Documentary filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng knows a thing or two about fashion. He began his career by working on Matt Tyrnauer’s probing portrait Valentino: The Last Emperor, then went on to edit, write and co-direct Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s study of the influential Harpers Bazaar editor, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. After the success of his consecutive doc, Dior and I, which he edited, shot, wrote and directed, Tcheng keeps the momentum going by similarly multi-tasking on his latest feature, Halston.
The film breezily traces the career and life of arguably “the most successful individual in fashion” from his rise to fame in the late 1960s to his death from AIDS-related cancer in 1989. While not as insightful as his previous work, Halston doesn’t blemish Tcheng’s resume either, providing a perfectly enjoyable – if inconsequential – portrait of a larger-than-life public figure. Fashionistas will surely gulp this up, while the rest of us may ultimately dismiss it as yet another glamorized, facile look into a glamorized, facile industry.
“The film breezily traces the career and life of arguably ‘the most successful individual in fashion’…”
Born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, Halston made his first real mark in the fashion world by designing Jackie Kennedy’s famed pillbox hat. A Halston-designed masked celebrity ball followed, which he may have attended incognito – therein, the enigmatic allure of his persona unfurled. (“He was on everyone’s face that night and yet he was invisible.”) Halston’s continuous desire to express, divulge and innovate was exemplified in his fabric and designs, as well as the unconventional, controversial, free-flowing fashion shows he “directed like a musical,” defying your rote stride down a catwalk. A visit to the Fashion Institute of Technology reveals archives of Halston’s abstract art-like dresses, which he “reduced down to their least common denominators.”
As the drug-fueled 1970’s arrived, the designer began mingling with the hip crowd, frequently partying at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and Liz Taylor. As it tends to happen with most industry titans who overindulge in excess, Halston’s megalomania skyrocketed. He moved his headquarters into the notorious Olympic Tower in New York, designing an aquarium-like space where “everything was mirrors” and windows, so no one would feel “confined.” Taking on competitors-on-the-rise, such as Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, Halston signed a deal with JC Penney, moving “from class to mass” in the public’s eye. The partnership eventually led to his downfall, his name sold off, and extensive footage of his shows controversially redacted.
“…Halston is portrayed as a madly egotistical playboy, with a deep appreciation of the female form, oozing charm, arrogance, and sophistication all at once.”
Tcheng assembled an impressive roster of talking heads for his doc. “He was a fabulous human being, and we became best friends,” director extraordinaire Joel Schumacher waxes nostalgically. “We partied a great deal together.” Liza Minelli, who “dressed only in Halston, ever” gushes: “His clothes danced with you.” There are numerous interviews with models – Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Nancy North, Alva Chinn – as well as fashion historians, columnists, assistants, secretaries, and even Halston’s florist. Halston’s relationship with jeweler and long-time friend Elsa Peretty, told through archival interviews with the luminous Elsa, forms the heart of Halston.
Like most designers, Halston is portrayed as a madly egotistical playboy, with a deep appreciation of the female form, oozing charm, arrogance, and sophistication all at once. Tcheng cunningly sidesteps overt judgment of or reverence for his subject; similarly, aside from a brief glimpse into prejudice against homosexuality, he doesn’t really explore the tumultuous sociopolitical climate of the era, nor does he deeply delve into the historical implications of Halston’s work. A reoccurring motif of “confinement” suggests Halston had a yearning to be freed – and at the end, when his “human side” surfaced, perhaps it did – yet he himself largely remains a mystery. Perhaps, akin to the fashion industry, there’s just not that much under the veneer of substance in the first place. Perhaps, it’s time for the talented Tcheng to branch out.
Halston (2019) Written and Directed by Frédéric Tcheng. Featuring Liza Minelli, Joel Schumacher, Marisa Berenson, Naeem Khan, Pat Cleveland.
6 out of 10
Header Image by Dustin Pittman