“I want to dress everyone in America,” HE asserts in an archival interview! … One of the most influential designers of modern times who left an epic-sized aesthetic imprint with his ‘minimalist’ work -- while placing American fashion design on the world stage -- Roy Halston Frowick, a.k.a. Halston -- is the this eponymous leading man, for whom the curtain rises, to tell this sharply and stylishly designed neo-noir cinematic tale, which aptly makes its New York premiere at 2019’s Tribeca Film Festival; exactly five decades after the ultra-designer’s ready-to-wear line, Halston Limited, was launched in 1969. Sexy, polished, and clean, at once, Halton’s elegant designs and artistry gets a mirrored treatment in director/producer Frédéric Tcheng’s (Dior and I) and producer Roland Ballester’s HALSTON; a compelling look at the master couturier and milliner through the lens of its intriguing detective framework that works to uncover the wrap-around cloaking of Halston’s rise, demise, comeback and enduring legacy -- one that persists, despite, having been defrocked by a series Machiavellian business maneuvers, particularly over the course of a tumultuous two decades.
Adroitly gifted French-born filmmaker, Tscheng offers a window into his documentary’s decidedly committed puzzling-solving tone in describing his subject, “Halston himself, with the sunglasses and the cigarette holder, oozed mystery and intrigue.” Furthermore, the filmmaker, who also wrote and edited HALSTON, didn’t want the film to be “told as a tragedy,” as the filmmaking team, inspired by Halston’s niece at the heart of the film, recognized the greater story: that of an American iconoclast’s creative and business struggles. Self-actualized and self-absorbed, brilliant and petty, pretentious and democratic, Halston the icon -- greater than his Jackie Kennedy pillbox fame, his Studio 54 hangs with muses Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, his Bergforf Goodman break-up, his girl scout uniform make-over, his ultrasuede dress -- is shown as a multifaceted exclusive/inclusive pied piper of sorts, beckoning a new era of freeing fashion, and defining CHIC, with soft fabrics and hard relatable dilemmas to contend with, along his brilliant career trajectory; all amazingly fitted in, prior to his untimely AIDS-related death, at 57, on the night of the 62nd Academy Awards. Tcheng, Ballester, and their team stealthily capture a legendary life in three CHIC solid acts.
By Lisa Collins
Lisa Collins: With 'film noir' as a cinematically stirring framework for your storytelling -- and a certain cynicism being in keeping with the genre -- was there an underlying connection you were making with Halston and his fraught relationship with the (cutthroat) business world?
Frédéric Tcheng: Film noir was a big inspiration. First because Halston himself, with the sunglasses and the cigarette holder, oozed mystery and intrigue. He kept you at a distance. So I always saw him as a perfect film noir character, smooth suave but ambivalent, neither a good guy nor a bad guy. The businessmen also had a film noir tone to them. They behaved and talked in ways that sometimes reminded me of mobsters. Another important factor is that I didn’t want the film to be a tragedy, and Halston a victim. I felt there was a tremendous amount of irony in the story of Halston. I wouldn’t necessarily call it cynicism, but I liked the tone of movies like Sunset Boulevard, where camp is present in the drama.
LC: How did you discover this wonderful project? And come to be collaborators?
Roland Ballester: The project came out of a long-standing friendship I have with Halston's nephew and niece, George Frowick and Lesley Frowick.
Lesley was very close to her uncle, as the film shows. About 5 years ago, we discussed how so much of Halston's true legacy is either unknown, ignored or overshadowed by Halston's social life. After some research, it was clear to me that there's an epic story in Halston that covers a wide range of events, themes and movements. This was a complex, influential man who embodied his times.
RB: The idea of telling Halston' story in a very different way that defied expectations and assumptions became my goal. I knew that the story had scope and depth, but without the right director, nothing happens. To find the director, I watched a lot of films and wasn't too inspired. That all changed when a friend recommended I see "Dior and I". She had seen it at Tribeca 2014, and I remember her saying at the time that it was the only film that stayed with her. I loved everything about it, especially the time spent with the workroom. Frédéric Tcheng was the only choice, and I had to find him. Fortunately, I eventually got in contact with him and we met.
