2019 could be the year that we rediscover Halston, thje designer who drove some of the key looks of the 70s and 80s. Not only have 80s looks been resurfacing for some time but a new television dramatization of his life is in the works with Ewan McGregor as Halston.
Halston was ahead of his time in understanding the role of public relations and media in creating a myth of glamour, hedonism and luxury. He crafted his image as a fully formed NYC style icon and erased his small town Iowa upbringing. He did not look back and publicly said that he only cared about what was now or next. His voice, his accent, his look was a series of choices designed to propel him forward. Halston used movie stars, singers and artists as his models and there is still one former movie star that only wears his clothes.
He created and nurtured a diverse design empire which he thought of as a “tree with many branches”. His iconic work was not just high-end couture, he designed Olympic team uniforms, girl guide outfits, and corporate wear for some of the 1980s biggest enterprises. But a billion-dollar deal with J.C. Penny to “dress America” was one step too far. The deal cost him ownership of his name and the Halston brand became diluted. He lost creative control to the corporate world. His arrogance and extravagance turned him into an internal exile.
The documentary uses amazing source materials. “As Halston was so concerned with his image wherever he worked became a set with a camera crew. The beautiful people are seen in the beautiful clothes. The charismatic and quirky satellites that orbited him are captured.” When a choice is made to add an actor as narrator and archivist, things began to go downhill. Scenes of the invented archivist searching for the video tapes of Halston’s life give us A false note. Recorded on what looks like different film than the 80s video tape source material they are off in hue and texture. It is all visually awkward.
The documentary reaches a high point early on when it focuses on the public persona of Halston in the 1970s and 80s. It deflates after that because of inadequate exploration of the man behind it. There are TV interviews but minimal intimate material and it is hard to care about the man behind the looks. Apart from a quick trip to Fire Island, and some anecdotes about the bad behavior of one of his exes Halston seems as sexless as a Ken doll. Where the documentary under delivers most is in the treatment of the two crises of Halston’s life.
The story behind his corporate overreach come across as an accounting exercise being force fit into an episode of a soap opera.. It was a business deal gone wrong due to the flaws in his character. But interviews with corporate accountants and business managers lacks the color and bite of the interviews with the fashion crowd.
Finally, there is Halston’s death from AIDS. The Ken Doll treatment of his sexuality and the cursory overview of the pre-AIDS sexual liberation make it intangible. The documentary does not get to grips with him beyond his work and public façade and with much of his inner life missing, his death is just another something.
Director Frederic Tcheng turns his docudrama about the rise and fall of fashion icon Halston into a full-scale noir thriller full of big names and salacious intrigue. “After the boxy styles and artificial fabrics of the Sixties, Halston’s voluptuous dresses enveloped and caressed curves and cleavages as they “danced around you” according to Liza Minelli, one of his biggest advocates and a firm friend.” All this was in part thanks to his master tailor Gino Balsamo whose clever crafting created single-seam clothes that ‘freed the female body” and swirled and seduced due to the unique simplicity of their genius bias-cut.”
Halston was born during the Depression in 1932 and was an ordinary gay man who instinctively knew how to re-invent himself as a mover and shaker. Starting out in the 60s as a milliner to Bergdorf Goodman famous clients (Jackie Onassis wore his pillbox hat), he rapidly moved on to create his own brand through celebrity endorsement in New York’s 70s and 80s. Sashaying onto the dance floor of Studio 54 with his beautiful entourage, known as the Halsonettes, he moved on with movie stars, and invented “hot pants”. Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor were amongst his friends and clients. He also dressed the American athletes at the ’76 Olympics, the girl scout leaders, the NYPD and Avis car rental staff, as well as the Martha Graham dance troupe.
His all American freeform fashion parade at Paris’ Palace of Versailles in 1973 featured black American models and set the night alight with a fizzing floor show, despite French domination of the event. China was the next step and we see previously unseen footage from NBC visiting a silk factory where workers got a chance to try on creations made from their own fabrics.
But Halston was grew too big for his own boots. Soon he moved offices to the glamorous mirrored interiors of New York’s Olympic Tower. His keenness to develop the brand saw high signing a multi-million dollar deal with conglomerate Norton Simon. This took away his rights to his designs and name, while offering him continued creative control, allowing him to jump into bed with the likes of Max Factor, facilitating the launch of his first fragrance, Halston. The brand was soon on sheets, towels, even leather goods.
Halston launched a worthy endeavor to dress mainstream America through a deal with JCPenney called “From class to mass”. It focused on volume rather than artistry, and did not go down with well with Bergdorf Goodman, or his high-net-worth clientele, many of whom cancelled orders.
By this time Halston’s lavish lifestyle was also becoming financially exhausting, along with his on-off Venezuelan lover Victor Hugo, who had arrived on the scene purely for his looks and then became involved in the business, upsetting several members of his team. The final segment sees Halston re-connecting with his family and employing his niece, Lesley Frowick, who emotes on his HIV/AIDS demise.
The film works best as a chronicle of Halston’s fashion design artistry with its eye-catching footage and fascinating characters of the era. The business side of things often feels over-labored and much too detailed. It’s entertaining to watch and we see Halston as a force to be reckoned with, totally redefining the fashion world, and bringing America to the forefront with his wonderful legacy.