A Portrait of Halston, The Designer Who Liberated Fashion


Halston had dreamed of “dressing everybody in America,” but once the designer flew too close to the sun, his relentless ambition proved to be his ultimate downfall. Halston, a new documentary releasing today in New York City by Frédéric Tcheng, the director of 2014’s Dior and I, charts the rise and demise of Halston, whose flowing bias-cut gowns that Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bianca Jagger wore into the early hours of the morning at Studio 54 catapulted the designer to one-name sensation status (à la Chanel, Dior, and Valentino).

The designer, born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, grew up as a gay child in a conservative family and later reinvented himself by never speaking of his childhood or home life and designing for the rich and famous (it was Halston who famously placed the pillbox hat on Jackie Kennedy during President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, spawning a sartorial sensation in the process). After getting his start as a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman, he left in 1968 to form his own line, surrounding himself with luminaries including Andy Warhol, supermodel Iman (who he put in her first runway show), Minnelli (who became his close confidant) and a loyal coterie of models who he dubbed “The Halstonettes.” His designs were the stuff of legend: ultra-suede shirt dresses and slinky gowns crafted from a single piece of fabric by cutting along the bias (women were naked under their Halstons and the patterns looked “like a Cuisinart blade”).

As Halston’s star climbed, Tcheng sweeps us through his high-living success, including a historic 1973 runway show at the Palace of Versailles that brought together French and American designers, one of them being Halston. Despite making a scene when the French monopolized the rehearsal time and having to be convinced by Minnelli to show his designs anyway, Halston was a bonafide hit, unveiling a show dictated by theatrical musical freeform and sending an unprecedented dozen black models down the runway. From there, his fame sky-rocketed, as Halston’s personal line grew into an independent fashion house, expanding into perfume, home-wear, airline branding, and even Girl Scout uniforms.

Through a plethora of video material, as well as interviews with icons Pat Cleveland and Minnelli, we watch as Halston’s world slowly unravels when in 1983, he decides to cheapen his brand through a billion-dollar deal with JCPenney. Although his designs finally became accessible to the everyday American consumer, company infighting and a series of underhanded corporate dealings eventually saw Halston unceremoniously ousted from his own company, left literally without his name. By the time the designer passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications, his brand had become a nearly forgotten vestige of the heyday of ’70s disco.

Here, CR caught up with Tcheng and the film’s lead producer Roland Ballester about making the film and the most surprising thing they learned about Halston.

How did this film come about?
“It started as a long-standing friendship with Halston’s nephew and niece, George Frowick and Lesley Frowick, who always felt that her uncle hasn’t been given proper recognition for his work, because so much attention has been focused on his social life. She wanted something with substance and I started looking at all the films out there. The only one I really loved was Dior and I, which led me to [Tcheng].”

Tcheng: “As a documentary filmmaker, you’re always trying to nudge the story further than it is because you know people’s lives are just normal lives. They’re not Hollywood movies, but Halston’s life was exactly like a movie. It was bigger than life and all the characters were very colorful and complex, and so I started looking at it from that angle. The business side was something I was interested in very early on. The fact that his company had been taken away from him, in such dramatic circumstances, resonated with me because I’m at a point in my career where I’ve had some of these interactions with the business world.”

Was there something surprising you learned about Halston?
“The fact that he was so revolutionary, and not in a grand way. He was having poetry readings on Sundays in his fashion house, he was collaborating with Warhol, and he was using models of color and plus-size models. There was free spirit in Halston and I never expected that. He was someone who kept reinventing himself and the Halston who became the world famous household name is the Halston with the sunglasses and the cigarette holder. People don’t know him from the completely forgotten chapter of history from before and I think you can’t understand one without knowing the other.”

Was it difficult for people to talk about him?
“Of course. Just getting to Minnelli was really difficult. There’s such a level of like scrutiny around Halston and I think Minnelli was very careful about who she was going to talk to. And she says in the film, she’s been the subject of digging too much in her life. Her whole family has. She wanted to protect Halston, so it was a whole process of seduction. Roland approached different people around her, and then eventually we were invited to shoot Minnelli.”

Were there any misconceptions about Halston?
“He became so famous because of the Studio 54 association, and that cuts both ways, because it got him to a level of celebrity, but also associated him a little to closely with the club. People tend to view his story as a cautionary tale and ‘Don’t sell your name.’ There’s truth to that for sure, but I didn’t want Halston to come across as a victim. I think his approach was always to take the risk, because if you don’t take the risk, you’re not gonna win.”

You portrayed the genius side of Halston, as well as how hard it was to work for him. How did you show both sides?
Tcheng: “It was so hard to balance. We did so many versions of that moment when the film flips on its head and suddenly, you’re seeing the same images but you’re hearing him scream at people. It was hard. With my editor, we were trying not to make the audience feel like they had been lied to, but it was more of adding layers and layers. You see the good Halston, but then you see the problematic Halston. It’s a really hard balance and we promised ourselves that we would do an honest portrayal. Making it a reality was very very hard, but we tried our best.”

How did your opinion of him change by the end?
“I thought he was this unique, one-dimensional character that was almost like a Hollywood version of a designer. Initially, I was like ‘Oh, this is like the Mad Men of fashion, like Don Draper.’ There’s part of that, because Draper is a really complex character. When you get to know the layers, that’s what was just thrilling. Doing the detective work, investigating, and finding new archival material that we didn’t know existed, like him preparing for China where he starts being dictatorial to his staff. You find with each discovery, you discover a new aspect of Halston and a new angle on him. The whole process was all about discovering him.”

How would you describe his impact on fashion?
Ballester: “He made American designers viable. Before him, there were copies and copies of everything that was happening in France. He was the first American designer who people looked to seriously, and he lived away from all these others. One of his influences is that he allowed for all of these other people after him to do what he did.”

Tcheng: “You have to think of French fashion at the time: it was very structured and all about constricting the body with corsets and structured type of clothes. He’s one of the first, if not the first, to liberate women and work with the body. He took this very strong stance that the female body is beautiful and that’s what the fabric should enhance. It’s so everywhere, that it’s hard to even grasp. Minimalism is something that was born with Halston in many ways and you can see it in the cut of everything we wear. It’s maybe not as obvious, because it’s minimal and everything sort of falls away. I think he inspired so many designers from Tom Ford to Calvin Klein. His collaborations with JC Penney were reviled at the time, but now that everyone is doing it. He was very successful at it and it became the norm. In the business sense, he was a pioneer.”


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