LC: What’s the most enduring aspect of Halston's design legacy that’s still with us? And/or that’s still apparent in the work of other designers?
FT: I think Halston’s legacy is all around us, whether we see it or not. Minimalism is sometimes difficult to spot. But it’s undeniable that most of the clothes we wear have a lot to do with Halston’s approach to wearability and easiness.
LC: How much archival research time goes into a project of this scope?
RB: It's daunting, but like every complicated project, it's done in phases. All told, it's about three years, with a very intense middle section.
To start, we read the books and films readily available about Halston. We noted every source of materials and kept a log of characters, dead or alive. Before we talked to anyone, we researched as much as we could so as to have intelligent conversations with those who knew Halston and/or had materials. Professionalism is key.
We were lucky in that Lesley Frowick, Halston's niece, had several tapes, photographs and press clippings we could use from the start. This initial research grounded us. We knew what we had, and we could see gaps we needed to fill. It takes discipline to not waste time on items that ultimately aren't that important. Keeping perspective was always on my mind.
We had two approaches. The first was the traditional one - bring in an archivist who knows the libraries to mine. These vendors run from the very big corporations like NBC to indie houses. There are real gems here. The tricky part is to not use the same images that have been seen so much that they're cliched. B-roll is the best.
The second approach was entrepreneurial and that's a challenge. The only way to get materials was to convince sources that we were good to deal with. Trust is the only way. We built that trust because we were clear that we weren't out for dirt- we wanted nuance. For example, we were given incredible business records from some of the interviewees. We also built relationships with photographers. They trusted us, and the "never seen before" materials changed the film and influenced the questions we asked in the interviews.
LC: Can you share challenges with this archival deep dive work? Gaps you had to navigate?
RB: It was important to expand the research beyond Halston the man. The people around him and the times he lived were researched. For example, we never would have found the Elsa Peretti interview had we not researched her.
Research continued even as we were interviewing. Often an interview would go in a certain direction, and the archival research followed that lead.
With archival, there ultimately are limitations. Not all events are captured on film. We wish there was more footage on Versailles and the China trip. However, those limitations pushed us to creative solutions.
LC: Given the sleek silhouettes that he worked with for his creations, how do you think Halston might have responded to our body positive times, where models of all shapes and sizes take to the runway?
FT: Halston was one of the first designers to show models of colors on the runway, and one of his favorite muses was Pat Ast, a plus size Warhol superstar. She worked in the sales salon and walked the runway for him. Halston was certainly ahead of his time in that respect. It’s a really interesting contrast to the latter-day Halston; and one aspect that I didn’t suspect going into it.
LC: Great! And how did Halston's and Warhol’s “stories” speak to each other?
Halston and Warhol were both gay boys from the Midwest who came to New York to reinvent themselves. They challenged the social norms and literally created a new social order. Studio 54 represented the pinnacle of this new world.
LC: Frédéric, your ever-expanding body of work continues to shine an exciting light on complicated designers. Outside of their shared profession, is there an unexpected similar thread that runs through the subjects of each film project?
FT: I’m fascinated by the creative process, and creative individuals. I guess it touches me very directly. Each film deals with a different aspect of creation. Vreeland is about imagination. Raf Simons was about an artist channeling another. And also about stepping into the spotlight. Halston is about dealing with businessmen, quite prosaically. But it is also about an democratic approach to creation. Halston made clothes for women to wear. He wanted the largest number of women to have access to good design. I can relate to that. I make films for the audience. For me that’s what being a filmmaker’s about. The audience is the instrument you need to play.
Banner photo courtesy of Dustin Pittman.
L to R: Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Halston, Alva Chinn, Karen Bjornson
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