Hillary Atkin

CNN Examines an Overlooked Visionary of the ’60s and ’70s

Aug 22, 2019

He was a contemporary of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein and paved the way for other illustrious fashion designers who created global empires including Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors.

Yet the name of Halston has largely faded into the sands of time.

Born Roy Halston Frowick in Des Moines, Iowa, Halston was an influential and larger-than-life American designer whose cutting-edge fashion concepts are still an inspiration in today’s trends, a man who redefined fashion by reflecting radical changes in society in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet his was a life cut short during the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s, at a time when his career likely would have still been in full bloom.

A new feature documentary presented by CNN Films, titled simply “Halston,” aims to shed light and provide insight into a visionary man who had reached the highest levels of success in the fashion world but was thwarted not only ultimately by disease but by bad business and lifestyle decisions.

Unlike some of the other aforementioned American designers who started in either sportswear or merchandising, Halston’s beginnings were in the world of haute couture. In the early 1960s, while working for luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman, he gained immediate fame and worldwide acclaim for designing First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat.

From there, he went on to create a business empire that included couture gowns, ready-to-wear fashion, uniforms (for the likes of Braniff Airlines flight attendants), fragrances, accessories and housewares.

His dresses were sexy, flowy yet streamlined, the perfect get-up for the youthful energy and liberated vibe– and the disco craze — of the 1970s. He put on fashion shows attended by celebrities and socialites at his chic atelier and company headquarters in New York City’s Olympic Tower. (The clothing was cut and sewn there by his employees, grateful to have sunlit views of Midtown Manhattan out the windows as they worked.)

Halston himself was a glamorous fixture on the New York social scene, partying at the famed Studio 54 with luminaries including Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Bianca Jagger. He dressed A-list stars for the Oscars, and with his own movie star good looks and cool cachet, was a frequent guest on television shows, including an appearance on “What’s My Line?” near the beginning of his career.

Foreshadowing the now-commonplace deals between famous names in fashion and nationwide and international chains, the acclaimed designer was the first to partner with a mass retailer, JCPenney, in a deal that eventually drove his business into the dirt.

The film, directed and produced by Frédéric Tcheng, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and played theatrically earlier this year. It is constructed as the unraveling of a business mystery, beginning with a narrator (played by Tavi Gevinson) who takes viewers through the story via videotapes from Halston’s era.

One of the most riveting sections involves rarely-seen footage of his groundbreaking trip to China with a group of racially diverse models who put on a fashion show at the Great Wall.

Interwoven with scenes of Halston at his office, out making the scene with the beautiful people of the time and numerous clips from his talk show appearances are interviews with those who knew him best, including his niece Lesley Frowick and close friends Liza Minnelli, Joel Schumacher, Elsa Perretti and Marisa Berenson. Some of his models, known as “the Halstonettes,” also offer their insights and reminiscences of the designer.

We spoke with Tcheng over the phone this week about the rise and fall of America’s first superstar fashion designer.

Fashion is obviously your forte with your previous films on Dior, Valentino and Diana Vreeland. What specifically drove you on this project?

I have a history of fashion films, and was also a little wary, because I was looking for something outside of fashion. Actually my producer, Roland Ballester, had access to the family. He said it was a compelling story. I read a couple books, and the story was so epic and so good. There was an emotional connection that I didn’t expect to find in the business storyline, the way he was kicked out of his own company. That was something I felt I had experience with on a different level. As a creative person you always struggle to find your place. I’ve been in those situations, which are traumatic. That was the moment, his time in the early 80s, when fashion became big business.

How did Halston become such a singularly influential designer in American fashion?

First, he was genius in understanding that women’s lives were changing, and they didn’t want to wear constricted clothes like the couture clothing coming from Paris. American style was about comfort. Women were being liberated and he wanted to see them– a diverse group of body shapes and races – celebrating themselves on the runway. It was miles away from what French couture was doing and American fashion had never had that. That really kicked off his career, along with his runway show in Versailles.

