In “Halston,” Iconic Designer Gets His Due as a Great Gay American Hero

The new documentary is heavy on both style and substance.

Fashion documentaries, almost as a rule, are always great. Fashion people are such a uniquely eccentric subset of people who make art out of simply living that shining a light on their existence often results in a feast for the senses, or at the very least, a guidebook to your own life. The characters that populate Halston, the new doc by Frédéric Tcheng about the legendary designer who put American fashion on the map, are no exception.

There’s an archival interview with jewelry designer and frequent Halston collaborator Elsa Peretti, who, between drags from an ever-present cigarette or sip from an always-within-reach cocktail, her trademark glasses perched precariously below the bridge of her nose, has no problem describing her lauded career as something she tried that turned out to be a big success.

And then of course, there’s the poster child for fabulous eccentricity, Liza Minnelli, Halston’s best friend and most famous and loyal client. Halston dressed Liza for the biggest moments in her life: From her television special Liza with a Z, to the gown she won her Oscar in, to her nights with him and friends like Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, and Andy Warhol at Studio 54.

When asked about Halston’s drug use, loyal to the end, Liza diplomatically refuses to comment—citing the harsh treatment her mother, her father, and she herself received at the hands of the media.

©Berry Berenson Perkins
Halston and Liza Minnelli

For Peretti, however, the drugs were just a part of life—it was how one stayed up all night working, as Halston did for years and years, building his empire from a little millinery tucked away in Bergdorf Goodman’s to a licensing behemoth selling everything from cologne to luggage. Being a true American designer, hailing from the Midwest, Halston wanted to democratize fashion, and so he provided uniforms for people usually not granted entry into the world of high fashion: the Girl Scouts of America, Braniff International Airways, the 1976 Olympic Team, and the NYPD.

Halston took this idea even further with an unprecedented deal with JC Penney to create what is now referred to as a diffusion line. While today nearly every high-end fashion house has a less expensive, more accessible line—from Prada’s Miu Miu to Versace’s Versus—the 1982 deal proved disastrous for Halston. He eventually lost his company two years later, and with it the use of his name. He died from AIDS-related complications in 1990.

Whereas he had ruled the ’70s and early ’80s, becoming the first celebrity designer, by the time he died, Halston had faded into relative obscurity. “Whatever happened to Halston?” was the popular refrain. There was no big, splashy comeback. No third act. He was the most successful American fashion designer ever and then…he wasn’t.

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The emperor, Halston (seated), and his new clothes, circa 1975

For a generation of viewers who had never heard of Halston, or those who had wondered as to his whereabouts, Thceng’s documentary does a fine job of capturing what made Halston such a great designer, businessman, and showman, all while imbuing the film with the heady pleasure that defined his heyday.

Roy Halston Frowick was born on April 23, 1932 in Des Moines, Iowa. He moved to Evansville, Indiana with his family at age 10, but he was not long for the Midwest and after attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Halston began working as a milliner in the Windy City. In 1957, now going solely by Halston, he moved to New York and quickly established himself there, landing the lead milliner role at Bergdorf’s in 1960. The following year he designed Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat for the inauguration of her husband John F. Kennedy.

Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Jackie Kennedy in Halston’s pillbox hat

That little hat made Halston a star, but he realized that he would forever be a homosexual-for-hire, at the beck and call of his wealthy clients, unless he struck out on his own. In 1968, Halston opened his own salon on 68th and Madison, launching his first ready-to-wear collection the following year.

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Halston in the ’60s

Tcheng interviewed a number of the models that Halston made part of his harem, the Halstonettes, including Karen Bjornson, Pat Cleveland, and Alva Chinn. Along with Liza they all praised Halston’s designs for making them feel both strong and sexy. Halston’s love of the women he dressed and his genius for design really shine through in Tcheng’s documentary.

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Left to right, Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Halston, Alva Chinn, and Karen Bjornson

Halston wanted to dress women of all shapes and colors and surrounded himself with multi-ethnic models and employed zaftig Warhol Factory star Pat Ast as a model, muse, and house manager. She, too, found his clothes empowering. They were simple, his clothes, yet even today they look modern; diaphanous ad breathtakingly beautiful. “His clothes danced with you,” according to Liza.

