How Halston Predicted the Future and Became a Pariah

Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary retraces the rise and fall of an iconic, enigmatic American designer.

Photos: The Orchard.

Before Rihanna, the Kardashians and Victoria Beckham used their celebrity to build empires around couture and ready-to-wear fashion, fragrance and accessories, there was Halston. In 1983, the celebrated American designer, a household name in high fashion, signed a landmark billion-dollar contract with JC Penney allowing them to use Halston’s name on mid-priced products. The unprecedented deal turned Halston into fashion pariah, with most high-end retailers boycotting his name, feeling he cheapened it with the deal.

Today, you can barely open your browser or enter a store without seeing the latest sneakers designed by Kanye West, or find Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson fragrances in the discount bin of your nearest drug store. So what went wrong for Halston? How did business people in the materialistic 1980s fail to see his visionary strategy? Those are a few of the questions at the center of Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary Halston, which tries to reach the core of a man who, to many, was a mystery.

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Halston, in the 1970s, redefined aesthetics to the point where if you merely imagine Studio 54, you’re probably envisioning women dressed in his designs. He created flow-y structures that moved seamlessly to disco beats, and lush gowns that seemed to defy physics, almost like liquid sculptures. As his best friend, Liza Minnelli, put it: “his clothes danced with you.” Tcheng’s documentary features vast archival footage, interviews with some of Halston’s closest collaborators, and a delightful framing device in which Tavi Gevinson plays a Halston secretary going through the archives to learn more about her idol.

Tcheng is no stranger to films about fashion, having co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, and making his solo directorial debut with Dior and I, which captured Raf Simons’ first collection for the legendary Parisian house. In Halston, he explores the intersection of art and business to create a work that inspires as he reveals the dark side of being a creative force in America. I spoke to Tcheng and producer Roland Ballester about the themes of the film.

Jose Solís: I really liked the film’s Citizen Kane-like structure. Can you elaborate on why you went with that?

Frédéric Tcheng: I’m so glad you picked up on that. The structure came in the editing room — Citizen Kane is something I was studying closely at the time; I love there’s a mystery at the center, asking “Who is this person?” Halston, for me, was like Citizen Kane without the Rosebud; to this day I don’t know exactly who he was. As a documentary filmmaker you ask yourself: Will I ever get to fully know a person in 90 minutes or however long the film is? Probably not, so the best you can do is peel the layers and do an almost forensic investigation into this person and persona. Halston created a persona that was almost a shield. We wanted to learn how he constructed that, so having a nonlinear structure proved very important. We had twists and turns; you discover bits and pieces.

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JS: Since we see an investigation through Tavi Gevinson’s character, how did the search within the film parallel its making?

Roland Ballester: When you go into something like this, you do some preliminary research to see if it’s viable, but you don’t do the complete research because that takes too long. Once you decide you’re making the film, you do the research — so then the process of filmmaking [becomes] an investigation. We discover new things in the research but also in the interviews, so it’s discovery up until the very end.

FT: There was a meta-component to the structure of the film and the investigation. Tavi’s character became a stand-in for us as filmmakers trying to understand who he was. Tavi had her own angle on it, too: She’s a young entrepreneur, she has a brand and needs to navigate the business world and figure out how to put her name out there. All these questions were part of the conversation from the beginning — she didn’t know about the Halston corporate takeover; she knew about him on a very general level. When I pitched the film to her, she said it was what she was going through; she was in a scary position in terms of how to collaborate with people while using her brand name. At the end of the day, I always make films that mirror what’s going on with me. Dior and I was me projecting myself in Raf Simons’ shoes — he was doing his first big show, and it was the same for me because I was making my first film without a co-director. I took on Halston because I felt I’d had very traumatic experiences with business people and I was looking for an outlet to talk about it. It was devastating to see how the business people treated Halston and that’s how I connected to him. Art mirrors life and life mirrors art in ways you can’t even imagine.

JS: Frédéric, when I interviewed you for Dior and I, we spoke about why it was important for you to show the women working in the atelier and how people collaborated to create beautiful pieces. Halston, on the other hand, is all about business and money; it’s very American. The film speaks to how branding is more important than creating. What did making the film reveal to you about the American dream?

