The Secrets Behind Halston's Iconic Style: A Surprisingly Complicated Turtleneck and Much More

Halston costume designer Jeriana San Juan talked to E! News about dressing Ewan McGregor for his role as the master of effortless 1970s chic and channeling the right tone for the Netflix show.

By Natalie Finn May 14, 2021 10:00 AMTags

If you were at Studio 54 in the 1970s, you were probably wearing Halston. Or at least wanted to look like you were wearing Halston.

The designer's aesthetic ruled the disco-glam era, his name synonymous with an effortless style adopted by the decade's tastemakers who looked like they rolled out of bed ready to be photographed. That group included Halston himself—born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, but destined to be the toast of New York—and an inner circle populated by the likes of Liza Minnelli, Bianca JaggerJoel Schumacher and Andy Warhol.

Netflix's new limited series Halston stars Ewan McGregor as the designer, an exacting visionary who curated himself as carefully as any fall line. Created by Sharr White and counting Ryan Murphy among its executive producers, the five-episode drama tells the story of Halston's heady rise from boutique milliner who made the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband's inauguration in 1961 to creator of the go-to brand for New York's chicest women—and everyone who wanted to dress like them.

So while a show's clothing and accessories always play a key supporting role, especially in a period piece, the fashion-centric Halston led to an especially symbiotic relationship between costume designer Jeriana San Juan and McGregor. Each focused on different aspects of Halston's life in their respective research—and then joined forces to complete the character inside and out. 

Best Looks at Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2021

"I cannot tell you how lucky I felt to be doing the show Halston with Ewan McGregor playing Halston," San Juan told E! News in a recent interview. "He is—I hate to say 'consummate professional' because it's so overused—but like just a grade-A human being. He is so lovely and this was a project where my relationship to this character...it sort of lived on dual levels. I was not only designing him as a character but on some level I was advising with him on design."


In addition to immersing herself in all aspects of the clothes, she consumed everything she could about Halston's own inspirations, from the music he liked to the creative people he always surrounded himself with to the designers who inspired him in his formative years, learning sewing from his grandmother as a boy growing up in the Midwest and as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Because it's more than the documented fabulous entrances to Studio 54 moments," San Juan explained, "and there's a lot of parts about who he was as a person that I learned in my research of him." She looked to Halston's influences as well as the man himself because "I wanted to understand, really intimately, sort of the DNA of his creativity. And then Ewan of course is exploring him on a different level as well. He's learning about his life influences, his cultural influences and [has] his own process in inhabiting the character and learning his cadence and the way he stands."

As McGregor, who's also an executive producer on the series, recently explained Halston to The Hollywood Reporter, "It's about a man, a creative person, who believes absolutely in what they are and who they are."


Of course this series isn't all just fittings, dancing and buckets of champagne. There was a downside to all that excess and it's on full display as well, both the more stereotypical vices of the '70s and the personal issues particular to Halston, who while obsessed with work above all else also had a famously tumultuous decade-long relationship with artist Victor Hugo (played by Gian Franco Rodriguez) and saw certain people come and go from his life like flash-in-the-pan fashion trends. 

But as the designer himself would have demanded, no detail was left unchecked when it came to dressing the cast for every occasion, be it a moment of inspiration or of desperation.

San Juan took E! News through her process as she helped bring Halston to life:

Out of Pocket

Halston costume designer Jeriana San Juan recalled to E! News the day Ewan McGregor told her that he had been watching videos of Halston in motion and noticed that he always seemed to have his hands in the air.

"And I was like, 'Well, I can tell you why,'" she said. "'It's because the pants don't have any pockets.' And that's fact."

Though he was primarily a creator of women's wear, Halston designed his own clothes—"as you do when you're an icon"—and he crafted trousers with no side seams "so they draped really elegantly along the sides of the leg," San Juan explained. She met with Gino Balsamo, former head tailor for the label, "a lovely man" who was also often tasked with making the designer's personal clothing, to get the details just right.  

When McGregor put on the pants, she said, "he sort of transformed in front of my eyes—and those are my favorite moments as a costume designer, to have that with an actor, where you're really finding a character. And he was sort of forced to put his hands up, and that really was a moment I think where we kind of found Halston together."

Not-So-Basic Black

Halston had a preferred uniform of a black turtleneck sweater and black trousers. But knowing the story of the pants now, you can guess that there was nothing simple about recreating the man's design for his perfectly tailored, silky soft turtleneck.

"For Ewan, I wound up making nearly everything because it had to have that very specific Halston ease and drape, in the way that he made his own clothes and not out of traditional menswear materials," San Juan shared. "So it really had to be sort of couture. I will say, though, even the turtleneck, which was the one piece of the whole thing that I thought I could get from somewhere, I still wound up using two turtlenecks—I used the turtle neck of one piece and the body of another and had them knitted together."

