With dresses, drama and a bit of a detective story, this illuminating documentary shines a light on one of America's most influential designers.
September 19, 2019
Fabulous minimalist outfits that defined the 70s, famous faces clamouring to wear them and feverish Studio 54 parties — Roy Halston Frowick's life had it all. Starting as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman, he rose to fame after designing the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to JFK's inauguration. When the new First Lady's headwear became a phenomenon, widespread attention naturally came his way. From there, the man known as just Halston started his own eponymous label, creating one of the top American fashion brands of the era. Andy Warhol called him one of the two people he'd always want by his side (the other: Elizabeth Taylor), while Liza Minnelli not only became one of Halston's close friends, but a walking billboard for his work. After rocketing through the world of haute couture, Halston then decided to take his clothing to the masses, too, becoming the first designer to ever collaborate with a department store.
In his latest meticulously researched movie, fashion documentarian Frédéric Tcheng explores Halston's story, with the above description just the beginning. After the Midwest-raised designer's success and acclaim came bad business decisions, corporate dramas and messy takeovers, as well as drugs, scandals and broken dreams. To some, Halston was a sartorial god. To others, he was a demanding diva. Indeed, although his career soared, it ultimately plunged just as sharply. When he died in 1990 due to AIDS-related illnesses, he'd become just a footnote in his still-ongoing label's history.
It's a tale that Tcheng seems especially suited to tell, and tell it he does in Halston. As he proved with Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Dior and I, the French filmmaker has a nose for fascinating true fashion stories — and a knack for knowing how to cut to their core. Here, he inserts Tavi Gevinson into the film as a fictional narrator, which may appear an unusual choice. But, as she excavates Halston's past via an array of grainy VHS tapes of his old runway shows, promotional events, publicity chats and parties, the movie confronts a crucial fact: its subject is no longer a household name.
As a result, Halston becomes not just a fashion doco about gorgeous gowns, the person who made them, and his ups and downs, but also a detective story. More than chronicling Halston's life and committing it to film for posterity, Tcheng tries to ascertain why this important tale has nearly been lost to the vagaries of time. In overseeing this task, Gevinson's unnamed archivist initially seems somewhat gimmicky and unnecessary. Once the story starts picking up steam, cutting back and forth can also feel disruptive. And yet Gevinson plays a pivotal part, not only guiding viewers as the movie pieces together Halston's tale, but letting the audience discover for themselves just why they should care — showing them instead of forcefully telling them.
Of course, plenty of folks still pop up to sing Halston's praises, including staff, friends, family members and models. Among the parade of interviewees, Minnelli gives a particularly glowing tick of approval: "his clothes danced with you," she gushes. More than merely applauding what she loved about his outfits, the star combines compliments with insight, with her fellow talking heads taking the same lead. When others describe how his fluid, bias-cut creations often came about just by snipping across a piece of material, then draping it over the closest model, it paints a very vivid picture of his vision and artistry. "It was a dress just because of the way he cut the fabric," one of his former colleagues expands — with images of Halston's patterns, often based around just a single sheet of cloth, putting that idea in visual terms.
Come for the dresses and drama, stay for the revelations, realisations and ravishing creativity — that's Halston in a nutshell. That said, while this illuminating documentary convincingly makes its case, it doesn't craft as vibrant a portrait of Halston outside the atelier or beyond the revelry. Viewers come to understand his importance and influence in fashion history, as well as why he deserves his enduring place in the spotlight, but glean little that's overly personal about the man himself. Halston isn't an absent figure at all, appearing constantly in archival materials; however he seems to be begging to step out of the documentary and into a biopic — a move that'll probably happen sooner or later.
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