TV & Movies

The making of a fashion icon

Halston
Written and directed by Frederic Tcheng
106 minutes, rated M
Limited release
★★★★

Would you buy a hat made by Roy Frowick? Probably not, so Roy began using just his middle name – Halston – when he moved from Chicago to New York in 1960 to become head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman's. He put a pillbox hat on Jacqueline Kennedy's well-coiffed head for the presidential inauguration and two stars were born.

Frederic Tcheng, who's French, had already made films on Diana Vreeland and the house of Dior. He was fascinated by the American-ness of Halston's story – the spectacular rise and fall of a fashion emperor born in the corn belt in Des Moines, Iowa (not that he ever told anyone). Tcheng's engaging if fussily put-together film is as much about business as fashion – and it is a compelling story. Halston was first to do many things – the first to use major stars like Liza Minnelli as his ambassadors, the first to use lots of models of colour, the first home-grown American designer to compete with the French fashion hegemony, the first to partner his high-priced label with a major low-cost retailer (JC Penney), and the first to recognise the marketing benefits of his own highly-constructed image.

Halston at Studio 54 in 1978 with Dolly Parton.

He surrounded himself with a bevy of beautiful models and actresses who became known as the Halstonettes. He partied hard at Studio 54 with Mick and Bianca and Liz and Liza. Behind the scenes he screamed at his people, became a heavy user of cocaine and behaved like a martinet, even with his friends. His image was as the suave, elegant man-about-town; the reality was a little darker.

He made superbly tailored clothes for the most beautiful women in the world, turned his hat business into a fashion empire worth $100 million, then lost control of it by selling himself and his label to big business. The tycoons loved the glamour, but the bean-counters wondered why meals prepared by his chef in New York had to be flown to him at his house in Montauk at company expense.

Tcheng treats the film like a film noir, with a fictional narrator looking through the archives of Halston's life. It's a homage to the narrators in Citizen Kane and Sunset Blvd but it's unnecessary. The historical footage is good enough to sustain the story, which builds to a tragic finale in the 1980's, when Halston become one of the first fashion kings to succumb to HIV/AIDS.

Tcheng does a good job convincing us Halston's life and work were remarkable and his demise complicated – part self-inflicted by the drugs and excess, the rest by his willingness to swim with the sharks of Wall Street, for whom the line of a piece of chiffon on a woman's body meant nothing more than profit.

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