In conversation with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Halston costume designer Jeriana San Juan offers an extensive look into her designs for the Netflix series highlighting the work of the iconic American designer. San Juan details designing upwards of 1,000 pieces for the 5-episode, Ewan McGregor-starring series, and reflects on Halston’s reverberating legacy.
It’s become something of a writing cliche to say that costumes serve as a character in a story, but in the case of the Netflix series, there is no Halston without the clothes. The show takes you inside the designer’s genius. Halston is the artist and clothes is his medium. His iconic Halstonettes draped in hammered silk and one-seam caftans that danced across runways in the ’70s.
Halston, the series, which chronicles the rise and fall of the mononymous designer, is a fashion-lover’s paradise—Halston’s penchant for bright, bold colors on full display. Costume designer Jeriana San Juan was tasked with studying Halston’s extensive body of work and choosing touchstone moments to display in the five-episode series. From designs on his iconic muses like Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) and future Tiffany & Co. designer Elsa Peretti (Rebecca Dayan), to lavish parties at Studio 54, and Halston’s own changing wardrobe, every frame features stunning clothing. San Juan has lost count of the number of pieces she designed for the series—a true tour de force of costume design that helped shape McGregor’s performance in the series as a whole. Halston is the ultimate love letter to the brand and the man behind it all. Read more from Jeriana San Juan below:
Awards Daily: I wanted to start with the striking use of color in the series. How did you use color to tell Halston’s story?
Jeriana San Juan: I think it was important to visually anchor the story. Doing so many different time periods and spanning his life, it felt to me that we needed some sort of visual anchor to guide the audience through that.
One of the signatures to his body of work is his use of color—bright, bold colors. It felt honest in some ways to do the story in that way and to move his particular journey, costume-wise, through different periods of color. Colors that would sort of echo his life at that time and the mood of our story and create symmetry between the colors of his environment and what he was wearing.
Halston was such a world builder as a designer. He was always painting the canvas, so to speak. When he designed his townhouse with Paul Rudolph and designed these gray carpets and these steely gray couches, I wanted to echo that in the costumes. As we moved into a fiery and tumultuous period of his life, he moved into the Olympic Tower, which is very famously carpeted in this red color—he loses himself in the brand identity of it.
I wanted to blur the lines where the Halston the man ended and the brand began. As things dissolve, and ultimately the name of his company gets taken away from him, he is left without an identity, visually. Color is a device I use all the time as a costume designer, but I think I used it in a very identifiable way in this show where it really pops onto the screen and connects the audience to his emotional journey.
AD: You did have to take some liberties with some of the designs for the series. For example, the fashion show at Versailles. Liza Minnelli is wearing a different dress. You have spoken about how you designed the European dresses based on the sensibilities of the time period and your knowledge of fashion history. How did you decide when and where to make those changes?
JSJ: I think how it lends itself to the story is how I always operate. I always root everything in a tremendous amount of research. Everything from Bill Cunningham’s photos, observations to everything at the Vogue archives at Condé Nast, Women’s Wear Daily. I always root everything as truthfully as I can in research and create that textbook for my mind to work from. But ultimately, it is always in support of the story.
For example, in doing Versailles, we weren’t going to be doing hundreds of models on stage and even presenting the performance as it actually was. It really was just in support of, ‘How can we celebrate each different designer’s voice?’ And also anchor it in the truth of what they were doing at that time. And celebrate the differences between those voices and contrast them to the European collections, which were generally inspired by what Givenchy and Dior were doing at that time. Again, taking artistic license to heighten the contrast between that and the American collections, makes it feel more fantasy, more fairy princess, and makes it a little more corseted, almost traditionally feminine. And it helped to highlight the modern energy of the American collection.
I take those artistic licenses throughout the show. But I always root it in something real and tactful, whether it was a color story that Halston was doing at the time or using the truthful textiles and working in hammered silk. But also, always taking a bit of artistic license to create and hype the energy and mood. I have often said that because we are talking about Halston, who has a tremendous body of work, it was a practice of editing and figuring out what important touchstones we had to represent his work. And also, highlight those pieces creatively in a very calculated way to help enhance the energy and magic.
