Sundance: Director Frederic Tcheng on His 'Halston' Doc: "My Job Was to Get to Know the Man Behind the Sunglasses'

Halston Still — Publicity — H 2018
Sundance Institute

For the new film about the iconic designer, the helmer decided to construct a business thriller.

Just as there are two documentaries about the infamous Fyre Festival, there's now a pair of non-fiction films portraying the life and work of the iconic American fashion designer, Roy Halston Frowick. The first, 2010’s Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, is Top Gear meets Studio 54. For much of Ultrasuede, its director, Whitney Sudler-Smith, is captured behind the wheel of his black Pontiac Trans Am shuttling between interviews with his subjects, most of whom were habitués of the famed Manhattan discotheque, which was Halston’s favorite haunt. 

In Halston, director Frédéric Tcheng’s take on the New York design giant, which premiered as the sole fashion documentary in this year’s Sundance lineup, the Style Rookie blogger turned actress, Tavi Gevinson, portrays an archivist in a series of dramatic re-enactments. A Halston-clad Gevinson appears sifting through the extensive material upon which Tcheng relied to tell this ambitious life story — namely, cassettes recording candid business conversations (including Bergdorf Goodman’s owner, Andrew Goodman, attempting to fathom his employee Halston’s perfectionism) as well as presumed lost footage (an NBC documentary of Halston’s 1980 trip to China) and videos of the runway shows he staged at his spectacular New York headquarters within the Midtown Manhattan skyscraper Olympic Tower. 

Re-enactments are tricky to get right in a documentary. And perhaps what seems like Tcheng’s ultimate ambition — to transition from directing documentaries to feature films (he is at work developing a David Bowie film project) — might have prompted his decision to integrate several throughout his film. Nevertheless, soon into Halston, Gevinson is accomplishing Tcheng’s quest. “My job was to get to know the man behind the sunglasses,” he said, referring to his subject, who was rarely without his dark shades. 

The day after Halston’s Sundance world premiere and the subsequent announcement that the company formerly known as The Orchard had acquired its theatrical rights for a spring release, Tcheng explained his involvement in the project. While the film was four years in the making, he first learned about Halston when he co-directed 2012’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. After Roland Ballester, Halston’s lead producer, offered him this project (he was impressed with Tcheng’s 2014 directorial debut, Dior & I, which, distributed by The Orchard, grossed more than $1 million), Tcheng realized Halston, like a number of fashion legends such as Coco Chanel, had buried his past to create a dazzling, mythical persona to seduce the press. “There was no comprehensive record of Halston’s life, from birth to death,” Tcheng said. “So, I found myself doing detective work. I wanted to put the audience in that investigation mode and [think] — ‘Who was the real Halston?’ Because everyone had a different experience with Halston.” 

Eschewing the traditional linear documentary format, Tcheng’s investigation of Halston’s childhood happens late in the film with a dramatized version of a pilgrimage he made with his model friend, Pat Cleveland, to the Midwest, where he grew up. It is book-ended by a first and final act, in the mid-1980s.

This was crunch time for Halston, the period when, after he had made his name — and millions — as the pioneer of pricey, minimalist luxe womenswear conceived from cashmere, chiffon, silken velvet and the resilient, Japanese synthetic textile Ultrasuede for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor, he had sold his brand and the rights to his name to California industrialist Norton Simon. Tcheng brings alive this frenetic time when Halston fearlessly charged into the new world of affordable fashion — sans roadmap — and drove his loyal team hard to make the transition. His staff included his muse (the whacky, 210-pound Warhol superstar, Pat Ast); his Florentine design collaborator, Elsa Peretti; his promiscuous Venezuelan boyfriend, Victor Hugo (who sidelined as his boutique window dresser); his assistant D.D. Ryan (portrayed in another strand of re-enactments by the socialite Cornelia Guest); as well as the Halstonettes, Halston’s glamorous runway models, many of whom talked about him for the first time in this film. 

But along with these fashion personalities, Tcheng gives equal screen time to Halston’s dedicated, behind-the-scenes workforce including his secretaries; his head tailor, Gino Alsamo; the florist Peter Wise (who kept Olympic Tower adorned with a jungle of costly rare orchids); plus a retinue of business executives who, ultimately, slashed the orchid budget and, ousting Halston as the mastermind of his brand, replaced him with costume designer John David Ridge. This happened when, amidst furious corporate maneuvering, Halston’s company changed hands and was owned by Beatrice Foods and Playtex, among other corporations. 

Tcheng sites Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary about the 2008 financial crisis, Inside Job, for inspiring his telling of Halston as a business thriller. But the skillfully produced mood conjured by the re-enactments — featuring production design by Markus Kirschner (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and the lush cinematography of Aaron Kovalchik — evoke the haunting mystery of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View

Add to this a plethora of arty experimental footage (video glitches, negative images, SMPTE color bars and so on), which Tcheng integrated to the mix, and Halston becomes a wild ride. Tcheng, a skilled editor who has co-cut a number of fine fashion documentaries, including 2008’s Valentino: The Last Emperor as well as Dior & I, unites all of the moving parts. While this finely crafted film is more sympathetic to its subject than to the business brains who tore his fashion house down, Halston is no hagiography. Rather, Tcheng portrays his hot-headed design visionary as one of fashion’s all-time great designers who fell victim to bad timing, not to mention a nasty cocaine habit and a fatal AIDS-related illness. But most importantly, Tcheng depicts his title character to be a complex and inspiring human.