Your emotional reaction to “Halston,” which opens Friday, June 14, at Speed Cinema, will boil down to how you feel about genius.
Either you’ll see the titular designer Roy Halston Frowick, a giant of American fashion, as a creative maelstrom whose passion and ambition led him to extremes and ultimately a tragic downfall. Or you’ll think he was an overbearing jerk.
You really can’t be wrong on this one.
“I think Halston’s story is a classic American story — I mean, it could only really happen in America, where somebody gets to reinvent themselves … and parlaying that into such an incredible career in fashion,” says Dean Otto, curator of film at the Speed Art Museum. “I think it is also a story of American capitalism, too, about wanting and needing that success.”
French director Frédéric Tcheng’s affinity for his subject matter (he also helmed 2014’s “Dior and I”) permeates the film, leaving little doubt about where he comes down on the genius vs. jerk question.
But Tcheng does, from time to time, cast a reasonably unflinching eye at his subject’s shortcomings, at least by the standards of contemporary documentarians.
The result is an engaging story that’s occasionally undercut by some odd structural and editing choices (a rant on that in a bit).
The film’s strongest moments, at least to an unfashionable lout such as this reviewer, come when Tcheng explores the tangible aspects of the designer’s genius.
A detailed discussion (complete with diagrams) of how Halston cut fabric on the bias, which gave his designs their hallmark easy flow and flexibility, is engrossing. Stories about how he could take a pair of scissors to a piece of fabric and instantly create a dress seem like a stretch — and then a museum curator marvels over a dress pattern that, to this unstylish writer, looks for all the world like a random blob.
You understand deeply that Halston was creating art and feel a genuine sense of loss when you learn that many of his original works and videos of his elaborate shows were discarded in the wake of a power struggle for the company that bore his name.
“Halston” begins at the start of the designer’s career as the milliner for New York’s high-toned Bergdorf Goodman. His first great claim to fame was designing the iconic pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration.
Through archival footage (Halston was not shy around cameras) and interviews with close associates, we hear about how Halston, a native of the Midwest, strove to break into high society as a gay man in the ’50s and ’60s. A former assistant recounts how Halston once told him that, as gay men, the two of them would never be more than “trained, fa**ot poodles to jump through the hoops for these rich people.”
Ultimately, he decided to open his own studio in 1968.
Halston’s free-flowing designs defined the “soft ’70s,” and his talents as a self-promoter fueled his meteoric rise as the American fashion designer. He moved into a grandiose Manhattan high-rise, was a conspicuous regular at Studio 54, and was a close confidant to pop culture icons like Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol.
“It was almost an earlier version of what you might see as today’s social media or Instagram stars,” Otto says, “propelling themselves into the public eye by aligning themselves with the success of others.”
He eventually sold his label to a conglomerate, enabling him to extend his brand to other markets, most notably a wildly popular fragrance. (Again, the details of how Halston and collaborator Elsa Peretti had to fight for the perfume bottle’s iconic design are absolutely fascinating.) And he got rich — really, really rich.
Halston’s ascension is recounted with a breathless enthusiasm until about the midway point of the film, when Tcheng reveals (gasp!) that not all is as it seems. Through a cornball video rewind gimmick, the designer is shown haranguing his models and being an all-around control freak.
Rant, as promised earlier: Tcheng’s film is framed around the device of a fashion archivist (played by Tavi Gevinson, who rose to notoriety as a teen fashion blogger) “investigating” Halston’s history through VHS tapes. The shtick is inane and often dropped for long stretches of the movie until the director feels the need to evoke the rewind trick. Mostly, it serves to imply there’s some sort of dark mystery surrounding Halston’s story. There’s not. End rant.
The turning point, at least in Tcheng’s narrative, came in 1983, when Halston partnered with J.C. Penney on a mass-produced line, which he personally designed. The haute couture world scoffed and his brand suffered.
“It’s kind of a tragedy about what happens when someone sells out that way — it was a death knell for him,” Otto says. “I don’t think you’d see that in the same sort of way now. If you look at what the Kardashians do, they are kind of golden in that way. I think America has really embraced that idea of selling out.”
The final indignation came when Halston’s parent company was bought out by the same massive corporation that owns Playtex. Tcheng exercises a notable degree of restraint here — the coarseness of Halston’s corporate foils is contrasted with the designer’s outlandish demands, like having meals prepared for him in Manhattan and then flown by private plane to his home in Montauk, all on the company’s dime.
The director even catches Halston’s attorney in a documented fib about who had the locks changed on the office doors (really, it got that ridiculous).
Ultimately, the genius lost. His name continued to be used as a brand by Penney, but he was ousted and spent his final years in relative seclusion, dying of an AIDS-related illness in 1990.
In all, “Halston” is an interesting story with some absolutely fascinating details thrown in, with a few odd filmmaking choices that can be endured for the greater gain. And (at least I’m guessing) fashion lovers will go nuts for it.
“Halston” opens Friday, June 14, 6 p.m., at Speed Cinema, with four screenings this weekend and a final showing scheduled for Wednesday, June 19. General admission is $9.
Otto also tells us that the successful run of “Amazing Grace,” the great documentary of the live recording sessions for Aretha Franklin’s landmark gospel album, has been extended, with five more screenings this weekend, beginning Thursday, June 13. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t miss this chance.