The fashion industry in America is still in its infancy. Though labels like Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have risen to the top in the last four decades, there was a time when the industry belonged to European designers. Then came Halston. Roy Halston Frowick was an enigmatic figure who began making a name for himself in the 1960s as Bergdorf Goodman’s top milliner. He was the man who put Jackie Kennedy in her iconic pillbox hat for JFK’s 1961 inauguration. Eventually, with a historic 1973 runway show at the Palace of Versailles, Halston would place American fashion design at the world’s feet. In his exquisitely crafted and textured documentary, Halston–French filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng unearths the past–allowing Halston, the man, the designs, and the legacy to collide on screen.
Halston’s story begins in New York City in the ’60s. Using found footage and photographs, Tcheng unveils Halston’s Mad Med-like world. A man from the middle of America, Rory Frowick literally became Halston. He made himself into a glamorous illusive figure that never spoke openly about his childhood or home life. His lust for the now, as well as his determination to forget the past and only look ahead, is what enchanted so many people. After leaving Bergdorf Goodman’s in 1968 and striking out on his own, Halston began creating an elite world around him. He surrounded himself with people like Andy Warhol, fashion models like Iman (whom he put in her first runway show), his best friend Liza Minelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and a slew of his favored models whom he called the Halstonettes.
Tcheng uses traditional talking heads in his documentary–with those closest to Halston like Lesley Frowick and Pat Cleveland providing personal anecdotes about their time with the late designer. After all, during the ’70s and ’80s Halston was America’s superstar designer–he knew instinctively that he could connect the fashion world with Hollywood. In addition to interviews, the Dior and I filmmaker uses reenactments to drape a neo-noir layer of mystery around the movie. As the film reveals, everything that Halston worked for would eventually be ripped from under him.
Though the movie’s shift from a traditional documentary towards a thriller works well, the reenactments fall short. Instead of allowing the narrative speak for itself, or letting the mystery surrounding Halston to blossom on its own, Tacheng casts fashion writer, Tavi Gevinson as a fictional secretary who is trying to uncover the mystery surrounding Halston’s downfall. It’s way too on the nose, and the flow and elevation of the movie suffered as a result.
At the height of his career–Halston began to believe his own hype. His mega-success, celeb status, and pseudo-acceptance into society as an out gay man in the ’70s and ’80s led him to believe he was unstoppable. His ego would allow him to make a fatal 1983 business deal with JC Penney. It was the beginning of the end. Halston was determined to dress every American, but his lust for fame and recognition would cheapen everything he’d worked so hard for. Way ahead of his time, he foresaw the desire for fast fashion, but the fashion world was not ready.
Roy Halston Frowick was already largely forgotten by the time he passed away from an AIDS-related illness in 1990. However, his journey invites even those who know nothing about the fashion industry or Halson’s lush flowy designs to lean into his story fully. With such a wealth of archival footage and material (though much of Halston’s original designs and videos were destroyed)–Tcheng enables his audience to move with Halston through his world, from photos inside Studio 54 to a massive PR trip across Asia– for a brilliant moment in time Halston floated on top of the world.
It’s evident that much of Halston’s undoing was his singular ambition, his excessive spending, his decade-long toxic relationship with Venezuelan artist Victor Hugo, and perhaps also his drug use. Though, the film reveals more about Halston than those even in his inner circle may have known, he still feels untouchable by the time the fabulously engrossing film concludes. Maybe that’s what Halston always wanted, to become a fashion-god, before slipping away into the history books forever.
Halston debuts in theaters May 24, 2019.