this documentary investigates the rise and fall of 70s fashion icon, halston

Writer-director Frédéric Tcheng celebrates the forgotten legacy of the designer who took on Wall Street.

by Christobel Hastings
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Apr 8 2019, 1:02pm

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

At a birthday party on 2 May 1977 paparazzi captured a scene that would become one of the most iconic images in fashion history. The location was Studio 54, and the birthday girl was none other than Bianca Jagger, who was celebrating at the nightclub alongside Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, and her husband, Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger. In one of the grandest entrances ever to grace the newspapers, Jagger rode a snow white stallion across the dancefloor of New York City’s most legendary discotheque.

Nowadays, it’s impossible to think of the famed nightspot without the image of the reigning queen springing to mind. But even as the stunt is held up as emblematic of the era’s decadent excesses, the designer who created the sumptuous, off-the-shoulder dress that Jagger wore that night has faded into the shadows. Until now, thanks to a new fashion documentary Halston, which uncovers the forgotten legacy of one of the greatest American designers of all time.

It’s perhaps surprising that it’s taken so long for a film to emerge about the so-called golden boy of American couture, an injustice that French writer-director Frédéric Tcheng has taken great lengths to rectify as he pieces together fragments of Halston’s life and work. Tcheng is an old hand at fashion investigation films, previously working on Valentino: The Last Emperor, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel and Dior and I. Beginning with Halston’s early years as a young, gay man growing up in rural Iowa, Halston charts the stratospheric rise of his brand, through to his tragic downfall at the hands of corporate management who fired him from his own label. This is a story of creative genius versus big business, and over the course of the documentary, it becomes clear why more people don’t know Halston’s name.

Born in 1932 in Depression-era Des Moines, Roy Halston Frowick learnt to sew from his mother, and quickly showed a flair for dressmaking. Growing up in Indiana, the young Halston played milliner to his family members, although it wasn’t until he moved to Chicago in 1952 and enrolled on night classes at the Art Institute that he began to hone his craft. In 1957 he moved to New York City, where, under the mentorship of British-born couturier Charles James, Halston built a reputation as a hat designer. Before long, department store Bergdorf Goodman hired Halston as custom milliner, where his stand-out designs -- including Jackie O’s pink pillbox hat worn to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration -- finally took flight.

Although Halston hadn’t initially bargained on launching a womenswear label, it seemed a natural transition given his visionary eye. In the documentary we see Halston opening his first boutique in 1968 and defining the essence of his ready-to-wear label, underpinned by a strong, minimalist aesthetic. His philosophy was simple: clean lines, sleek silhouettes, and ease of movement; radically different from the fuss and fancy of 70s bohemia. Women, Halston had wisely noted, were now a part of the growing workforce, and needed clothes to provide them with the sartorial freedom they so desperately craved.

The documentary, which premiered back in January at Sundance, charts the rise and the fall of the designer who took on Wall Street. With an impressive cast of talking heads -- Tavi Gevinson, Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Pat Cleveland, Bob Calacello, Carl Epstein, Lesley Frowick, Sassy Johnson, Naeem Khan, and John David Ridge all appear -- the two hour film is a beautiful, but dark investigation of Halston's personal life, excesses, business and poor business decisions (most notably when he sold his line for $16 million to Norton Simon in a move which dramatically reduced his rights to his own designs), but most importantly of all, his aesthetic and vision.

The common thread running throughout Halston’s clothes is, of course, the expert use of the bias cut, where fabric is cut diagonally, rather than along the grain. In Halston, we see how complex, origami-like patterns were used to transform a piece of fabric into louche, sensuous dresses held together by a single seam. “At night I think you want to be turned on and there is nothing more of a turn-on than a fabric which hits the body the way the bias does,” Halston once remarked. Indeed, the Halston woman was strong, confident, and sexually empowered, and his clothes always served to accentuate those traits as well as the curves they draped.

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Image: Berry Berenson Perkins

It wasn’t just Halston’s clothes that were so revolutionary. The designer had a vision that his clothes would be worn far and wide, and, through his runway shows and ever-present entourage of “Halstonettes”, he showed the world the democratic potential of fashion. Here were women of all sizes, ages and ethnicities, such as Karen Bjorsen, Alva Chinn and Pat Cleveland, who rarely left his side. There could be no greater advertisement for this modernity than the legendary Battle of Versailles in 1973, a fashion fundraiser for the crumbling palace, in which Halston electrified the French establishment by sending 36 models, a dozen of whom were African-American, twirling down the runway, while Liza Minelli belted out a cabaret performance of Bonjour Paris!

It has often been said that Halston was ahead of time, and in the end, it was his business ambition that would unravel his empire. Nowadays, high-low collaborations are celebrated as foresight, but in the 80s, Halston was ridiculed for his $1 billion licensing deal with JC Penney, which took his clothes from haute couture to mass-market ubiquity. Elsewhere, a misguided deal with Norton Simon saw Halston sign away the rights to his designs, and his name forever. This proved fatal when a fallout with company chief Carl Epstein led to Halston’s vintage samples being sold off for a handful of dollars, while tapes of his iconic runway shows were erased. After spiralling into self-destructive behaviour, Halston was dismissed as president from his own label, and died from AIDs-related complications in 1990 at the age of 57.

Even as Halston’s legacy faded from view, his influence still lives on in the work of designers like Dries Van Noten, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, who have cultivated simple, sleek silhouettes reminiscent of Halston’s favourite truism “less is more.” But beyond Halston’s unwavering aesthetic, we can thank him for the way his clothes, in the words of Pat Cleveland, “took away the cage.” Chic but practical, affordable without compromising craftsmanship, accessible to all without exception, Halston gave women room to breathe -- a philosophy that won’t ever go out of style.

'Halston' is due to be released in cinemas and on demand on 7 June. Find out more about the film here.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.