memory lane

Life As a Halstonette

Pat Cleveland shares the true story behind Netflix’s new Halston miniseries.

The Halstonettes on a trip to China in the 1980s. Cleveland is fourth from the left. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.
The Halstonettes on a trip to China in the 1980s. Cleveland is fourth from the left. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.
The Halstonettes on a trip to China in the 1980s. Cleveland is fourth from the left. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.

On Friday, Netflix released Halston, a five-episode miniseries based on the life of the famous American fashion designer, born Roy Halston Frowick. So far, reviews have been mixed. People seem to agree that Ewan McGregor, who plays the titular role, can convincingly smoke a cigarette and woo society women with his smooth talk. But Halston’s family has publicly rejected the film, calling it an “inaccurate, fictionalized account” of his life.

However you feel about the series, it presents yet another opportunity to dive into the life of a genius creator and legendary personality from Des Moines, Iowa who made the most of his short time on earth. It wasn’t always rosy: Halston died of AIDS in 1990 after battling a cocaine addiction and selling away his name. But it was always glamorous. A man who reportedly spent $150,000 a year on orchids alone, Halston was committed to surrounding himself with beautiful people and things.

Pat Cleveland was one member of the designer’s inner circle. As a model in the 1960s and ’70s, she knew Halston before he was “Halston” — and before his gaggle of muses became known as the “Halstonettes.” She claims to be the person who brought him to Studio 54 for the first time, and they would go on to travel the world together over the course of their careers, from Chicago to Paris to the Great Wall of China.

Before the premiere of Halston, the Cut spoke to Cleveland over Zoom from her home in New Jersey, where she was wearing her own House of VRC yogawear. Below, she brings the designer back to life in her own words.

Hi, Pat. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

We’re alive, we’re here, and we’re going to walk down memory lane with that beautiful, elegant Halston! Oh so beautiful, my God. I don’t think anybody could ever play him the way he really was. You just felt like somebody picked you up and put you in Heaven when you were with him.

Well, this is exactly why I wanted to speak to you, because you actually knew the real-life person. You’ve seen the first two episodes of Halston on Netflix. What did you think?

I think what they do in television and movies is they exaggerate the bad stuff instead of talking about all the fabulous things that he did. It would have been nice if they accentuated more of what he really wanted. I love dramas for drama, but with a person like that who cared so much about quality and who worked so hard to be the American couturier and to keep things going … I never saw him falter. He was our champion. But it was touching because you see how he struggled like everybody else. Everybody has a shadow side.

[Ewan McGregor] almost got the voice right, I must say. Like, sometimes he really sounds like Halston. But he just didn’t have the stature, and that bothered me. Halston, when he walked into a room, he was just so sleek. And he’d never wear that shiny jacket. I don’t know why they put him in that.

When did you first meet Halston? What was your interaction like?

Well, I was at this party with [the fashion designer] Stephen Burrows in 1968 on Madison Avenue. Halston walked into the room and came right over and sat down next to me. He said, “I know you.” And I didn’t know him at all because everybody was just starting out. He was a designer, but everybody was a designer. I thought, Well, who am I? I don’t know who I am, either. [Laughs.] He said he saw me in a show in Chicago — the Ebony Fashion Fair in 1966. He was there at the time making hats and things. He said, “I would love for you to come to work with me and do my show.”

He’d just gotten an atelier on 68th Street, which wasn’t fancy. You’d walk into this room that looked like a jungle. Angelo Donghia designed the space. There was palm-leaves wallpaper and orchids and Rigaud candles …

Ah, so the orchids were real.

They were so expensive back then. The orchids and the Rigaud candles — it was all intoxicatingly luxurious. So I get there, and I go through the curtains to the back room, and it was all stark white with a huge cutting table in the center. Halston whipped around and saw me and said, “You made it. Now get undressed.” So I take my clothes off, and we started working. He stood me up on the table, and he just started throwing fabrics on me and fitting me into something that he was making. He knew how to cut a piece of fabric. He’d just make one scissor cut across on the bias and then voilà! That’s it.

It just progressed from there. I did the first show. It was me, Naomi Sims, Elsa Peretti, Heidi Goldman, and Anjelica Huston. At the time, there were just five of us models — the same five girls who worked for Halston also worked for Stephen [Burrows], Giorgio [di Sant’ Angelo], and Fernando Sánchez. But we weren’t the Seventh Avenue girls. That was a whole other world, like Bill Blass and the rest. There was a division between the ultra–Henri Bendel chic group and then the Halston group. [The latter] was what you’d call “The house of …” It wasn’t like business-business. It was more party people. You’d go into their house and forget the whole world existed.

That little group — Stephen, Halston, Giorgio, Fernando — they were like hidden fruit, like going into an opium den. The sensation you got in their ateliers was so passionate and beautiful. Oh, they were beautiful men — beautiful to look at. It was just like, Oh, I’m so in love with this person. And they loved you, too, darling. That was the word in fashion: dah-ling. I love you, dah-ling. It wasn’t like, “Oh, let’s meet for lunch later.” It was, “Darling, you’re here. Let’s enjoy each other.” [Kiss, kiss.]

How did it feel to wear Halston’s clothes?

Imagine you have butterfly wings and you’ve landed on a big juicy flower with fragrant perfume. You feel so fluttery, and the fabric is just flowing off of you and clinging in the right places. Oh, you feel like a goddess!

Are there pieces that you still have today?

My clothes were stolen.

Oh no!

I was in Europe once, and I asked an artist friend to babysit my apartment. This guy came and said he was my boyfriend. He was not my boyfriend; he was some rock-and-roll star. But he said, “Oh, I’m Pat’s boyfriend, and she said I could stay here.” So they gave him the key. And when I came back from Europe, all my clothes were gone.