He was a designer in the true sense. He liberated women from constraint. He approached it like a sculptor modeling clay but with his medium of fabric. He tried to get to the simplest and purest form of design, usually one or two pieces with one or two seams. The way the fabric falls on the body with the bias cut, the fabric is more drape-y and interacts with the body. That was at the core of his fashion. Women responded immediately. It was a different feel. You felt free, almost naked under the clothes, empowered in a sense.

Tell us more about the archival footage of Halston and how you used it to tell the story.

We looked for never before seen footage. I wanted to do a thorough investigation of what was there. He was on TV all the time, projecting pictures of his life through television appearances. It was almost like Instagram before there was Instagram. It was a question of getting archival houses to dig further. Halston in China in 1980 had been lost for decades. We found raw tapes of him preparing for the trip. Suddenly you’re in the showroom with him, seeing the perfectionist, the tyrant — and the genius. My goal is to take you back to that time.

In the film, you see Halston hobnobbing with the biggest boldfaced names of the time. What insights did you get from speaking with people like Liza Minnelli and Joel Schumacher?

It was not easy, building trust one person at a time. Liza was very generous and very protective of Halston. She says that he was a friend and that she doesn’t want to destroy his legacy and does not want to give anything to anyone digging for dirt. She’s very much present and active and humble.

It was amazing to be in the presence of people shaping our culture and it had a profound impact.

What was his connection with Andy Warhol? They are often seen together in the footage.

They were very different. Halston was so confident, while Warhol was withdrawn and let other people do the talking. Yet they connected. Halston owned Warhols and had them all over the house, and even collaborated with him on some dresses with Warhol’s famous poppies. They were very close artistically and it was a good business arrangement. Both lived off New York high society, the rich ladies. Warhol was doing paintings of them and Halston would dress them. Two gay guys from the Midwest were suddenly on top of society, and always partying together.

Several of the interviewees got very emotional when speaking about Halston.

A lot of people who knew him and worked with him were really affected on a deep emotional level. He was charismatic and exuded confidence, especially for women who were very young. Halston takes over your life, and they saw him as a little bit of a father figure. There was also a little bit of a cult of personality around him. There was a certain protocol when he came to the office, and an atmosphere at office– and he required everyone to wear black.

Halston seemed like a master of PR yet he comes off as very haughty and aloof during some of his media appearances.

He was 100% self-invented. He’d created a persona with the black turtleneck and cigarette holder. He was very self-aware, and very strong in how he protected himself. He represented this grand persona of the fashion designer, which comes across as arrogant now, but people were different then. You had to present yourself. The concept of likability hadn’t appeared, and everything was much more constructed. I think he was very affable at the beginning. He was attuned to the counterculture, and he was cute and young on “What’s My Line?” Then ten years later, everyone looks up to him as very successful and rich. I think you become a bit of a caricature of yourself. It happens to a lot of people who become famous. You look at “Citizen Kane,” the rise and fall. You start with all these ideas, make progress, become successful and suddenly you’re the old thing. It’s a natural cycle of culture.

What do you see as the causes of his downfall?

It’s hard to reframe it from one moment; it’s much more complicated. What interested me more was playing with the idea of different versions. Some say it was the JCPenney deal, some say it was the relationship with his boyfriend, Victor Hugo, or the cocaine, the corporation, the perfectionism, the control freak in him. It’s all of those. It’s hard to simplify someone’s life. With the corporation, it was a lucrative deal in ’73 that backfired ten years later. You could say if he didn’t see his name everywhere, he would have remained a little designer. Everything has a price, and a flipside, and I was interested in showing that in the film.

What is Halston’s legacy in the fashion world today?

It’s all around: minimalism in clothes is everywhere, the way he freed the body from structure makes you feel good. His legacy is also in the business world. Now you look at the JC Penney deal. He was the first and paid the price–and paved the way for everyone else in the corporatization of fashion. He was the first to strike a deal. He was a pioneer in the realm of fashion. In pop culture he’s been forgotten, which it is surprising when you think of how big he was in the 70s. I wanted to take the audience on an investigation, trying to find a key to Halston’s life, like Citizen Kane.

(“Halston” premieres on CNN Sunday, Aug. 25, at 6 and 9 p.m. PT/9 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET and via CNN On Demand and CNNgo Aug. 26-Sept. 7.)

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