look was so fresh and so modern. It captured the spirit of young Liza and a fresh take on fashion from Halston. It was perfect — there was nothing to improve on. It is a very specific fabric. It’s a very specific clear sequin that Halston was working in when he created that. It’s a very clean, very sharp shape. That was one where I had to do it completely accurately.”

Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli in "Halston."
Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli in “Halston,” wearing a replica of the red sequined halter minidress Halston designed for Minnelli when she performed “I Gotcha.”
(Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

In other scenes, San Juan took a more creative approach, looking to capture the feeling rather than the historical fact. The Battle of Versailles, a designer showdown held in France in 1973, was one such instance, where she didn’t feel the need to copy documented images exactly. For Halston’s collection, she found one original piece, a hand-painted, multicolored caftan, and then built her own interpretation of the looks around it. “It was a marriage of many things, but that real caftan became the anchoring point to develop his collection from,” she notes.
For the rest of the show, which involved American designers including Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta showing collections versus French designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Hubert de Givenchy, San Juan took a similarly open-minded approach. She wanted to “pay a genuine tribute and homage to the designers represented but also riff on the idea and more capture the spirit and the energy of those collections than literally reproduce everything.” It’s that episode, “Versailles,” that earned San Juan her Emmy nod.

Rory Culkin, Ewan McGregor as the designer, and Rebecca Dayan in "Halston."
(Netflix)

“I, for some reason, thought, ‘There’s no way we could ever do it,’” the costume designer remembers of the episode. “I thought there was some way we would do [the Battle of Versailles] without actually doing it. And lo and behold, I got a script and my jaw hit the ground. It was not small. It was a big thing to do in a TV series.”

While San Juan had only about six weeks to prep ahead of filming — which was paused early on due to the pandemic — she did get help in her research from several of Halston’s peers. Halston’s assistant Sassy Johnson, Halstonette Chris Royer and head tailor Gino Balsamo offered firsthand accounts and notable details, such as Halston’s obsession with red socks. The designer’s former apprentice, Naeem Khan, even helped with the detailed beadwork that appears on several looks, including a maroon jumpsuit Minnelli wears to Studio 54.

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Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli on stage with Halston models  in "Halston."
Krysta Rodriguez as Liza Minnelli on stage with Halston models in “Halston.”
(Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix )

“One of the most wonderful parts in creating the series was being able to talk to people who had known him firsthand,” San Juan says. “And because of the way they spoke about him and the love they had for him and the appreciation for the man he was, I felt a sense of duty to do it right for them, for their friend. It felt, in some way, like it was part of my responsibility to redeem his name.”
San Juan’s work on “Halston” has had a tangible ripple effect. Early in her process, she says she felt like “a private investigator [who was] uncovering Halston,” where it was a challenge to find Halston originals from vintage collectors. Now, in the wake of the miniseries’ success, there’s a renewed appreciation for his designs.

“It’s really remarkable now what I see in the vintage marketplace,” the costume designer says. “How people now more than ever are celebrating Halston. The prices have gone up. It’s fresh again and people are now more aware of the history behind it and of Roy Halston Frowick, who was the man behind it. That has been really exciting for me to see.”