Art and commerce collide in “Halston,” Frédéric Tcheng’s gorgeous documentary about the eponymous fashion designer. The film begins with Roy Halston Frowick’s contribution to Jackie Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural look — that much-mimicked pillbox hat — and traces his rise through the ’60s and ’70s and his ultimate decline in the ’80s.
A framing story featuring actress and fashion writer Tavi Gevinson as a fictional archivist allows Tcheng to make good use of extensive historical footage, ranging from Halston’s runway shows to his pop culture appearances. Contemporary and archival interviews offer insight from Halston’s friends and collaborators, including Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Joel Schumacher, as well as the many models who seemed to follow him everywhere, aka the “Halstonettes.”
From its opening credits set to Elvis Presley’s “Fame and Fortune,” “Halston” emphasizes the importance of the manufactured image and celebrity. Halston and his fashion shows were the first to draw big stars to attend, catalyzing the overlap between fashion and fame we have now. His ambition expands his line’s influence, leading to him selling his name to the Norton Simon corporation.
The designer himself became a celebrity with a curated public image that feels normal among our current Instagram-driven lives. But what’s interesting about Halston is that he didn’t want his designs to be just for the rich and famous; he collaborated with JCPenney on clothes for middle-class Americans.
That bold move prefigured the diffusion lines we see today as well as signaling the end of Halston’s reign as king, along with the acquisition of his parent company by yet another conglomerate. With that development, “Halston” isn’t just a story of 20th century fashion; instead, it evolves to encompass a larger commentary on the ever-shrinking number of corporations that seem to own everything and how that ownership can change a brand and its creator’s control.
Tcheng made “Dior and I” and “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” and he displays knowledge of the industry and the context for the story he’s telling here. Those unfamiliar with Halston’s work will get a course in his timeless designs that felt wearable in the ’70s and wouldn’t feel out of place on a red carpet today. The film also has immense value for those who aren’t new to his world with its wealth of footage they likely haven’t seen.
“Halston” places the designer at the top of fashion’s most influential artists, but it avoids hagiography, showing his ego and addiction. Unfortunately, just as Halston did in life, this documentary avoids delving deeply into the mysterious man. “The past just doesn’t interest me so much,” Halston told an interviewer. Like Halston’s bias-cut designs, Tcheng’s documentary only skims the surface of his life, but boy, does it look great doing it.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts May 31, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles