By Kim Hughes
Clumsily told yet intriguing because of its singular subject, Halston — director Frédéric Tcheng’s knock-kneed documentary on the pioneering American fashion designer ubiquitous in the 1970s, who made haute couture both aspirational and accessible — offers a trove of pop culture trivia.
While friends like Liza Minnelli, model Marisa Berenson, and filmmaker Joel Schumacher offer fond reminiscences, we’re reminded of Halton’s unprecedented achievements while serving as head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman — notably, designing the signature pillbox hat rocked by Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s 1961 inauguration — and the ground-breaking strides he made while leading his own fashion house.
The man born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa in 1932 went on to outfit Bianca Jagger, Angelica Huston, Cher, Cybill Shepherd, Lauren Hutton, and the glitterati at Studio 54. He designed uniforms for everyone from the Girl Scouts of the USA to the Martha Graham Dance Company, gave supermodel Iman her first show, and unleashed ultra-suede and hot-pants on a TV dinner–gobbling America.
Halston also understood branding, bringing fragrance, cosmetics, and housewares under his aegis long before any Instagram stars. His coveted, flowing designs, variously described as “elegance and ease… honoring the body you have” and, by Minnelli, as clothes “that danced with you” defined his era. Halston was to the fashion world of the 1970s what Paul Williams was to TV and radio: seemingly everywhere always, and insanely influential.
But he was too far ahead of his time. A deal with mass retailer JCPenney, ostensibly struck to make high fashion more accessible to workaday folks, was the beginning of the end. A scandalized Bergdorf Goodman dropped its Halston line.
In 1983, Halston Enterprises was acquired and flipped a year later. By 1984, Halston was forced out of his company completely. He would succumbs to HIV/AIDS six years later, at age 57, on the same evening as the 62nd Academy Awards, a bittersweet footnote given the stars he’d beautifully robed for the Oscars over the years.
All really interesting. So why did filmmaker Tcheng (see also Dior and I from 2014 and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel from 2011) employ a fictional female narrator amid all the fascinating real-life ones, having her pop up to add detective-like queries throughout the film? A distracting and pointless device.
If a detective-narrator had to be present, she would have been better deployed in figuring out what made Halston, the man, tick, and where his truly visionary ideas came from.
Halston. Directed by Frédéric Tcheng. With Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, and Joel Schumacher. Opens May 31 in Toronto, June 12 in Hamilton, June 14 in Ottawa, Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina, June 21 in Saskatoon and Montreal, and other cities to be announced soon.