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Halston fashion designer documentary

Unpacking the rise and fall of forgotten American fashion icon Halston

From dressing the Studio 54 crowd to working with Andy Warhol, Frédéric Tcheng’s new film dissects the designer’s life and legacy

When considering the short but significant history of American fashion, Halston is probably not a name that immediately springs to mind. In fact, there’s a chance that you haven’t heard of him, period. And yet without Halston, America might not have claimed its stake in the worldwide fashion landscape at all.

The mind behind iconic minimalist designs worn by Jackie Kennedy – namely her signature pillbox hat – Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and countless celebrities of the Studio 54 era, Halston was an institution; an enigmatic if egotistical artist who built a clothing empire of nation-wide importance, which he would be unceremoniously forced out after a series of unfavourable business decisions.

Once the head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman, Halston’s clientele would range from the bedazzling faces of the New York social scene to the staff of Braniff Airwaves, the US airline he kitted out. Yet his bid to ‘dress all of America’, would ultimately be Halston’s undoing, with his everyman ambitions undercutting the worth of his high end designs.

Through a thoroughly researched collection of talking heads and archive videos, documentarian Frédéric Tcheng’s charts Halston’s rise to fame, and his friendships with people like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger, right through to the aftermath, when he was dropped by Bergdorf and many of his historic designs were hurriedly sold on at cut-rate prices by Halston Enterprises’ new owners.

Tcheng is no stranger to the turbulent lives of fashion powerhouses, having captured Raf Simons’ debut show as Dior’s artistic director in award-winning documentary Dior and I, as well as the life of Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Diana Vreeland in The Eye Has To Travel.

This time, for Halston, he took a fresh approach, recruiting Rookie founder and actress Tavi Gevinson to provide a fictional narration for the documentary, which delves into the mystery of the designer’s unravelling by way of a film noir-esque investigation.  

Speaking from the poolside of Miami’s Faena Hotel ahead of a special screening, Tcheng explains how an extensive delve into Halston’s work brought him closer to the designer than he had ever imagined, and why this is a legacy worth celebrating.

Why do you think that people are unaware of Halston’s legacy, despite him being so integral to bringing America into the global fashion market?

Frédéric Tcheng: Because the corporation that he helped to build actively tried to erase that legacy, through divesting him of his dresses to even erasing his video archives. That was the starting point for me to make this film, I thought: “How can a corporation do that? That’s so outrageous and mean-spirited.” On the business side, I feel like he was so closely associated with his brand that it’s hard for the brand to survive without him It’s really tragic how things turned out; this guy was on top of the world. It’s quite shocking when you realise just how big he was.

Why did you want to make him important to people again?

Frédéric Tcheng: I grew quite fond of him while making the film, but for me I was really seduced by the scope of the story – it was so large it was like a movie in itself really. His life had all of these twists and turns, and the sort of characters that I like in the best movies. A man builds a whole world that he becomes trapped in, and in the case of Halston he lost everything.

As a documentary filmmaker you’re always looking for a great story, and for me I wanted one that doesn’t just talk about fashion, but that examines its ramifications for culture at large. I was so fascinated by the corporate takeover. The ambivalence at the core of it was really striking to me; I could never tell if Halston was a victim, or if he had brought these events on himself. Was he totally out of control or was the corporation totally out of control?

As an artist working in an industry just as Halston was, on my own little level, some of the struggles that Halston was facing are struggles that I’ve been facing in my own career. I have meetings with businessmen, and I just do not speak the same language as them. Those encounters can be very traumatic.

“Under the Studio 54 Halston was the Halston who was working with Andy Warhol and was very counter-culture. He wanted to be irreverent, and not at all the caricature of a fashion designer that he became later in the 1970s and the early 80s” – Frédéric Tcheng

You researched Halston rigorously for this documentary. How did your relationship with him evolve throughout the project?

Frédéric Tcheng: The fascinating thing about this film is that it became a full-blown investigation that brought me closer and closer to Halston in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.

I started out not knowing that much about Halston at all. I quickly became very interested in him, but always felt at arm’s length from the subject. It concerned me also because I’m used to making films where I fall in love with the subject at first sight, but the process of making Halston was the process of getting to know him. It felt like an archaeological dig, because under the Studio 54 Halston was the Halston who was working with Andy Warhol and was very counter-culture. He wanted to be irreverent, and not at all the caricature of a fashion designer that he became later in the 1970s and the early 80s.

I fell in love with that Halston. He was working for a big institution like Bergdorf Goodman and frankly being marginalised because of his homosexuality and where he came from. The gay storyline was something that really touched me as someone who is gay, but also as someone who moved from France to New York to reinvent themselves. That’s what he did, that’s what I did.

Is there a particular look or garment that really captured Halston’s ethos in your eyes?

Frédéric Tcheng:  Maybe it’s because I’m sitting by a pool, but there’s a dress that comes to my mind that didn’t make it into the shorter cut of the film.

One of Halston’s most famous dresses was inspired by a beach towel that a woman wears around the pool. You know the way that you can wrap the towel around your chest and tie it and it stays up? It was so simple, but one of the models Chris Royer explained to us that this dress took hours and hours to put together.That was the beauty of minimalism in Halston’s dresses. He made it look easy, but that doesn’t mean that it was easy to make.

Tavi Gevinson wears a Halston dress towards the end of the film. How did you come across that particular piece?

Frédéric Tcheng:  We were very fortunate because Lesley Frowick, Halston’s niece had managed to keep some pieces. This dress was from 1973, so a really early stage in Halston’s career. It was shipped from Texas where Leslie lives, and when we received it, it just looked like two pieces of fabric in a box. We were like “What’s this?!”

We put it on Tavi and then it became what you see on screen. That’s the beauty of Halston – he makes clothes that transform on the body of a woman. They’re not necessarily museum pieces that rest on a hanger; they need a human element in order to come to life. I think that’s what sets him apart, especially from the French designers at the time, who were working with heavy structures.

What made you think that Tavi as a fictional narrator would work over a more conventional approach?

Frédéric Tcheng: I was interested in doing something that reflected the enigma at the core of Halston. I was discovering Halston through this investigation, and I wanted the audience to feel that as well through the twists and turns of the story.

Also I wanted to try something new in terms of storytelling, and the business thriller aspect of this story was something that stuck with me really early on. I was really inspired by films like Citizen Kane, where it’s an autobiographical film but there’s an element of the person that is unknowable. The person will go to their grave with that, and that’s very much what I felt with Halston. It was method of approaching someone in a playful way that wasn’t straightforward or linear. Halston never gave you everything at face value.

Halston is released in UK cinemas on June 5. Watch the trailer below.