Meet Jeriana San Juan, the Costume Designer Who Helped Ewan McGregor Become Halston
Jeriana San Juan did not just design over 1,200 outfits for “Halston,” the new Netflix series. She also helped Ewan McGregor inhabit the character of the iconic American designer.
“At least 1,200 pieces,” she said. “But no one really keeps track when you’re running around like a maniac all of the time.”
San Juan, who is 40 and spoke on a Zoom interview from her “quarantine purchase” home in Rhinebeck, New York, only had about two months to prepare costumes for the series. No small feat. The show tracks the designer’s life from his beginnings as a Bergdorf Goodman milliner—whose first brush with fame was designing the pillbox cap Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration—to his international stardom as a licensing king and avatar of ’70s excess.
“Fashion is a character in this show,” San Juan said. So she became something of a surrogate director, finding time after fittings to teach McGregor how a seasoned, confident designer would move, drape fabrics, and use a sewing machine.
“We would spend time together with the mannequins, on some level rehearsing choreography that would be second nature for a designer,” she said. “I’d set him up with my tailors and he’d practice how to apply pins, I’d show him why I design things the way I do and how I move around the workroom.”
That workroom, by the way, was plastered with every photo San Juan could find of Halston, who died in 1990. “You know A Beautiful Mind? It was like that,” she said. “I had very obscure pictures of him from Women’s Wear Daily to very famous images of him at Studio 54. I wanted to have a fully realized version of Halston’s life constantly present in my studio.”
San Juan and McGregor would watch grainy old Halston interviews; they noticed the designer had a repeated habit of describing his clothes as “comfortable.”
“We were always laughing as we watched it,” San Juan said. “We inserted it into the script a few times because of that.”
The actor and designer would “geek out” over their shared studies into Halston’s life, and they compared notes. McGregor brought up Halston’s body language—in many photos, he held his hands close to his face, gesturing, or holding a cigarette.
San Juan knew why: “He wore a very specific type of pants that didn’t have pockets. He had designed them for himself, with no side seam, based off of 1940s sailor pants.”
This piece of information came from Halston’s personal tailor Gino Balsamo, who helped San Juan’s team recreate his original patterns. She also met with Chris Royer, a former Halston house model who walked his runways and posed for editorials. Royer let Juan into her personal archive, which was recently featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s Studio 54 exhibit.
“To be able to look at the pieces inside and out helped me understand fabric and construction details,” San Juan said. “It helped me unravel what makes a Halston a Halston.”
San Juan had scoured eBay and found a Newsweek feature showing Halston at home, wearing a pair of red socks in every glossy photo. She brought the socks up to Royer. “They were a Christmas present from her,” San Juan said. “And they became a thing he wore all the time.”
Sassy Johnson, Halston’s former secretary—in the series, her character has the unenviable task of keeping his coke stash full, during the height of his hedonistic Studio 54 days—also spoke to San Juan.
“She shared stories with me about how he would come into his [Midtown office at] the Olympic Tower—when he was ready to come in for the day, maybe late in the afternoon—and his house butler would call the studio chef to say he was on his way,” San Juan said. “Everyone in the office would scatter and run [upon his arrival], but Sassy said she was always there, and he always had his sunglasses on inside. We used that in the show.”
Naeem Khan, known for beaded gowns worn by Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton, began his career as a Halston assistant during the late 1970s. San Juan and Khan worked together to recreate intricate disco-era dresses, including some worn by Liza Minnelli (Krysta Rodriguez) in the show.
Some of the pieces in the show were loaned by various collections, including the Halston archives and private estates. San Juan, who has collected vintage Halston, also sourced some minor accessories—like scarves, jewelry, and a coat—from her own wardrobe.
Torrey International, the company that makes Ultrasuede, loaned San Juan the same fabric, in the original colors, that they made for Halston in the mid-’70s. “Being able to hold on to these pieces was the only way I could replicate them appropriately,” she said. “I got to understand Halston’s textiles, and feel his hand at everything.”