In doing a collection that is only ultimately five pieces represented on camera, it was really about conveying the mood and energy of those clothes. Sometimes that involved adding capes, which I did for his collection at Versailles, to see the fabric move through the air with carelessness and freshness. It feels like magic when you see these dresses dance. I knew that the way we would shoot it, we would always want to see models and have movement up by the face, so I just added these capes to have a little bit more fabric moving up in the air to create that magic. And to also fill the stage.
The same thing happened with the rouge dresses and the collections that we show at the Olympic Tower where it’s all of these silk jersey, very early disco, glamour dresses. I found an image of Pat Cleveland, it wasn’t necessarily from that collection, but it was just an image of her with a sheer scarf she was dancing with on the runway. I just felt like that was a wonderful way to echo that color and to fill the spaces with those beautiful colors and get a sense of that freedom and movement.
AD: I read you created 1,200 pieces for the show. Is that correct?
JSJ: It is actually more than that. It is so funny because people always want to know the exact number, and I always lose count. The volume keeps growing, and we were keeping up with production. I think it was ultimately much more. I know it’s over 1,000, maybe even over 2,000. There are so many costumes between the number of huge parties and the background actors we had. The principle characters have so many changes because they are such fashion plates, so they changed all the time. There are musical numbers, there are fashion shows, and the audience at the fashion shows. It’s just a massive volume.
AD: What was your approach to that? You mentioned editing through Halston’s career and choosing those key touchtone moments. For you, what were those touchstone moments, and how did you land on those?
JSJ: It was really a matter of studying his body of work and understanding which pieces in his body of work are the most critical in terms of revolutionizing modern American sportswear and evening wear.
Whether it was the introduction of, for example, the single-seam caftan. The caftan alone is a signature of his. But the singe-seam caftan is infamous in fashion history because it is perceivably a very simple garment, but it is constructed in a very complicated, almost origami way. For me to highlight that piece, I found a marker of time for that in our story— the beautiful hammered silk, sarong dress. It’s the dress that Elsa Peretti wears as a guest to Liza Minnelli’s wedding to Jack Haley Jr. I really wanted to incorporate that because it was an absolutely revolutionary idea. This careless idea of wrapping a towel around you, but as the most exquisite evening wear. It felt like I had to include it. I had to include the cashmere twinset dress.
Also, all of the Elsa Peretti jewelry that was so iconic and pivotal to creating that look, whether it was the equestrian belt, the bone cuffs, the diamonds, the scorpion necklace, all of her creations helped anchor the story, visually and timewise.
For example, I found a way to coincide the single-seam caftan with the story; it became this Zoar blue and diamond printed caftan created on Elsa Peretti at the end of episode one. I knew that we were going to create a boutique collection. In the script, it’s written that he creates a dress and ultimately ends up on the runway. It just felt like a perfect moment to educate an audience on the bias he used quite frequently, which that single seam caftan uses. It starts as one singular piece of fabric. What a wonderful way to see a garment be formed from one piece of fabric, live on a model, in real-time. It was a place where I married a bit of fashion history with something real, which was his tie-dye collection. I am not actually certain that there was ever a single seam caftan that was also a tie-dye piece. That was a total invention. I wanted to marry all of the concepts that felt so signature to Halston.
AD: Are there other signature pieces you would like to highlight that I haven’t ask you about from the show?
JSJ: There are so many, and each one of them is my baby [laughs]. I will say, I did map out Halston’s career alongside the script to find those moments where we could potentially highlight with some honesty in terms of dating pieces appropriately, or we could highlight pieces from his body of work. There are other pieces, of course, like this coat that Halston wears that is a double-faced wool coat. He wears it in black at the start of Episode 2. There is an image of him wearing this long black coat sitting over all these rolled-up carpets before they have actually built the Olympic Tower and decorated it. It is like his initial walkthrough of the space. That was a coat that felt so dramatic, and he looked so elegant sitting there, kind of hovering over New York City. In this photograph, you see him in front of the skyline, sitting in front of big windows, and he looks like Batman or something, looking over New York City. I thought what a wonderful image and how powerful he felt. I wanted to do that coat and I wanted to do the perfect weight of double-faced wool, so as he walks through Central Park, as he does at the top of the episode, the air would sort of catch it and you would see it fly around a bit.