Months later, I was in Germany doing a show, and this drag queen had on my jacket singing like Liza Minnelli. There are only two of these jackets in the world; Liza had one, and I had one. So I was like, “Where did you get that jacket?” And they said, “Oh, in a secondhand store on Second Avenue.” And I was like, “That’s my jacket.” He said, “Don’t take it from me!” And I said, “I’ll never take it from you, because you look so good in it.” But gosh, I was so angry.

That’s wild. Maybe you’ll just keep seeing your Halston pieces out in the universe.

Yeah, that would be great. Next time, I’m going to rip it right off. [Laughs.]

Halston and Pat Cleveland on a trip to China in the 1980s. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.

You traveled all over the world with Halston. What was that like?

Our biggest trip was to China, but we did great in America, too. It was like a caravan of limousines going into Philadelphia, Chicago, Hollywood, Las Vegas — all over America wearing Halston Ultrasuede. Our suitcases were packed full of matching wardrobes. We were like a ball team.

I read that you’d all pull up in limos at the same time to Studio 54. Is that true?

Everybody got picked up at their house with their own limo and their dress for the evening. And then we’d, like, bombard the place. It was like a parade. Here we come! Sequins shining all over the place. It was fabulous. And then, you know, we had all these parties up at Halston’s with live jazz. Elizabeth Taylor would be there and then Liza would get up and sing in the middle of the party, and we’d all be dancing in our Halston sandals. They started calling us the “Halstonettes” because we loved to sing and dance.

One episode of the show is dedicated to the famous Battle of Versailles, a competition between American and European designers. Were you there for that?

I was third row to the right of Liza. The night we had to go onstage, Liza suddenly got all shy. I said, “You better go out there!” I told her, “There’s a rainbow on that stage.” You know, like, when the spotlight comes down, how it makes kind of a rainbow? I said, “Just get out there and go over that rainbow.” We came all this way.

The show made the whole thing seem pretty stressful. Halston has a meltdown, and Liza has to comfort him …

They make it look like she was telling him what to do, but no, no. He was like her father. She was always a little bit lost and scattered. He would tell her, “Oh, Liza, we’re going to get you together.” She was wild and chaotic and all over the place, and Halston was supportive. He was protective of her because he really loved her. He loved her and he loved Elsa very much.

Halston in Montauk. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elsa Peretti since she passed. Do you have any memories to share of her as well?

Elsa was so tall and so boyish. The woman in the show [Rebecca Dayan] was not. Elsa wasn’t, like, sexy-feminine. She always had a cigarette, like, Ah, I don’t care, darling. She was always looking up in the air and in her own world, la-di-da, like the royals. Halston loved that. He said, “If I would marry anyone, it would be Elsa.” But in the show, their relationship was too male-female. Elsa was as big as Halston; they were like androgynous lovers. She was so inspiring because she didn’t care what anybody thought. She was going to wear her flat shoes and her pants. She cut her hair into a bob — like really, really short, like a boy — and always had on big glasses. She really had her own thing.

Can you recall any private moments between you and Halston? Maybe out in Montauk, where he had a second home?

I have so many touching memories with him out in Montauk, just on the weekends making pasta and having fun with [Halston’s partner], Victor Hugo. We’d be in the laundry room trying to make spaghetti on a spaghetti machine that I gave Halston, who didn’t cook. He would be like, “When is dinner ready?” And the spaghetti would be all over the floor. We were like a real family. Andy [Warhol] would come up, and we’d sit on the floor near the TV and watch old monster movies like The Blob. We were like children, and Halston would sit back on his chaise longue and smoke a cigarette. It was so wonderful. I would sleep in Martha Graham’s room, and there was a house for Liza. He always put me in the room next to his because I was neat.

Halston in Montauk. Photo: Private Archives of Pat Cleveland.

Do you have any memories of the later part of his life?

Yes. We were up at the Olympic Tower [office] doing this shoot for Vogue. It was a very strange time where everything was getting so chaotic in his business life and his love life, and people were dying of AIDS. He was shook by that. He said, “There’s nothing I can do about any of this.” And I said, “There is something you can do: You can leave all of this and come with me. Come away, now.” I said, “You need to leave all of this because it’s killing you.” I told him to come with me to the south of France. We could get a boat, and we could just stay in that for a while until he felt better. He said, “I want to go, but I can’t. I have all these people to take care of.” He couldn’t come. But intuitively, he knew something bad was going to happen.

How does it feel to unearth all these memories again?

Oh, you know, you want to let somebody go. But there’s a reason for his legacy: We can all learn a lesson. When he sold his name, he signed himself away.

Personally, I’ve just really enjoyed diving into his world. His apartment — everything. He really knew how to live.

And how to be generous. He would send orchids to our house. It was like a big romance with all the people who worked around him.

It seems like such an intimate community. Now that fashion is so big, we’ve kind of lost that. I’ve also, of course, enjoyed living vicariously through your time at Studio 54.

If I was a young person, I’d be going berserk right now. There’s nowhere you can go and nobody you can touch. Oh my God. We were all dancing the Bump and lying all over each other at parties. It was so much fun.

But it’s going to be okay. Just stay alive. Think about the future, and what you want to do, and how you’re going to conduct yourself. Keep your mind on what you want, not what you don’t want. Get your caftan on. Find some sequins, and get yourself a disco ball and put it in your house. I have them all over — upstairs, downstairs. And I always come prepared for party Zooms …

[Pat pulls out a silver-tinsel wig from underneath her desk and puts it on.]

Wow. I’m inspired. I need to get one of those for myself.

Keep your mind on the twinkle and send out the love, because that’s all Halston wanted to do: Make women look and feel beautiful. And that’s what he did.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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