Behind the Fashion Documentary “Halston” by Frédéric Tcheng

My first recollection of Halston was when he appeared as the guest star on the famous American television series The Love Boat. There he was—long, lean, handsome, the embodiment of elegance, and surrounded by a beautiful array of ethnically diverse models glamorously dressed. The Halstonnettes—the entourage that was always by his side—included African American Pat Cleveland and Nordic Karen Bjornsen. I was only 10 watching the re-run of the episode where Halston showcases an entire fashion show on a cruise to Acapulco. He made a lasting impression that defined my ideas on sophistication and fashion. I loved him almost as much as the world did in the 70s. Known for his refreshing minimalism, the American fashion designer invented the one-seam dress, cut-on-the-bias made from silk, chiffon or cashmere; that became the look of the era. His aesthetics encompassed more than fashion. The illusion continued, from his extravagant lifestyle and his mid-century minimalist townhouse in Manhattan to the astronomically priced, opulent, mirrored and glass office at the top of Olympic Tower with panoramic views of New York. Halston, the new documentary, shines light on the designer’s forgotten legacy. After 30 years spent creating his empire, and at the height of his success, Halston sells his name to the JCPenny Corporation with the disastrous consequence of becoming obsolete and ousted from his own brand. I had a fascinating conversation with Frédéric Tcheng, the renowned French director about his latest documentary Halston (featured this year at CPH DOX).  Frédéric directed the award winning Dior and I (2014), co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) and co-produced Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008).

Christabelle: Most are unaware that Halston was an incredibly famous fashion icon in his time…
Frédéric: Yes, from what people told me of the fashion world of the 70s; it was Yves Saint Laurent in Paris and Halston in New York.

In the film, when asked who he would prefer to sit with at Studio 54, Andy Warhol is quoted as replying “Halston and Elizabeth Taylor.”
He was huge. I mean actually, Andy (Warhol), Bianca (Jagger), Halston and Liza(Minnelli) were used as one word in the newspapers with hyphens in between their names at the time because they were so often there and so often together. They became emblematic of Studio 54.

The scene in the film where the corporation decides to sell his archived collections for pennies after he is pushed out of his own brand is profoundly devastating. Did you want to tell the story of the artist up against big business?
The first time I read about it in the various biographies that are out there, I felt like this was a business thriller. Of course it resonated with me personally. I thought it was such a big story; I’d have to tell it. It is what really drew me to Halston because I’ve had enough experiences with corporations. As a filmmaker you realize quickly that you can be very alone in front of a group of businessmen who have a totally different agenda than yours. They are not making the film for the beauty of making the film; all they can see is the bottom line and it can be really traumatizing.

I find it interesting that Carl Epstein who had a hand in his ruin wanted to be in the documentary. It’s almost as if he was unconscious of the part he played…
No, he was not oblivious at all. Actually, Carl’s family was concerned, asking, are you sure you want to do this? Carl was being very difficult, a lot of people were telling him he was going to be the villain and that he shouldn’t do it. Both my producer and I spoke in person, and slowly but surely, we showed that we were not out for blood, but we were out for telling the accurate story. Whether it was flattering for Halston or not, we were interested in showing the warts and all, you know—the conflict. I think they understood that, and I don’t think I betrayed their trust. We really tried to be even and fair in the way we treat both parties, not glossing over anything.

Iman did her first runway show with Halston. Do you feel Halston was ahead of his time?
It’s amazing to realize what he had done with diversity, and what he had done with having models of color on the runway very early on-not as token models at all but it was about their personality. It’s important to rediscover the different layers of Halston because he was someone who reinvented himself at every stage.

What do you admire about Halston?
He was always interested in pushing forward. I think it was a part of his American personality. He was from the mid-west, he came out of nowhere and took on New York and went from success to success. That’s what I love about Halston: he always thought everything was possible, he did it and he paid the price.

Interview by Christabelle Beaudry
For more information, see Halston