Halston pulls back the curtain on fashion for all
As someone completely unfamiliar with the life and work fo Roy Halston Frowick, I was immediately hooked by film that initially presents itself as a mystery. Instead of playing it straightforward in providing a breakdown of why the fashion designer turned businessman was notable, this documentary adds a compelling hook by introducing a narrator in the form of a character adjacent to the story. It is immediately and expressly stated that the narrator is indeed fictional, but that the story she’s telling is very true.
Shot like a stylish modern noir, this framing device depicts our narrator as an investigator hell-bent on finding out why, at a time when the Halston brand was thriving, the man who gave it his name was suspiciously absent. Was it foul play? Shady business dealings? Mysterious illness? We just don’t know, but this enthused young detective will surely get to the bottom of it. Right?
Almost immediately, this potentially compelling device is forgotten, and we launch into a boilerplate documentary that simply chronicles Halston’s life while describing why Halston was so beloved, how his style became a mass-marketed product, and how, at the peak of it all, he was ousted from his position at the top. Our narrator intermittently chimes in to deliver a basic play-by-play of her actions in solving this mystery (that as it turns out, isn’t really a mystery at all). Anytime her “mission” is alluded to it slows the generally peppy film to a complete halt. It also doesn’t help that the filmmakers occasionally speak to their subjects from behind the camera, further dissolving the “reality” of this baffling framing device. If it’s not the narrator telling the story, who is? Just what is the point of creating an aggressively functionless character to tell a story that ultimately, she does not tell? Why act like Halston’s story is some long unsolved bit of glossed-over history when such a notion isn’t even remotely true. It’s a small complaint for sure, but this weird avenue is so uninspired and strange that, had the material of the film not been compelling in its own right, it could’ve sunk the entire thing.
But enough about that. This is still a pretty good movie.
Some background. Roy Halston Frowick began his career as a hat maker. His designs were so beloved that it led to a stream of successes — a shop window here, a celebrity endorsement there — culminating in him becoming one of the most prominent designers who ever lived. His fashions were championed by women everywhere on account of how little his pieces required a certain body type. His items existed without a structure of their own, instead relying on the body of the wearer to do the work. As such, he could dress anyone, no matter her shape or size, and it was agreed upon by all of his models/customers that he could take any old piece of cloth and turn it into high art. This ability drew the patronage of the fashion elite, most notably Liza Minnelli, who wears Halston designs to this very day. As Halston’s celebrity grew, so did his clout and his ego, causing him to make a variety of questionable business decisions, the results of which ran the gamut from “revolutionary” to “as baffling as creating an imaginary character to narrate a documentary.”
What Halston is most famous for was the way he turned his name into a product, striking up a deal with JCPenney to bring his designs into the homes of the middle class. Without Halston, we wouldn’t have Kathy Ireland brand dish towels at K-Mart or Marc Anthony brand t-shirts at Kohl’s. Before Halston, the divide between high-fashion and accessible fashion was a gulf simply not to be crossed. He bravely traversed it, but in doing so he entered a dangerous business terrain without precedent, effectively putting his very identity on the line.
Assembling an impressive amount of beautiful footage from both Halston’s personal universe as well as the world at large, writer/director Frédéric Tcheng (Dior and I) has created a tangible portrait of a time and place previously inaccessible outside of the apocryphal imagery of fashion dramas. The footage on display brings the viewer into a truly exciting place and infuses a bubble-bursting reality into what looks, to an outsider, like the richest of fantasies. Sure, Halston’s story follows the same path as any other celebrity rise/fall tale, but it’s the colorful accessibility to a setting that many, myself included, would readily dismiss that makes the film worthwhile...but whoever conceived of the investigative framing device needs to have their head examined.
Halston opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.