The last few years have seen a deluge of documentaries about icons of the fashion world. From the golden-age glamour of Cecil Beaton to the nightmare-tinged imaginings of Alexander McQueen, audiences have been given an unprecedented opportunity to explore the why, the where, the who and the how of these sometimes-notorious figures whose process – and personal lives – were often obscured behind the public obsession with their work.
The latest such film, filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng’s “Halston,” was destined to stand out in the crowd, simply because it tackles one of the most revered designers of the 20th century, a man who achieved household-name status even among those with little or no interest in fashion while forever defining the look of an era with his still-influential designs. This, coupled with the fact that its director is already known for the earlier fashion-related films “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” and “Dior and Me” is more than enough to get our attention – but Tcheng takes a leap in his handling of the material that decisively separates this one from the rest.
Most of the movie consists of the usual archival material – photos, home movies, video and film clips, along with dozens of interviews, both past and present, with friends, family and collaborators. Among the latter are many of the celebrities who were part of his orbit – people like Liza Minnelli, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Andy Warhol and Iman – but also the artistic and business associates who worked at his side as he turned American fashion into a global force.
The glitz and glamour associated with Halston certainly come through in the interviews we are shown, and those drawn to this film for their interest in that will not be disappointed; but Roy Halston Frowick was a very private man that was vastly invested in keeping his public mask in place at all times, which makes the narrative that emerges through those closest to him about the person behind that mask perhaps more interesting than any of the well-documented stories of coke-fueled work sessions or wild nights at Studio 54.
It’s in bringing this hidden thread to the surface that Tcheng employs a tactic that, while it may prove controversial to documentary purists, effectively provides a shape that facilitates an exploration of Halston’s deeper story. Simply put, he makes his film a mystery movie of sorts by framing it with a fictional narrator, a young archivist (played onscreen by Tavi Gevinson) plumbing the depths of the Halston company archives for clues about the secret history of the late fashion giant. It’s a conceit that, perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, evokes “Citizen Kane” and casts Halston as an enigmatic figure whose life is a riddle to be solved – a bit dramatic and over-the top, perhaps, but then so was Halston.
Whether or not it keeps “Halston” from being a “real” documentary, this twist successfully points us in the right direction as the film reveals the hidden narrative of Halston’s life – homophobia, both external and internal runs like an electric rail through it all – and paints a portrait of a man whose desire to prove himself drove him to rise to the top of his industry, yet ultimately led to his defeat by the forces he had striven to overcome. It gives Tcheng’s movie a surprising hook and expands its scope, making it as much as documentary about cultural bias against LGBTQ people in the business world as it is about one single man.
Even so, the movie is called simply “Halston” for a reason. The great designer is unquestionably its star, and shines bright from start to finish, as much in the reminiscences of others as when he is onscreen. It’s a worthy and fascinating tribute to his genius, and well worth a trip to the theater to experience it, as befits its subject, larger than life.
“Halston” can be seen in Los Angeles the week of May 31 – June 6 at the Landmark Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Blvd). For info and tickets visit here. It expands to more theaters beginning on Friday, June 7.