Guessing correctly that our mind was blown, she added, "I'm almost afraid for you to publish that because everybody's going to think I'm crazy, but that's the level of exacting detail that I really wanted to achieve."

The Invisible Man

"I really thought of what a wonderful, linear, minimalist quietness that would be in a room where the rest of the world is his canvas to paint," San Juan said of Halston's understated everyday look. "Almost like he didn't want to be distracting in the room."

Recalling the approach of prolific costume designer Edith Head, an eight-time Oscar winner and 35-time nominee who was historically clad in black, San Juan said, "She always talked about not being a distraction in a fitting room, not a loud voice visually," so as to not draw any attention away from the women she was dressing. "Halston had a similar mentality. That's kind of where I connected to it… he actually was always, in a very subtle way, complementing the clothes that he was designing."

For instance, when he started working with ultrasuede, often in bold, jewel-tone colors, he too would wear a jacket made of the light yet luxurious-feeling fabric, but in a creamy neutral color to offset his otherwise all-black outfit—and to not distract from the Halston-draped ladies in his presence.

"Those little elements were fun details to play with so we could keep it interesting and see his own style evolution within the show," San Juan said. "But to find them was impossible. I made everything."

Putting the Pieces Together

Overall, San Juan combined handmade items (especially for McGregor) with vintage pieces—"It really was like a full-on private detective hunt for Halston through the whole show"—and items on loan from educational institutions that maintain Halston collections. No one archive was available to pull from since the dismantling of Halston in the 1980s, about a decade after its founder sold the business (and his trademark) to corporate parent Norton Simon for $16 million. While he continued to work, Halston himself had less and less control through the years as to the quality of clothing allowed to boast his storied label.

Classical Muses

San Juan had been an admirer of Halston since she was a fashion student, and she became more enamored when she found out he was inspired by the likes of Madeleine Vionnet, a legendary French designer considered the queen of the bias-cut dress (and, born in 1876, she lived to see the Halston era before passing away at 98) and Charles James, known for his impeccable construction.

"I was going off like a fashion nerd," she said, waxing rhapsodic at the memory, "like a Trekkie at a Star Trek convention, I was full-on excited."

Every Little Bit Counts

As we discussed how timeless so many of Halston's signature looks proved to be, San Juan noted it was particularly meaningful to her to illustrate where fashion was when he arrived (he launched his designer label in 1968) and where he took it.

"It was really important to us to fully sort of tell the fashion history behind his origin story and be a bit of a fashion education to the audience," she explained. Whether it was a nod toward a YSL safari look or a flouncy off-the-shoulder dress—"which was like, the dress around the time of Studio 54 reopening" (as a club in 1977)—"I really wanted to make sure we were showing those trends and iconic things through history alongside our story, so you could always see how forward-thinking he was in his aesthetic."

Packing the Club

"Going into Studio 54, it's a subject that is near and dear to [director and executive producer] Daniel Minahan's heart and he knows it backwards and forwards," San Juan said. So she did her homework, reading up on the club's history and what it was really like, as opposed to the mythical version in so many people's minds. Including some of the people who were there!

"In what light did we want to tell that?" she recalled their thought process. "Are we looking at it through a misty Vaseline lens, rose-colored glasses, or are we looking at it gritty and raw, the cigarette-burned, and you know, cocaine-dusted version?"

Ultimately, Halston has it all. "So we found that note, I think, that was right for our show and kind of went full on," San Juan said. "Definitely a big part of Studio 54 is the characters and the regulars, that's a big backdrop." They cast people for the background as nods to some of the more identifiable personalities in the days of Andy Warhol, Diane Von Fürstenberg and Bianca Jagger in off-the-shoulder Halston atop a horse. 

That being said, "a lot of people get it a little wrong because they think that everyone was in a beaded Liza jumpsuit," San Juan noted. "It was also people in T-shirts and jeans who just wore it well."

So, hundreds of extras were fitted to party like it was 1979, with an image of Diana Ross in jeans and a ripped tank top dancing at Studio 54 serving as a touchstone.

As San Juan reminded her team, "Don't forget the value of a tank top with no bra and a good pair of Z. Cavaricci jeans and a great pair of disco heels."

Not Just a Face in the Crowd

Statuesque Studio 54 fixture Grace Jones made an unplanned appearance in the form of an extra who San Juan spied on set and put in the fiercest of black beaded jumpsuits.


Start Spreading the News

San Juan makes it a practice to not get caught up worrying about how she's going to create the look she envisions (or the very specific aesthetic a project such as Halston demands). Rather, she maps out what she wants and then works backward, building the world and figuring it out as she goes. "To me, I have to really reach for the moon, and then if I fall somewhere between there and earth, okay," she said.

However, she admitted that the prospect of recreating the legendary style of Cabaret-era Liza Minnelli"Liza-with-a-Z, and I understood that going in, big fan"—was a bit daunting. 

