Film Review: HALSTON (2019) DIR. FRÉDÉRIC TCHEN
The rise and fall of the immensely successful designer of nearly all things wearable is both fascinating and cautionary. How the young man from the Midwest came from being the reigning milliner in New York in the 60s at Bergdorf Goodman, topping all the best heads, to creating a hugely successful clothing line and blazing a trail in the business of licensing his brand is the stuff of legend. The glamorous, high-wattage names, the stunning homes, the dazzling parties, the trips, the shows, all belie the intensely hard work that was behind all of the success. What is also revealed is a portrait of a complicated perfectionist. A man of huge charisma and charm who inspired great loyalty and affection from those close to him, but who also could suddenly turn into a demanding tyrant if his standards were not met. Bad decisions, grandiosity, drugs, delusion, denial and AIDS brought the whole glamorous story to its sad end. But what a grand trip it was.
The slightly gimmicky framework for the film as a noir-ish mystery does little to enhance, and slightly distracts from the content which is full of the fabulousness that surrounded Halston. The 1960s which was the approximate birth of Halston, the man, who emerged full-blown from the head of Roy Halston Frowick from Iowa is fittingly evoked by Elvis Presley singing Fame and Fortune, 1960s graphics, and contextual details like bulky 8-track cassettes and corded phones. One could say he started at the top, beginning with hats. Notably he’s the man who designed Jackie Kennedy’s signature pillbox hats, including the one she was wearing when her husband was assassinated. He was the hatter of choice for the elite of society and show business. When his relationship with Bergdorf’s ended, he seems to have moved effortlessly into the business of fashion design. Unclear where his funding came from, he was nonetheless able to open an atelier on the second floor of Madison Avenue at 68th Street with an avid following. Details of how this transition came about are sketchy. He enlisted the help of his good friend, art director, Joel Schumacher who helped him decorate the studio like a very posh salon, remarkably the opposite of the spare clean lines that one associates with Halston’s designs.
His trajectory was jagged but always upward and included many fascinating episodes and encounters, not least of which was the uneasy collaboration with Charles James, a gladiatorial combat between two arch control freaks. More fruitful, as well as fraught, were those with Elsa Peretti, Joe Eula, and Victor Hugo. Halston’s great leap forward came with the licensing agreement with Norton Simon in 1973 to launch a fragrance. He opened a huge corporate office in the Olympic Tower and produced the most successful American fragrance to date. That opened the floodgates of licensing every category of accessory. 1973 was also the year of the Battle of Versailles, the first time that American fashion designers were invited to show their collections in Paris. It was a triumph for all of the five designers who participated. It was groundbreaking in many ways, including the use of black models and Liza Minelli, who sang. He bought the iconic Paul Rudolph townhouse on the Upper East Side. It was a banner year, arguably the apex for H, as he was known by those closest to him.
Then Studio 54 opened and the wild and crazy partying became a lifestyle. Cocaine became a mandatory substance in order to keep up the pace of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The trinity of Halston, Liza and Bianca, were staples of the scene, along with Andy, Liz, and Bob. The slide downhill is sad, as well as predictable. The success and the drugs had gone to his head. When he agreed to do a collection for J.C. Penney, his old clients began leaving him in droves. When Esmart bought Norton Simon and Halston’s name, they were ruthless. They had no respect for what the brand stood for and stripped Halston of everything he had built and sold off all of his prototypes at bargain basement prices to anyone who had $25. It was ignominious and unbelievably crass.
After Halston left the business and discovered he had AIDS, he sold all of his East Coast assets, reconnected with his family and moved to California, where he lived out the last year of his life, in a seemingly peaceful way. He must have been exhausted. His creativity never waned. He broke so much new ground in design and the business of fashion that his legacy is huge. It is a fascinating inside look at the life, work, and talent of a captivating personality.