'Halston': Film Review | Sundance 2019

What becomes a legend most?

Fashion doc specialist Frederic Tcheng conducts a film noir-style investigation into the mighty evolution and brutal dismantling of the American design pioneer's empire.

You've got to fret for future audiovisual fashion historians as they comb the archives searching for a great game-changing design luminary that hasn't yet been given feature documentary treatment. So it's mildly astonishing that we've had to wait until now for a comprehensive assessment of the style revolution of Roy Halston Frowick — his stratospheric ascent to become a business empire and the first bona fide American celebrity designer, his rejection by the fashion establishment after a misjudged venture, his sad decline and his indelible legacy. Frederic Tcheng delivers all that in the succinctly titled Halston, a roller coaster of fabulousness and folly only marginally compromised by its excessive length and fussy structural gimmicks.

Those flaws won't likely make a whit of difference to the core audience that has made a thriving subgenre out of fashion docs. The Orchard picked up theatrical and home-entertainment rights out of Sundance, announcing a spring release, with executive producer CNN Films planning a third-quarter broadcast premiere.

French-born writer-director Tcheng certainly has the right credentials for the material. He made his solo bow with 2014's Dior and I, going behind the scenes to record the creation of Raf Simons' first haute couture collection for the legendary Paris fashion house. Tcheng had previously co-directed 2011's Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, about the tastemaker who defined chic for almost three decades at Harper's Bazaar. He also co-produced and co-edited Matt Tyrnauer's 2008 feature Valentino: The Last Emperor, one of those documaker dream projects where what began as a record of a single collection grew into a poignant commentary on the corporatization of artisanal fashion, its reshaping dictated by major business developments during filming.

It's a shame then that he didn't trust the enormous wealth of great material to tell the story here without the need to get tricksy. Tcheng casts fashion blogger turned actor Tavi Gevinson as an unnamed narrator in a bad wig, a staffer in the Halston company archives, poring over old dossiers, legal papers and VHS tapes to get to the heart of the designer's story, her appearances accompanied by the sleepy jazz strains of Stanley Clarke's film-noirish score. There's plenty of exciting rise-and-fall drama in the illuminating interview material without all this frou frou built around the labored mystery of pinpointing when it all began falling apart.

Not only is the framing device and intermittent punctuation cheesy, it adds nothing. Also, it seems in fundamental conflict with the values of clean-lined simplicity that the doc so eloquently identifies as key to the trademark Halston aesthetic. The designer after all was the undisputed genius of the bias cut, creating single-seam garments out of just one piece of fabric that "took away the cage," as veteran model Pat Cleveland says, freeing the female body. "His clothes danced on you," adds the designer's longtime friend Liza Minnelli, who has worn Halston throughout her professional career since the first time they collaborated.

Minnelli shares the interesting observation that his outfits reminded her of costumes her director father Vincente Minnelli would give her during his MGM days. That kinship with Hollywood is echoed in Halston cottoning on early to the marketing value of movie stars. And as he plunged into the glamorous whirl of the Studio 54 scene in the late '70s and early '80s, the barriers separating him from the rich and famous women he dressed dissolved completely. For a gay boy born in Depression-era Des Moines, Iowa, who reinvented himself with a cultivated mid-Atlantic accent and soigne personal style, this was the realization of a fantasy. He also elevated his star aura by hitting the town flanked by an entourage of glamazons known as the Halstonettes.

Tcheng traces Halston's beginnings as a custom milliner for Bergdorf Goodman (he put the pillbox hat on Jackie Kennedy at her husband's inauguration), through breaking out with his own upscale line. Those clothes threw off any vestiges of the counterculture bohemian look in favor of elegant, or even playful sophistication, as in his contribution to the hot pants phenomenon.

His work was everywhere in the '70s, and not just the high-end examples like the ultrasuede shirtdress that broke sales records in his branded boutique at Bergdorf's. He also designed the uniforms for the American athletes at the '76 Olympics, for girl scout leaders, an airline, the NYPD and Avis car rental staff, as well as being the regular costumer of the Martha Graham dance troupe.

Considerable attention is given to the historic 1973 runway show at the Palace of Versailles that brought together five French designers with five Americans, one of them Halston. Despite throwing a hissy fit after the French monopolized the rehearsal time and having to be coaxed back by his star performer, Minnelli, Halston stole the show with a freeform musical happening, breaking new ground by using a dozen African-American models. From there, his fame exploded.