It Was a Good Time

"You can't get it wrong, especially because the eyes that are going to be on this will know everything intimately," San Juan said of dressing Liza, played by Krysta Rodriguez.

"People look back on that era with such a fondness, or [see] their own youth through that era...so I at first had to decide whether we were going to tell the gritty version or the fabulous fantasy version, and then I kind of had to go in after that and really decide how to support our story appropriately. Doing something that is a period project, I think, you really have to determine your point of view and your voice going in so that you don't get too romantically swept away by the period. Because that could be a problem in being authentic and in making sure you're really fully realizing a world."

Arm Candy

San Juan's own Peretti silver cuff made a cameo on Liza's arm, but here you can see the instantly recognizable signature piece on Rebecca Dayan for her turn as Elsa Peretti—who before becoming a famous jewelry designer was one of the "Halstonettes," the moniker bestowed by André Leon Talley on the troupe of comely confidantes who often accompanied Halston out on the town, as well as spent a whole lot of time with each other, modeling for ad campaigns and serving as living, breathing advertisements for the clothes at events. (Other members of the club over time included Anjelica Huston, Beverly Johnson and Karen Bjornson.)

Camera Ready

"Everybody had to look like a fashion crowd, really dressed for any occasion," San Juan said. "This fashion world was so exciting to design because there was never a moment where I had to imagine what they would have gathered because they didn't think about it. Because these people always thought about it. Living in the world of these characters, they loved clothes, they celebrated clothes, so every moment onscreen was really an opportunity—whether it was running to get cigarettes at the bodega or whether it was house-hunting in Montauk, or whether it was arriving at the red carpet of Studio 54.

"All of those moments were opportunities to tell a little story on some sartorial level."

Special Tailoring

Charting the course of most of Halston's adult life, from the start of his career in the early 1960s until his death in 1990 (at the age of 57 from an AIDS-related illness), the show runs the gamut emotionally—and San Juan wanted to capture the main character's journey in a similar way aesthetically, marking up her script with notes about when to start altering silhouettes or shifting color palates as Halston's personal and professional fortunes ebb and flow. (All of which was shot out of order, hence the need for a very organized system.)

That was "not only to pay a fashion nod towards each one of those time periods in terms of style and what was happening and what were the colors like," she explained, "but also for Halston himself to have a journey and for people to see him and identify with him as a human beyond 'Halston'—behind the glossy façade of the name Halston. I wanted to make sure that people felt some highs and lows in his journey and felt [the difference between] when he was in front of the cameras and when he wasn't."

An Unexpected Intermission

Coming off all that decadence on display in the show, as well as the tight bonds naturally fostered on set among a cast and crew working so closely together, suffice it to say it was a letdown when the production scattered to the four winds at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

"I just sort of Pompeii-style grabbed whatever books were on my desk and whatever materials I could lug with me and brought them up to my house, and then camped out," San Juan recalled. She occupied herself tie-dying and doing whatever else she could for Halston while in isolation at home—which luckily only lasted for so long.

"We were one of the first shows in New York to come back into production," she recalled, "so we were sort of very early in on the figuring out of the new world and the new rules in production, but we got through it. Honestly, seeing everyone again, post-pandemic, was a bit scary for me because I didn't know what sort of bodies are going to walk back in the room." She laughed at the thought, the memory of all the not entirely healthy lifestyles most of us led during quarantine still fresh. 

"But also it was exciting," she continued, "because I felt like I was getting to see my family again on some level, to see people that I had built relationships with, and to be able to kind of be in the room and hug and do all those things was really wonderful."

Nice Handiwork

At least all that tie-dyeing during quarantine paid off for what turned out to be one of San Juan's favorite collection of pieces in the whole series—the batik caftans featured in the first episode, two of them original Halston pieces and three that she copied and handmade with a dyer. "And then I actually designed a few pieces within that," she said, "including the one that's created on Elsa Peretti at the start of the show, and that was just so exciting for me to wear both the fashion design hat and the costume design hat."

"I hope that more costume designers get the wonderful opportunity that I had on this show to celebrate fashion in costume," she concluded. "It's just such a wonderful subject matter and I love being able to get the creative story behind the celebrity name. I crave shows like this so I hope more get made."

San Juan also explained how, as an artist herself, she connected personally with Halston's choice to surround himself with a tight-knit group of fellow creative people who would get together for laughs and camaraderie, but also to inevitably inspire each other's work.

Which doesn't sound too different from what happened on the set of Halston.

At the end of the day, "the group on this show, the actors, the department heads, our director—really, everyone had such a bond in this show, because I think everyone was coming to the table with, if not an adoration for Halston and his work, with a fascination or with a kind of curious energy," San Juan said. "You know, everybody was sort of attracted to this project, so we were all there for the same common reason, we built a little tribe in making this show. And we're still family, I'm still texting with Ewan, and Mark Ricker our production designer and Dan Minahan. We kind of just made a little family."

Halston is streaming now on Netflix.