Directed by Frédéric Tcheng, Halston (2019) is a superb documentary about the innovative fashion designer who succumbed to AIDS in 1990. Born Roy Halston Frowick, he had humble beginnings in the rural Midwest. Through a genius for design and a knack for self-promotion, he reinvented himself as an icon of urbane sophistication and style. Flamboyant even in the fashion world, he was a compelling interview subject. At the height of the Studio 54 disco era, celebrities were drawn to him, including Andy Warhol Elizabeth Taylor, Marisa Berenson and Liza Minnelli, who’s interviewed extensively in the film. At one point, she refuses to “dish” on her “best friend.”
As the film begins, a fashion archivist (Tavi Gevinson) discovers a box of Halston interviews thought lost or destroyed, which shows him at the height of his success. This serves as a framing device and is the only fictional part of the film. Exclusive Interviews with Halston’s former colleagues create a portrait of a complicated man known to be verbally abusive, especially under the influence of drugs. He was also loyal to his inner circle of confidantes including Lesley Frowick, a niece who worked for the Halston company and is interviewed in the film.
As head milliner with Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Halston’s pillbox hat was made famous by Jackie Kennedy who wore it to JFK’s inaugural. In a clip from one of the archival interviews, Halston chuckles that the dent in it was an accident. He branched out into dress designing, using a bias cut technique. The film shows how bias cut fabric, as opposed to the traditional straight cut, drapes around the body in a striking way in the hands of a master.
Halston was one of the first American designers to crack the Parisian couture hegemony at the now legendary 1973 Versailles charity show. He was a pioneer in “branding,” lending his name to perfume, handbags and a wide range of merchandise. A multi-million dollar deal with Norton Simon was mutually beneficial until a change of management brought an abrupt end to the party. Another deal, with J.C.Penney, was radical in its attempt to bring fabulousness to middle America. Halston paid the price for being ahead of his time.