FT: The American dream is very much part of my life. I moved to the US 16 years ago for that exact reason: you can reinvent yourself here, anything is possible. You can become a filmmaker even if you went to engineering school, which is my case. As life goes on, you realize there are many layers to the American dream — one of them is like a nightmare. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen “businessmen” and conmen in office, so you realize that business rules the world in ways that are very insidious. The financial market and the deregulations Ronald Reagan put in place in the ’80s — exactly at the time that Halston was kicked out of his own company — those rules still apply today; they enable the world we live in. You can see a sort of crisis happening as people realize this, so it was interesting to talk about business and what happens when we let financial decisions rule the world. The film shows that Halston built a career for 25 or 30 years and “business” wanted to erase that history because he wasn’t reaching the numbers they wanted. It’s the American logic of capitalism.

RB: I look at the American dream when Halston was working versus now. Back then, it was about how talent would be rewarded creatively and financially; that’s how Halston started his American dream. What the American dream has devolved into is some financial decision in search of a level of talent that’s exploitable: it got reversed. Now you see instances of people who aren’t talented given a lot of financial rewards and creativity. I feel sometimes the people who are really talented get lost in the mix. It’s now less about talent and it’s driven by marketability, which is sad.

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JS: This makes me think of the movie industry, too. We only see comic book and superhero movies, sequels and prequels. There’s almost no room in studios for original ideas. What did making Halston tell you about the field?

FT: To be perfectly frank, I’m very disillusioned with the industry. So much of it is designed to treat you as a commodity. I wish I could say I was taking advantage of this but it’s the other way around: as creative people, you’re willing to make so many compromises because your name is on the picture. Halston used to say “My name is on the door” and I can relate to that. You become vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of your work and make a profit. I’m very cynical now — I think the film reflects a little bit of that. At the same time, there’s no way around it; the only way is to have better lawyers. I make movies for people to see them [and] I don’t think of my art as insular and niche. I’m very interested in having a dialogue with the audience, so I have to make these Faustian pacts along the way.

RB: A few years ago, as Internet channels started taking off, people thought there would be more options to do work about broader subjects or narrow subjects and this didn’t come to pass because the market is so fragmented. We have now the paradox of choice: there are so many choices that what gets right to the top is the same-old. You look at the ’70s in cinema, and you have these amazing, creative people doing commercially viable work.

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JS: I know there’s no point in doing revisionist history and looking at the past through a modern eye, but I couldn’t help but wonder how Halston would fare in the #MeToo and #TimesUp era, given how many women who worked with him describe him as an absolute tyrant. How did you grapple with this side of him?

FT: Making the film during the period of all these revelations of behavior in the workplace definitely influenced how we thought about it. We discussed from the very beginning with Lesley Frowick — his niece and our partner in this. Of course, she’d rather not have talked about any of this, but she couldn’t deny it, either. The job at hand for me was to show it but not sensationalize it; it was important for me to put it in context. Something clicked when I realized Halston’s behavior was inseparable from his perfectionism. He was Halston the genius, because he was so single-track-minded. He was very obsessive about his work and drove everyone crazy. I went through several moments during production when I wanted everyone to follow an idea, and then I’d ask myself: Is this a Halston moment?

Tavi Gevinson in “Halston.”

JS: Tell me your favorite Halston design?

FT: The red dress at the end of the film is pretty incredible to me. It was loaned to us by Lesley, and it was very surprising because we received it in a box and it was two pieces of fabric. I thought she had sent the wrong thing — it didn’t seem like a dress. But then you put it on Tavi, and it told a story. It started moving and draping; there were so many different combinations and angles. That was his genius. It’s understated; it was not a loud statement. It works with the body, not against it. It’s in service of the body.

RB: I am a fan of this silhouette he would do: a long gown with a fuller skirt and low cut on top. It’s sexy, beautiful, elegant. When you see a woman wearing something like that, there’s a confidence to it.

FT: I think he really cared about how women felt. That sets him apart from a lot of other designers.