Film

How a Great American Fashion Designer Rose and Fell Along with Disco

A documentary tracks the life and work of superstar designer Halston.

From Halston (courtesy 1019 Media)

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.

From Halston (courtesy 1019 Media)

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.

From Halston (courtesy 1019 Media)

Halston will be playing at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th Street) in New York starting May 24, the Landmark Nuart (11272 Santa Monica Boulevard) in Los Angeles starting May 30, and will be in other select theaters as well.

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