That coat came to life again, in white, in the show, as we enter his white period, and then ultimately in red. It became kind of a signature piece, and I think in part because of the way Ewan reacted to it. The way he responded to it. He loved wearing it. He loved feeling it. He loved the elegance and the cleanliness of the lines. The gravitas of walking into a space and having more fabric around you to manipulate, kind of toying around. I think he loved that. It helped him inhabit Halston more. That is my job as a costume designer, ultimately. That was a piece that was rooted from real history that we definitely took creative license with.
There are so many more. Every single costume of this show has a story behind it, whether it’s about trying to find a way to highlight a real Halston piece or trying to find a way to highlight a color, or a recreation of something that Liza Minnelli actually wore, like the bugle-beaded jumpsuit. I really wanted to do the particular bugle beads because I knew they would come alive in the lights of Studio 54. I actually found designer Naeem Khan, a former assistant of Halston’s. His father was the beader for Halston and actually got him the job with Halston. Naeem still had the beading patterns to those jumpsuits and the jacket, so he helped me recreate that exact beading pattern for that look. I took some liberties with the color to help highlight Krysta, our Liza, in that scene. Generally, there is a story behind every costume (laughs). I could go on.
AD: I could talk to you for two hours just about the Studio 54 aesthetic.
AD: I am curious; Halston is not a part of the cultural zeitgeist, at least, not anymore. As a student of fashion, what has stood out to you? What do you consider to be his greatest legacy?
JSJ: I think the great gift of having done this show is just the insight into the creative process behind an artist. This particular artist, his medium, happened to be clothing. Reading the script initially, just to see insight behind a creative mind. That is not a story that gets told very often, so it was really exciting for me to be a part of.
I think in terms of Halston’s own legacy, the essential DNA of Halston’s aesthetic is truly about taking complicated ideas and conveying them simply and visually creating a look for women that was simultaneously liberating, freeing, and also elegant and timeless, and not very trend-driven. And that is what is so magical about his pieces is that they still feel so timeless and modern. That is the thing I always personally appreciated about his clothes.
I have an appreciation of his use of color. I can be very reserved with color, just in my own life. I felt like just doing this project has made me feel freer about color because he celebrated color. And it really does; I saw it with my own eyes, bring people to life in a fitting room, trying on bright, bold color made everybody happier. I took away so many things from this project in terms of just studying his eye and his aesthetic, and also all the creatives that he surrounded himself with and being able to immerse myself in researching Joe Eula (David Pittu), Elsa Peretti, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol— all of the characters, all of the synergy of these artists, who were all very different from one another, but together created this unique culture. I think that is something I absolutely will take away from this forever.
AD: Halston was famously a huge inspiration for Tom Ford. Who do you think is the modern-day Halston? Who do you think is carrying on his legacy in fashion today?
JSJ: That is interesting. I mean, it’s hard to even distinguish at this point because his thumbprint is on everything! [Laughs]. Part of what Halston’s legacy is, is the democracy of fashion, the accessibility of fashion. The fact that he bought a 5th Avenue label to J.C. Penny was sort of gauche at the time. It was unheard of. Now it is celebrated for high-end designers at Bergdorf Goodman to also have diffusion lines at Target. It feels like he was the pioneer of that, and the fact that it is now so celebrated to have a J.C. Penney line or a Target line, that is what is so amazing.
Also, one of the most exciting things in doing this story, and in this time, was how he used models and muses of all colors and shapes, and sizes. It was never a matter of being a certain type of woman to wear Halston successfully and beautifully. It was about celebrating women of all shapes and sizes and colors, which echoed through fashion, especially today. That whole idea of feeling very individual and very free and beautiful no matter what you look like and that was a beautiful message.
Halston is streaming on Netflix. Read more coverage of the show here.