America’s first celebrity fashion designer gets the documentary treatment in an insightful treatment that still occasionally gets in its own way.
Halston may not be a household name these days. However, beginning in the ‘60s until an inglorious end in the ‘80s, Roy Halston Frowick stood atop the world of fashion like a colossus. Alas, the excesses of the age (and arguably ego) combined to derail him. These days, only those who lived through the era and true students of fashion see the name and understand the incredible moments it represents.
Director Frédéric Tcheng is no stranger to the grafting the classic “Behind the Music” rise and fall method of storytelling on important fashion figures. He previously chronicled Christian Dior and Diana Vreeland as a director, and cut his teeth as a second unit on the doc Valentino: The Last Emperor.
Given his experience, it makes his choice to incorporate a fictional narrator “character” all the more baffling. A nameless figure who, evidently, is doing a corporation’s bidding in erasing Halston’s voluminous video library, she adds nothing to the proceedings. Moreover, the ending, which sees her don an apparently vintage Halston gown ends the documentary on a weird note. It feels like it is reaching for sentimentality, perhaps, but it feels more like schmaltz. Overall, the narrator sections feel cheap and superfluous, an undermining of subject that is plenty compelling enough to exist without this “device.” One wishes Tcheng had followed his subject’s lead and tossed out the adornments and complicated tricks.
The fact is, Halston ends up being about so much more than fashion with little engineering needed. The way the man lived his life and the evolution of his company intersects with tremendous forces that shaped and informed America’s identity during a tumultuous two and a half decades. In order to best chronicle the Great Depression-born boy who became the first celebrity designer in American history, one needs to understand America as well.
Halston does not canonize the designer, nor does it entirely vilify the businesspeople on the ground.
Tcheng effortlessly arranges his interviews and archival footage to create themes that never feel forced and yet are undeniable. We watch how the optimism of the 60s eventually gets trapped and obliterated by the cynical decadence of the 70s. How both decades combined to fuel the toxic side of the American dream is illuminated starkly. The sick cycle carousel of America defining itself by work, success, growth, and denial of weakness unfolds right alongside Halston’s life. It may be reductive to claim America’s flavor of capitalism was the cause of Halston’s woes, but only ever so slightly.
As the documentary progresses and Halston’s dynamism and liveliness begin to diminish, the lens widens. Viewers witness the rise of the AIDS crisis on an intimate level and how the corporate greed of the 80s corrupted everything it touches. By the time Halston agrees to let J.C. Penney carry an affordable line of his clothes aimed at the middle class, we know what comes next. His high fashion peers drub and abandon him for having the nerve to let the commoners access his finery on one side. On the other, J.C. Penney demands he destroy his artistic integrity in service of getting more product faster.
Halston does not canonize the designer, nor does it entirely vilify the businesspeople on the ground. As the proverbial train flies off the tracks, Halston’s monomaniacal need for control and ever-rising drug use receives just as of the blame as the corporations, like Esmark, that attempt to connect the man’s existence to a brand.
By the end, everyone’s humanity gets a moment in the spotlight, for better or worse. Friendship, kindness, and creativity stand alongside greed, paranoia, and the refusal to reach out for help lest you ding your own mystique. Halston the man represented America to the world as a fashion designer in the 70s. Halston the documentary demonstrates how deeply true that was, more than anyone noticed at the time.
Halston premieres Friday June 7th at the Music Box Theater in Chicago. Get tickets here.