“He took away the cage,” says a former model in the documentary “Halston.” Coming to prominence as a designer in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Halston created deceptively simple, clean-lined garments that flowed on the body like water; shunning the multiple seams and elaborate construction that were hallmarks of traditional couture. Sleek, sexy and solid-colored, often cut on a rippling bias, his clothes were unfussily chic. “Fabric to him,” said an admirer, “was like clay to a sculptor.”
Directed by Frederic Tcheng, who’s made a specialty of chic fashion-designer documentaries (he had a hand in “Dior and I,” “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor”), this film celebrates Halston’s work but shows more interest in the man — and the unexpected corporate drama — behind it.
Born Roy Halston Frowick to a working-class Iowa family in 1932, the designer rarely spoke of his modest past, preferring to reinvent himself as a single-named fashion force. As a New York milliner, he made his name by designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration. Eventually he developed his own clothing line, quickly finding celebrity fans such as Liza Minnelli, who accepted her Academy Award wearing Halston.
Halston’s story, like fashion’s hemlines, was one of great highs and lows. He became the first fashion designer to have his company purchased by a corporate conglomerate, in the early ’70s; by the end of the decade, he had launched numerous successful licenses including a wildly popular eponymous perfume. In 1982, long before every imaginable designer had a line at Target, he signed a mass-market deal with JC Penney — the first of its kind. And with all this success came trouble: cocaine, nights spent partying at Studio 54, erratic work habits, financial irresponsibility. (We learn that Halston had a habit of having meals flown to his beach house by private plane — and charging it to the company.) Eventually forced out of the company that bore his name, Halston became ill with HIV/AIDS and died quietly and too soon, at age 57.
Tcheng employs the usual host of talking heads to tell this story — former co-workers, models, friends, family — but finds a stylish framework that you imagine Halston would appreciate: The film is structured as a sort of documentary noir, with Tavi Gevinson as a young employee who’s digging into Halston company records, trying to solve the mystery of her former boss’s disappearance. It’s a risky contrivance and Tcheng doesn’t overuse it, but it gives the film a sleek playfulness; at one point, we see a sequined jumpsuit lying twisted on the floor, like a crime-scene outline. And at the end, we see Gevinson in a beautifully timeless red Halston, gazing into a mirror as she plays with the dress’s drape; it’s as if he’s still speaking, still creating.
★★★½ “Halston,” directed by Frederic Tcheng. 115 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Opens July 12 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.