Roy Halston Frowick, known simply as Halston, was an American fashion designer who rose from Iowa origins to international household name status in the 1970s. As one talking head describes it, “elegance and ease” were at the forefront of his minimalist women’s clothing, “and a sense of owning power without being masculine and honouring the body you have.” Halston’s work is attributed with creating a relaxed urban lifestyle for women in the fallout of the preceding decade’s social revolutions, allowing them to be “free” inside their clothes.
He was known for his social sphere as much as his designs, becoming one of the figures to help make Studio 54 the cultural force that it was, alongside close friends Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol, with whom he was regularly photographed at the nightclub. Through new and archive interviews, the film shows how Halston shaped the lives of those people and others, and how he literally and figuratively shaped the fashion world during his time in and out of the spotlight before his untimely death, aged 57, in 1990. He was one of a number of high-profile figures to die of HIV-related illnesses at the tail end of the Republican Party’s years of cruel public indifference to the AIDS epidemic.
Halston the documentary isn’t focused solely on this tragedy, though it does take a significant interest in the cautionary tale of a superstar artist selling his brand and name rights to Wall Street; fearlessly charging into a new world of affordable fashion without any clear sense of direction, bringing his loyal team along and working them hard to make the transition a success.
What sets Tcheng’s film apart from most fashion documentaries is how it is framed almost like a financial thriller, with moody re-enactments and a framing device with a fictional narrator (Tavi Gevinson) digging through archives while clad in Halston’s finest. This eventually wearying device ultimately doesn’t deliver any insights that aren’t conveyed in a more compelling, uh, fashion by the more conventional documentary storytelling of the film’s main body.