Halston dramatically draping a dress

And those clothes were also geniuses of design. Halston would make gowns out of a single piece of fabric; the patterns he created were sophisticated feats of engineering. In 1972, Halston introduced a shirtdress made of UltraSuede, a synthetic Japanese fabric invented in 1970, that became an instant sensation, landing on the cover of Newsweek. Then in 1973, in an unprecedented move, Halston sold his entire business to Norton Simon, Inc., making him the first designer to have his trademarks purchased by a corporate conglomerate.

With Ultrasuede, a glitzy clientele, and the Norton Simon acquisition, Halston became the most popular and successful fashion designer in America—so it was only natural that he should represent the country in a couture battle royale for the ages.

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Liza and the Halstonettes slaying Versailles

The Battle of Versailles put American fashion on the map. Before it, Paris was the only destination for serious couturiers and America was regarded as, at best, a bunch of upstart hacks. That all changed in 1973. Conceived as a fundraiser for the ailing Palace of Versailles, the once-in-a-lifetime even pitted the top five French designers against the top five American. Halston and his coterie of multicultural muses stole the show, with Liza stepping in as coach when the beleaguered designer reached his breaking point with the less-than-accomodating French. She performed as the models twirled in their Halston originals, leading the Americans to a triumph on the most French of home territories.

Halston returned to America a hero and business boomed. He launched his hit signature fragrance in 1975, designed uniforms for the Girl Scouts et al. in ’76, and then came Studio 54 in ’77. A workaholic, Halston had to be coerced into going to the famed Manhattan discotheque, but once there he fell in love with it.

Adam Scull/Zeitgeist Films
Liza, Bianca, Andy, and Halston at 54

To Halston, 54 was a true democracy—the theme of America and American democracy runs throughout Halston—where people from all walks of life could converge on the dancefloor of life. Both he and Warhol were two gay boys finally granted entre into the society they craved, hobnobbing with superstars like Liz Taylor, whom Halston had idolized in his youth.

Of course, Studio 54 was notorious for its elitist door policies, but when you’re Halston and you’re showing up with a bevy of supermodels on one arm and Liza Minnelli on the other, the world is your oyster.

©Berry Berenson Perkins
Halston model/muse Anjelica Huston with the designer

The partying soon became a problem, however, coupled with Halston’s increased productivity. By the end of the decade, Halston had over 30 active licenses, with no sign of stopping or slowing down. In 1980, Halston broke ground again, becoming the first Western designer to show in China.

Then in 1982, he pulled off the ultimate game-changer, signing a licensing deal with JC Penney for Halston III, his secondary line that would be sold at the mass merchant. After Halston III’s debut fashion show, Bergdorf Goodman dropped Halston’s main line, and the fashion backlash began. In the middle of all this, Halston and its parent company Norton Simon were sold to Esmark, Inc., marking the beginning of the end of Halston.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty
Halston in happier times with Pat Ast, center, after the 1972 Coty Awards

The notoriously controlling designer’s behavior grew more erratic as his cocaine use and his workload increased, and in 1984 he was forced out of his own company and robbed of his name. His archival designs were sold off at cut-rate prices and his meticulously preserved recordings of fashion shows, parties, and events were erased and re-sold as blank VHS tapes. This is what the documentary uses as an entry point into the Halston legacy.

Actress and former fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson plays the narrator, a young woman charged with erasing those tapes and sorting through the Halston archives. “Her character is key to the film,” Tcheng says of the narrator. “She doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but her presence holds the film together. At the end of the day, it was very important for me to bring Halston into the 21st century for the audience.”

Tavi Gevinson as Narrator in a Halston original

While Gevinson acts as a bridge to the past and present, Halston makes it overwhelmingly clear how ahead of his time the designer was. His democratic view of fashion is still something the industry struggles, and often fails, to capture. His showmanship and business acumen presaged celebrity designers like Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and Ralph Lauren. And his clothes are timeless in their beauty and simplicity. But what sets Halston apart from other fashion designers is his all-Americanness.

This gay kid from Des Moines came to embody American pride and American exceptionalism without jingoistic pandering. In other words, he was as American as apple pie without flashing a gun and a flag in your face. Halston’s designs, career, and legacy make not only for a great documentary, but a great reminder that there’s more than one way to be an American, and more than one way to contribute to the culture and the fabric—pun intended—of the nation.

 

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat