Greetings again from the darkness. My fashion of choice is jeans and an untucked shirt, but even a schlub like me recognizes the creative force that was Roy Halston Frowick. His impact as groundbreaking fashion designer Halston is beyond question. Jackie O’s pillbox hat? Halston. The “hot pants” revolution in the 60’s? Halston. His innovations were first noted at Bergdorf Goodman, the iconic luxury department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Director Frederic Tcheng clearly understands the fashion world and was the right choice for this project. Mr. Tcheng’s previous documentaries include DIOR AND I (2014) and DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL (2011). Here, he pays homage to Halston the designer, while also pulling back the curtain on Halston the man.
Despite the fascinating subject and an expert director, an odd choice was made for this documentary to feature a narrator – a fictional character narrator, “somebody working in the archives”. It seems to be a stretch in an attempt to make a more artistic film, but opening with a deep cut Elvis song, “Fame and Fortune”, any attempts to add interest to Halston’s story were unnecessary.
The film tracks Halston’s industry timeline and his 1968 break from Bergdorf to open his own salon. This led to his notoriety in the 70’s and put American fashion on the map – thanks in large part to his splash at the Versailles Fashion Show. Interviewees range from movie director Joel Schumacher (responsible for the less than artistic BATMAN & ROBIN, 1997), who partied hard with Halston; to model and actress Marisa Berenson, who walked the runway in his clothes and became a movie star; to Elsa Peretti, who created Halston fragrances and worked with him for years. There is also Liza Minelli who has worn Halston exclusively for decades. We get a glimpse at some of the Studio 54 parties, the Andy Warhol years, and Halston’s lavish lifestyle.
Much of the later years center around the impact of business dealings. In 1973, Norton-Simon acquired Halston and his brand, which is what drove the expansion into fragrances, shoes, furniture and more. We see his historic 1980 trip to China, and learn about his record-breaking $1 billion deal with JC Penney, a transaction outsiders described as he “moved from class to mass.” When Esmark (Playtex) purchased the brand and discovered that they owned the Halston brand name, Halston the man was booted from the company (1984). This allowed John David Ridge to become the designer of Halston.
We hear that Halston was a perfectionist – a demanding boss who was sometimes cruel to his staff and others. We’ve heard similar tales in regards to other artists. This is a man who designed for the world’s most fashion-conscious people, and for such diverse causes as The Olympics, the Girl Scouts, and Avis company uniforms. Having Esmark erase the Halston history may pale in comparison to the tragedy of having the designer die of AIDS in 1989 at age 57, but it’s unfortunate to say the least. By that time, he had disappeared from public life as his purpose and name were no longer his.