Halston : Roy Halston Frowick, known simply as Halston, was an American fashion designer who rose to international fame in the 1970s. His minimalist, clean designs often made of cashmere or ultrasuede were a new phenomenon in the mid-1970s discotheques and redefined American fashion. Halston was known for creating a relaxed urban lifestyle for American women. He was frequently photographed at Studio 54 with his close friends Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and artist Andy Warhol.
His name swept through fashion in the 1970s on waves of cha-ching commercial success and celebrity adulation. That was Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, whose dream of “dressing everybody in America” made him a one-name sensation like Chanel, Dior, Valentino. Of course, Halston began by dressing the rich and famous, from the pillbox hat he put on the head of Jackie Kennedy for her husband’s inauguration to the flowing fabrics he draped on the celebrated women who swanned through Studio 54, Halston soon became as famous as the luminaries who lined up to wear his designs. And then the bottom dropped out.
Since Halston’s story has all the elements — glamor, sex, drugs and a precipitous rise and fall — it’s surprising that it took so long for a Halston documentary to reach the screen. For French-born writer-director Frederic Tcheng, who made his solo debut with 2014’s Dior & I, mystery is at the heart of the Halston story. Sadly, that mystery leads Tcheng to make a major misstep, which is structuring his doc as a film noir. Tcheng invents an unnamed employee at Halston’s company, played by actress/fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, who takes on the role of detective as she tries to pull together the puzzle pieces of Halston’s life (he died in 1990 of complications from AIDS-related lung cancer at the age of 57).
Ignore the film’s foolish framing device and Halston emerges as a fascinating study of a fashion artist who allowed women to live an idealized vision of themselves. But not my making them over into flashy parodies of femininity. Simplicity was the keynote of Halston’s approach. As his friend Liza Minnelli points out, “his clothes danced with you.”
Tcheng is best at examining the designer’s process, making tactile the cashmeres, silks and suedes that became the building blocks of Halston’s style. This gay boy from the Midwest was awed by the Hollywood elite. His marketing genius came in enlisting them — Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger — to wear his clothes on assorted red carpets and public events and become, in effect, unpaid acolytes. He was with them at parties, traveling with his own entourage of models called Halstonettes. He also indulged in the excess of the time, snorting cocaine that caused his temper to flare. Much is made of his damaging relationship with Venezuelan artist Victor Hugo, a lover that fashion illustrator Joe Eula implies started as a street hustler.
Perhaps Halston’s worst decision was signing a $1 billion deal with JC Penney to design a ready-to-wear collection. Halston’s defection “from class to mass” caused snob stores and clients to drop him. The film gets bogged down in discussions of unwise business alliances that resulted in Halston losing control of his company and the use of his name. Tcheng compensates by interviewing Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, who adds a welcome humanity, notably in her descriptions of how her uncle found comfort in family in his final days.
There is little surprising or mysterious (that word) in the oft-told tale of a talent who lost his way in a tangle of compromise, bad judgment and deal-making with corporate devils. What made Halston distinctive as a designer was his ability to create clothes that defined an era and to do it with the kind of startling originality that leaves a lasting impact. As a film, Halston captures the exhilarating thrum of that creation. And it takes your breath away.
The year is 1968, and we’re on 68th and Madison. A tall, lean man in a turtleneck and blazer skips down the street toward a sign that bears his namesake: “Halston Limited.” That location would serve as an incubator for much grander things to come: a fashion show at Versailles, a promotional trip to China, and imposing headquarters at Olympic Tower. This was before Studio 54 came into the picture, before excessive evenings spent with the likes of Cher and Bianca Jagger. Roy Halston Frowick wasn’t just creating flowing silk gowns and jumpsuits that stood out from the rest of ‘60s fashion with their minimalist decadence. This was where he started to carve out a salon for the in-crowd of the day. Halston drew inspiration from everyone he let into his world, from his troupe of models dubbed the “Halstonettes” to his creative coterie of Andy Warhol, Elsa Peretti, and Liza Minnelli. As the ‘70s approached, he was primed to become a prolific, enduring name in American fashion.
So what happened to Halston? Framed like a noir, the documentary Halston, directed by Frédéric Tcheng (who also made the fashion documentaries Dior and I and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel), seeks to illuminate what occurred between the designer’s heyday and his ultimate fall from grace by the time of his death in 1990. It’s a project that might have never come to be — the more than 200 tapes that make up the bulk of the film’s archival footage were nearly erased by the people who took over Halston’s company in the ‘80s. Tcheng creates a fictional detective story to frame the film, featuring writer/actress Tavi Gevinson as a woman working in an archive who stumbles upon the tapes. These scenes add a campy layer that’s fitting for a movie about an artist who shunned convention. Gevinson’s character is positioned as one of the few people to care about keeping Halston’s story alive, perhaps acting as a stand-in for Tcheng.
Halston wanted his clothing to look effortless, which paradoxically takes a lot of work. He was inspired by designer Charles James, who like him was simultaneously brilliant and difficult. But instead of overworking his fabric like James, he opted for simplicity. His flowing chiffon and silk silhouettes were often cut on the bias from a single piece of fabric to encourage movement and make them easy to slip on and off. In interviews, the women who wore his clothes attest to their brilliance. “They danced with you,” Minnelli gushes. “He took away the cage,” model Pat Cleveland says, “You didn’t need the structure as much as you needed the woman.” His gowns, jumpsuits, and hot pants became a staple of the disco scene, and Halston likewise became a fixture of New York nightlife.
Halston’s brand followed the same trajectory as disco, skyrocketing to a level of popularity that was too much to maintain. “When something becomes so big and so successful that the business thinks it’s got to move on, it milks it for all it’s worth,” critic Vince Aletti said of the death of disco. Tcheng explores the myriad factors that contributed to Halston’s undoing without blaming one in particular. Perhaps it was his nights at Studio 54, which fed a drug habit that affected his productivity. Maybe his mistake was selling his brand to Norton Simon in 1973, inviting global recognition but sacrificing much of his autonomy in the process. Or was it all a matter of ego? Tcheng looks at Halston’s attachment to his image by showing pristine press footage of the designer surrounded by doting, glamorous models out on the town, then having Gevinson’s character press “rewind” to show the reality of the behind-the-scenes bullying they endured.
The real enemy may have been the rampant corporatism that seeped into the US in the ‘70s and took over in the ‘80s. Gevinson narrates “It’s morning again in America,” a nod to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. For designers, the Reagan-era emphasis on profit above all else meant the rise of fast fashion and a waning appreciation for the kind of artistry that Halston was known for. Halston takes a stand against this kind of thinking, attempting to resurrect the designer’s legacy by giving him a glamorous, multilayered portrait.