Halston and his muses for US Vogue in 1972, including (centre front in blue) actress Angelica Huston. Photo / Duane Michals

Halston: The Rise & Fall Of One Of America's Greatest Fashion Designers

A new film chronicles the life of fashion designer Haslton. Director Frederic Tcheng talks to Dan Ahwa about the icon's enduring influence on fashion

There is a scene in Halston featuring archival footage of iconic American fashion designer Halston stopping mid-interview to re-arrange an orchid planter.

Life was like a picture, he once proclaimed, and everything had to look just so.

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The film is directed by Frederic Tcheng, whose previous credits include notable fashion documentaries: his award-winning directorial debut, Dior and I (2012); Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel (2011) as co-director; and Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) as co-producer and co-editor.

His latest exploration, into the Halston brand, plays out like a classic Hollywood drama — glamour, mystery, suspense — all in the tireless pursuit of The American Dream.

Given his resume, Frederic was well prepared to delve deep into the mind of one of fashion’s greatest rule-breakers.

WATCH: Halston the official trailer

“Producer Roland Ballester approached me with the idea, and I was very sceptical because I didn’t know much about Halston,” says Frederic, on the phone from France where he’s working on a film about a contemporary art foundation.

“During the process, I discovered so many aspects I could relate to.  Halston was really part of that early 70s counter-culture and I had no idea about that. Most people only remember the Studio 54 persona, but that was such a small part of his life. I was never completely sure who he was, whether he was a dictator or an artist trying to defend his company. There was always an ambiguity about who he was.”

A precursor to the “star designer” of today — think Tom Ford, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors, Halston was the golden boy of American fashion during the 1970s.

Putting his face front and centre, Halston’s approach to personal branding was a revolutionary concept at a time when designers were still hiding behind the hushed walls of their ateliers. Unlike refined contemporaries Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta, Halston’s aesthetic was much sexier, modern and in tune with the rise of disco.

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Originally born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1932, Halston redesigned his life — down to replacing the mid-west drawl of “Haaal-ston”, with the more affected “Hall-ston”, to appeal to a discerning clientele.

His first foray into the spotlight came early in his career as a head milliner for Bergdorf Goodman, where the luxury department store promoted Halston as a designer personality in its brochures.

But it was the pink pillbox hat he designed for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy for the presidential inauguration in 1961 that ushered in Halston’s modern sensibility.

In 1968 he opened his namesake womenswear boutique on Madison Ave, moving further away from the frippery of society dressing in favour of a clean-cut, streamlined aesthetic that would define his signature style.

Halston with muse Anjelica Huston. Photo / Supplied

Halston imbued everything around him with that style — from his chic Paul Rudolph designed apartment, to his mirror-walled Olympic Tower office in Manhattan, and beyond his ready-to-wear clothes into luggage, bedding, handbags and underwear.

His vision of American style helped shape the uniforms for the 1976 Olympic team, the New York Police Department, a domestic airline, and even the Girl Scouts.

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His eponymous perfume released in 1975 with Max Factor made $80 million a year during its heyday and is a prime example of his uncompromising design eye. He collaborated with best friend, the muse and jewellery designer Elsa Peretti, on a teardrop-shaped flask that had glass manufacturers at their wits’ end.

His designs also reflected the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and the rise of women in the workforce; in clothes that were tactile, functional and freeing.

Studio portrait in 1975 of Halston sitting in front of models, including 'Halstonettes' Pat Cleveland (far left) and Karen Bjornsen (centre) who feature in the new film. Photo / Getty Images

By 1973, he’d sold his business to Norton Simon Inc. for $16 million, but remained its principal designer, working closely with its president David Mahoney. By 1983 Norton Simon was taken over by Esmark, owner mass market Playtex, controversial given Halston’s aspirational aesthetic.

By this point, Halston’s star was beginning to fade. Describing the story as one of “Citizen Kane proportions”, Frederic’s film is a compelling insight into that struggle between art and commerce.

“Halston wanted to take chances” says Frederic. “That’s what I find really remarkable. He did so many firsts in business. The first American designer to become a TV personality. The first to have his trademarks bought out by a corporate company. The first to do a mass-market collaboration. It’s a fascinating case study, and he went through all these hoops with these various business ideas that brands take for granted today.”

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Ideas such as collaborations between luxury brands and mass retailers might seem commonplace now, but Halston was the first with his billion-dollar, six-year licensing deal in 1983 with JC Penny.

The deal polarised his customers and caused a rift with long-standing supporter Bergdorf Goodman, who severed ties with Halston shortly after.

By the early 1980s, with more than 30 licenses, he was already a household name; but in 1984 Halston lost control of his namesake company as its new owners tried to erase his legacy — the taping over of videotapes featuring Halston’s shows and appearances is a devastating moment in the film, as is the selling of museum-worthy archive pieces in a bargain sample sale.

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“The business side of the story is a fascinating study into what you should and shouldn’t do as an artist when you’re trying to build your career,” says Frederic.

"If you look at all those successful fashion houses — Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Berge and Valentino had Giancarlo Giammetti. Halston was just Halston. He never really found the business partner who was putting his interests first." 