San Juan tried to track down vintage Halston from all over the world, but found that many pieces for sale had been just a little too lived-in to appear new onscreen. “I found it hilarious that those clothes were not in the best conditions,” San Juan said. “It’s probably because a lot of women really enjoyed their nights wearing Halston—and spilled their wine, and smoked a lot of cigarettes, and had a great time.”
So San Juan ended up making many of the costumes. One of the trickiest: recreating a slinky red halter minidress Liza Minnelli wore while performing “I Gotcha” in the concert documentary Liza With a Z.
San Juan had “foreshadowed” the ensemble in an earlier scene, during Minnelli’s first fitting with Halston, where he swathes her with chiffon in that same crimson color. San Juan knew what the dress needed to look like—it’s easy to google, and footage lives on YouTube—but it was hard to find the same fabric Halston used.
“We tried red sequins, but I didn’t like the shine it was giving us,” San Juan explained. “I wanted to find clear sequins, which are impossible to find. It’s not a popular fabric now, but it was super popular in the ’70s and Halston loved it. He used it all the time, because when lights hit it, it turns every woman into a mermaid. It looks like she’s glittering underwater.”
San Juan eventually found the right sequins, then she had to find a way to cut the hem “scandalously short,” as it was on Minnelli. “It was so difficult to get all of those pieces right—fabric and fit,” she said. “Halston himself, I’m certain, had the opportunity to hand-sew a million sequins all over a chiffon dress and make it couture, as it should be. But I had about four days to do it.”
Another memorable outfit: the 14-karat-gold chainmail bra San Juan sourced from Elsa Peretti, the late model, jewelry designer, and Halston muse. One scene finds Peretti (played by Rebecca Dayan), Halston, and team, attending a stuffy business meeting for an upcoming licensed perfume.
“I thought, ‘How do I build a look around a bra?’” San Juan said. “So I had Elsa wear it with a suit for this meeting. It gave me a little giggle. She just sits there in this scene at a conference table. It’s a moment that tickles me as a costume designer.”
She especially loved designing the clothes for Victor Hugo Rojas, who became Halston’s partner and window dresser. Rojas was a performance artist and Warhol muse, and featured in the artist’s Torso and Sex Parts series, which fused the aesthetic of classical nudes with pop art pornography.
“Victor was so often photographed nude,” San Juan said. “So what did he wear when he walked down the street? We had to imagine a lot of his costumes, and he became an invention of a character.”
San Juan, a first-generation Cuban American raised by two gay moms “before it was cool, and before Ellen was out of the closet,” always remember hearing stories about storied New York clubs.
“My mothers both went to Studio 54,” she said. “I grew up around a gay community, we were celebrating Pride and had drag queens as surrogate uncles. Like all parents, they downplayed their party days with me: It wasn’t cool, you shouldn’t do drugs, that kind of thing.”
One of San Juan’s moms was a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet; she spent evenings after school in the rehearsal hall, practicing making fantasy costumes for her Barbies. Every summer she visited family in Miami; her grandmother, who worked as a seamstress, taught her how to recreate fancy department store clothes at home.
Her grandmother passed away while she was attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, but San Juan says “she’s still with me, all of the time.”
Her parents, San Juan’s “favorite people in the world,” were able to help her prep a bit for the Halston gig. Her mother had met him on Fire Island in the late 1970s.
“She was with her girlfriends and they were all out, no bras on the beach,” San Juan remembered. “I have an aunt who was always in the newest, latest clothes and she was the one who pointed him out to my mom. She ran up to Halston and said she was a fan of his work.”
They did not talk much, but San Juan’s mother would later say that Halston “was very elegant and had such a grace and kindness.”
It was a line echoed later by people who had worked with Halston. “I spoke to people who knew Elsa Peretti, people who knew [Halston’s illustrator] Joe Eula,” San Juan said. “All of the people who had those connections had wonderful things to say about him—that he was so charming and funny and easy to have an affection for. That sat with me. At some point, my work turned from doing this show about Halston to doing this show about Halston for his friends, so that I can help accurately tell their story and legacy.”