Alongside his staggering commercial success, Halston also made over his immediate environment with meticulous detail, first in an exotically decorated salon presided over by Pat Ast, where names like Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor were frequent visitors; and later in the wall-to-wall mirrored rooms of his sleek headquarters at Olympic Tower.

He claimed another first for a Western designer and a PR coup by showing in China in 1980. This is covered in previously unseen footage shot for an NBC special that never aired, with a platoon of models in outfits handpicked for every occasion. In a film that gives uncommon attention to the actual craftsmanship of fashion, it's lovely to watch Halston visiting a silk factory, where workers get to see and touch the garments made from their fabrics.

The movie doesn't home in on one single misstep as the beginning of the downfall, rather a number of contributing factors. Halston's line was purchased by Norton Simon in a $16 million deal that gave him continued creative control but effectively signed away rights to his designs and name in perpetuity. The holding company also owned Max Factor, facilitating the launch of Halston's first fragrance, its stellar sales driven in part by the innovative tear-drop bottle — the work of Italian jewelry designer and friend Elsa Peretti, whose interview snippets throughout are reliably hilarious.

The Norton Simon arrangement was fine while Halston had a protector in the executive ranks but not after a sales reshuffle put his business under the more stringent control of new bosses with scant understanding of the high fashion industry. For audiences invested in the idea of couture as art, there's genuine sadness in the revelation that company chief Carl Epstein sold off a large part of the designer's vintage samples for peanuts, looking mystified when asked why he didn't donate them to a museum.

The other unfortunate chapter is Halston's venture into affordable ready-to-wear collections via a $1 billion licensing deal with JCPenney. "From class to mass" is how one news commentator puts it. This was an entirely foreign culture based on profit and volume, not artistry. And in a painful blow, it was viewed by the snobbish fashion elite as an undignified step down, causing high-end stores to drop his lines, starting with Bergdorf's.

Alongside the professional travails are the personal ones — the cocaine bills of $2,000-$3,000 a week, among other excesses; the transformation from an exacting perfectionist into a screaming, angry boss; and the destructive influence of Halston's on-off boyfriend of more than 10 years, Venezuelan artist Victor Hugo. In an archival audio interview full of bluntly acerbic commentary, the late fashion illustrator Joe Eula claims Hugo first surfaced as a hustler ("One night Halston dialed a dick") and then insinuated himself into the business, gaining few friends.

Tcheng makes the smart decision to save interviews with Halston's niece, Lesley Frowick, until the final stretch, sharing touching anecdotes about his renewed closeness with his family toward the end. And it's both apt and affecting that a man so fastidious about his image would withdraw into semi-seclusion as his face and body began showing the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

At two very full hours, the doc feels a tad overstuffed. It's consistently engrossing, with eye-catching graphics and a killer selection of music tracks from across the decades. But one wishes Tcheng and co-editor Elia Gasull Balada had exercised more economy, especially in their exhaustive account of the steady dismantling of Halston Enterprises.

The ambitious attempt to craft a corporate thriller only half works, perhaps in part because it's such a comedown from the high-flying golden years. Trimming back the cumbersome Wellesian investigation of the framing interludes no doubt would help, though admittedly it does serve toward the end to show the extent to which Halston's achievements were effectively erased by philistine management. Whatever the pros and cons of the approach, it's infinitely superior to 2012's embarrassing Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, which was more about the clueless, spotlight-seeking filmmaker than his stated focus.

Having a subject who was among the first in his field to harness television and video is a double-edged sword; the quantity of choice footage on tap requires tough choices about what to discard. A case could almost be made for separating the highs and lows into a two-part bio allowing each phase of the life of this man of many narratives more room to breathe. Still, even with its imperfections, the expansive scope of this tribute seems entirely fitting for an industry giant who put America on the global fashion map.

Production companies: Dogwoof, CNN Films, Sharp House, Gloss, Possibility Entertainment
Distributor: The Orchard
With: Tavi Gevinson, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher, Pat Cleveland, Bob Calacello, Carl Epstein, Lesley Frowick, Sassy Johnson, Naeem Khan, John David Ridge
Director-writer: Frederic Tcheng
Producers: Frederic Tcheng, Roland Ballester, Stephanie Levy, Paul Dallas
Executive producers: Lesley Frowick, Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton, Anna Godas, Oli Harbottle, Ian Sharp, Rebecca Joerin-Sharp, Emma Dutton, Lawrence Benenson, Elyse Benenson, Douglas Svhwalbe, Louis A. Martarano
Directors of photography: Chris W. Johnson
Music: Stanley Clarke
Editor: Elia Gasull Balada, Frederic Tcheng
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: Dogwoof

120 minutes