Before it’s about anything else, fashion is about appearance. So much of how the ’70s look in the popular imagination, fashion-wise, is owing to the designer Halston: loose yet clingy, flowing, unencumbered, ultrasuede-embracing, and very much on the bias. “His clothes danced with you,” his friend Liza Minnelli says in “Halston,” Frédéric Tcheng’s new documentary about the designer.
So what about Halston’s own appearance? He had a long, angular patrician face, topped by swept-back hair: sleekness on the hoof. Halston was handsome, but in a slightly dubious way. His looks weren’t quite so much movie-star quality as that of the second lead in a drawing-room comedy. He’d catch your eye, but not necessarily keep it. That had something to do with how the hauteur of his manner harbored a hint of uncertainty: the aristocrat as arriviste — or little boy.
Looks matter, and so do names. The gentleman in question, who looked so natural in a tuxedo and had an accent closer to Mayfair than Des Moines (his birthplace), was born Roy Halston Frowick. So he remained legally. At one point in the film, we see him signing a document; and he writes all three names. But to the world he was simply Halston. He followed Cher and preceded Moby and Bjork in being on a one-name basis with the world. You and I would probably have wanted to drop Roy and Frowick, too.
More telling than keeping his middle name was changing its pronunciation. His family pronounced it Hal-ston (the first syllable rhymes with pal), not Hall-ston (rhymes with doll). Much classier. Sound can matter as much as appearance. Just ask James Gatz, better known as Jay Gatsby. He, too, left behind the dark fields of the republic.
As with Gatsby, what’s most remarkable about Halston was his capacity for self-creation — and downfall. Like his friend Andy Warhol, he came to New York in the ’50s and prospered. He became the chief millinery designer at Bergdorf Goodman — Bergdorf’s! — and Jackie Kennedy wore one of his pillbox hats to her husband’s inauguration. He opened his own Upper East Side boutique in 1968. His first ready-to-wear line came out in 1969.
The next dozen years or so were an express elevator to the penthouse. The Halston look epitomized what Women’s Wear Daily dubbed “the Soft Seventies.” He became a figure in the popular culture. The documentary includes clips of him on “What’s My Line?” and “The Love Boat.” Studio 54, that disco to end all discos, became his home away from home. (His actual home was designed by no less than Paul Rudolph, and as glimpsed onscreen, the swank minimalism of its interior verges on Bond-villain kitsch.) At 54, Halston famously — notoriously? — mythically? — threw a birthday party for Bianca Jagger. She ended up atop a white horse on the dance floor.
Studio 54 is another way of saying “cocaine.” Halston was no exception. Again, it was the ’70s. A bigger problem was the acquisition of Halston Limited by a conglomerate, Norton Simon Inc., in 1973. Halston welcomed this. It opened the way for a flood of brand extensions: menswear, perfume, luggage. The trouble came a decade later. First, Halston signed a licensing deal with J.C. Penney. This brought in a billion dollars — and almost instantly lost him couture cachet. Second, another conglomerate, Esmark, acquired Norton Simon, Its only connection to fashion was through Playtex. This was a marriage made about as far from heaven as you can get and still be in Manhattan’s Olympic Tower, Halston’s headquarters.
His lawyer quotes him as saying, “The folks from Planet Tampon landed on Planet Halston.” That’s a great line, but more to the point is what the head of Playtex tells Tcheng: “He was talking about going into another business. That’s why I started calling him Roy. I said, ‘We own your name, pal. Read the small print. We own your name.” Halston died only a few years later, of AIDS-related causes. He was only 57.
The documentary starts out all souped-up, and with a truly terrible idea: a fictitious narrator, played by Tavi Gevinson, whose duties mainly consist of inserting cassettes into a VCR and pouting. Happily, things soon settle down. We hear from an impressive array of talking heads, extending all the way to Halston’s florist. The stars are some of the Halstonettes, the models the designer doted on. They’re smart and unillusioned and remain convincingly fond of their boss.
It’s an understatement to say that Tcheng is drawn to this material. He revels in it. Yet he’s too clear-eyed to turn Halston’s story into a morality tale. We do hear from that guy from Playtex, after all, and other executives who brought Halston to earth. By then it was the ’80s, and loose yet clingy, let alone unencumbered, seemed very far away.
Written and directed by Frédéric Tcheng. At Kendall Square. 105 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, drug references, brief casual nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.