Halston and his muses for US Vogue in 1972, including (centre front in blue) actress Angelica Huston. Photo / Duane Michals

“I related on a much smaller scale. As a film-maker, I’ve been in situations where you’re face to face with a corporation and they don’t speak the same language. Suddenly you feel very powerless because a corporation has so much legal and financial power. I felt strongly for Halston when he lost his company and when he tried to regain control of it.”

By the time the JC Penny deal was signed off, America’s political landscape was already changing under President Ronald Regan. Markets became deregulated and the fashion industry increasingly corporatised.

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“We’re still dealing with the consequences of that shift today” says Frederic. “Unfortunately the people at the top don’t necessarily care about the product. They care about the bottom line — and that changes lot of things.”

As a designer of firsts, Halston’s public-facing life was completely separate from his private world; he spoke little of his childhood.

To help better make sense of Halston’s rise and fall, the narrative of the film is anchored by a fictional archivist played by Tavi Gevinson, who sorts through Halston’s personal catalogue of 215 VHS tapes, later erasing and relabelling each tape. This real-life request at the behest of Halston’s owners before he was ousted, is a symbolic moment.

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“It was essentially erasing his history. That really spoke to me emotionally” Frederic says.

“It felt like blasphemy. I’m always investigating and looking at images... and the image of the archivist came to me by way of reflecting on my own process. I wanted to look at the archives in a critical way. Halston used images brilliantly and I wanted to show how they were constructed, and how they told the story he wanted to project. So it was important for me to flip and rewind the images as a way of scrutinising them, as an archivist would.”

Actress Elizabeth Taylor, Halston and former First Lady Betty Ford at Studio 54 circa 1979 in New York City. Photo / Getty Images

In the biggest research project he’s worked on, Frederic unearthed some key resources along the way, including raw tapes of an NBC documentary that never aired about Halston’s visit to the Great Wall of China to show the Chinese how silk could be used in Western fashion; along with thousands of pages of memos between Halston and his lawyers. 

“The research was my favourite part, because I could really dream about the film. The legal memos alone were fascinating and I ended up reading it like a business thriller. There were so many twists and turns in the story.”

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Along with business hurdles, Halston faced personal ones too. An interview friend and former assistant at Bergdorf Goodman Tom Fallon revealed the prejudice Halston faced as a gay man among New York’s elite, his primary customer base. At a party for one of their clients, Tom recalls two husbands refusing to sit at the same table as the two men because they were gay.

 “Halston said to me ‘I just need you to understand that you and I cannot be anything more than trained faggot poodles to jump through the hoops of these rich people’.

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“I think it played a role in his eventually leaving Bergdorf,” says Frederic “as he realised that he was going to go only so far within the upper crust society of the late 1960s. It was a society not necessarily sympathetic towards homosexuals and he needed to break free.”

Describing it as a rosebud moment in the film, Frederic says it offered a better understanding of the world Halston cultivated for himself, creating his own society of celebrity misfits including Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol and plus-sized model and actress Pat Ast, who become Halston’s store manager and model.

A Studio 54 fixture, this iconic photograph features Halston surrounded by friends Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley, Jr. and wife Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol. Photo / Robin Platzer, Getty Images

Halston was a pioneer of diversity in fashion long before it became a buzzword, booking an array of models for his runway shows and campaigns (Iman’s first runway show was for Halston).

The Versailles 1973 showdown between five American designers and five French designers at the Palace of Versailles was an innovative moment where Halston featured a diverse cast including Marissa Berenson, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and China Machado.

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As Pat points out in the film “We were so wild in comparison to the French designers. We had 12 African-American girls; the French had only one.”

Known as the “Halstonettes”, his models would often accompany Halston to events wearing outfits from his latest collection, a marketing strategy ahead of its time. For the models, it was one of the most intense working periods of their careers.

WATCH: Robin Givhan and The Battle At Versailles 1973

“The models have been profoundly marked by Halston” says Frederic. “They are so emotionally invested in Halston’s story, and by proxy, they’ve become invested in me emotionally. They often thank me for making this film and I try to remind them it’s their contribution to Halston’s story that makes it so important.”

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Access to the tight-knit circle of Halston’s closest confidants wasn’t easy, but thanks mostly to the inclusion of Halston’s niece, Lesley, Fredric was able to conduct interviews with Liza Minnelli, film director Joel Schumacher and writer Bob Colacello.

“Once Lesley agreed to be a part of the film, everyone else agreed to do it” says Frederic.

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As a family member and one of the few people Halston could trust in the days leading up to his death from an Aids-related illness in 1990, Lesley’s work to keep alive the memory of her famous uncle is important for a generation whose only introduction to his work is filtered through the reductive nostalgia of Instagram. 

“He was a common man” she explains in the film “and in the end he said ‘I just want to fade away. But — someone like him — he could not just fade away.”

• Viva is the media partner for Halston at this year’s New Zealand Film Festival and we have five double passes to give away for a screening on July 27. Visit our WIN section for more details.

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