After working on the highly-acclaimed Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009) and directing Dior & I (2014), French-born filmmaker Fréderic Tcheng returns with a new film about another style icon. His new documentary, Halston, tells the story of the American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, who rose to international fame in the ‘70s, during which he became a household name and a mainstay of the New York City scene that revolved around its most iconic discotheque, Studio 54. However, Halston’s reign began to crumble following a corporate takeover during the Wall Street era of the early ‘80s, and he died in 1990 of an AIDS-defining illness.
Today, Halston is not as well-remembered as his other contemporaries, and Tcheng’s documentary does much to uncover his legacy while keeping a remarkable balance in revealing the bad sides as well as the good sides of his genius. Tcheng himself admits he wasn’t as well aware of Halston, and that he even initially tried to turn down the project before embarking on what he defines the largest research he has ever done for a film. “I misunderstood who he was,” he recalls, “and I think that’s the case with a lot of people. They think he’s the guy at Studio 54, who parties too much and is a little bit of a caricature of a fashion designer. That was my preconceived idea of Halston. It was only when I started digging a little further, that I discovered the business story – and that blew me away.”
Halston originally achieved great international fame after designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration in 1961. His minimalism redefined American fashion in the disco era. During this time, he sold his line and name to Norton Simon, Inc. and this helped him become a household name. This sensational Faustian pact, however, would come back to haunt him a decade later when Norton Simon, Inc. was acquired by Esmark, Inc. and Halston began to lose control over his namesake.
This aspect of the story helped Tcheng directly identify with the protagonist of his documentary. “I realized I could say something very personal about my own experience as a creative person dealing in this industry that’s often kind of designed to take advantage of you, and to exploit you, to be honest,” he explains. “As a creative person, you care about the art that you’re making but at the other end of the table, you usually have people who care about how much money they can make with the art that you’re making.”
Tcheng also identified with Halston’s homosexuality; as a gay man growing up in pre-Stonewall times, when homosexuals were largely marginalized, the young and ambitious fashion designer found himself in the midst of a do or die situation that forced him to sharpen his survival skills. “I totally understand someone who’s kind of socially ambitious but told by other people he can’t sit at a table because he’s a faggot. That’s brutal, that’s totally brutal. But I understand exactly what position that is. And in the end, you decide whether you’re going to suck it up or you create something new that you’re going to control. You’re not going to let other people control your life.”
This aspect of Halston’s life unquestionably got out of hand. “He was a control freak,” says Tcheng. “There’s no going around it. In his artistic practice, he just became so obsessed with the clothes he was making and the way he wanted them to be made, that he ended up being very borderline abusive.” Tcheng doesn’t shy away from revealing this darker aspect of the fashion designer’s life, and it is indeed one of the most contemporary topics dealt with in his movie, particularly relevant after the emergence of the #MeToo scandals and the recent discourses around toxic working environments.
Priceless archival footage – including never-before-seen ones of a Halston trip to China, originally shot by NBC – and films documenting Halston fashion shows, which were often delightful romps, sometimes shamelessly camp, that poked fun at the ordinary, reveal both the genius and the madness of the fashion designer. Furthermore, interviews with an impressive cast of talking heads both from Halston’s side and the corporate side of the tale – including his longtime friend Liza Minnelli and John David Ridge, who became the Halston company’s design director from 1984 to 1990 – provide depth of information and maintain a balance that is constant throughout the film.
“I didn’t have an agenda,” explains Tcheng. “My only agenda was to create something that was as complex as some of the classic American rise and fall stories that I love, like Citizen Kane, where you see the ambition and the drive and the success of a person, but you also see the downfall and the pitfalls.” Halston, indeed, lends himself well to the cinematic medium. Like the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane of Orson Welles’ celebrated 1941 masterwork, he is a man driven by a strong urge to rise to the top, and Tcheng’s film follows his journey, tracing not only the ways in which he broke new grounds but also the many challenges he encountered and the compromises he had to make along the way.
Much like its protagonist, Halston too is a film that defies conventions, distancing itself from the tried and tested brand of traditional biographical documentaries. Classic cinema influences helped the filmmaker do that, informed by his own passion for movies. This is evident as he recalls Welles’ 1977 documentary F for Fake screening in New York City while he edited Halston, and mentions Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) and Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene as two of the titles that influenced his film. “I think it’s interesting to think outside of the box. When you’re making a film about Halston, who was constantly doing things that others were afraid to do, I felt like it was kind of my duty to push the envelope a little bit.”
The approach he uses is very creative, at times evoking the atmospheres of classic film noir. “It was important for me to keep [Halston] very mysterious. I don’t pretend that I’m going to be able to know this guy in 100 minutes. I think that would be ludicrous. He’s a very mysterious guy. He remains so, for me, throughout the process. He keeps you at bay a little so there’s an enigma, almost this mystery, and you keep getting pulled in because he keeps pushing you away. And I wanted to play with that feeling, get the audience drawn in through that, through the sense that there is something to discover, maybe a Rosebud that was going to be revealed.”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Frédéric Tcheng