If things had gone differently, the red-carpet mileage of awards season would still be splashed with the showy, flowy designs of Roy Halston Frowick: better known simply by his middle name, the Midwest-raised fashion designer belatedly put American couture on the map in the 1970s. After his luxury brand expanded to ubiquitous levels in just a few years, riding a wave of celebrity disco culture, a series of ill-advised business decisions and cruel corporate sabotage combined to demolish it even more suddenly, making Halston a has-been by the time of his AIDS-related death in 1990. It’s a true fashion tragedy that docmaker Frédéric Tcheng unpicks with devotion and compelling attention to detail in his plainly titled “Halston,” though the film errs by treating its subject’s demise as more of a mystery than it really was.
Soon-to-be-rebranded distributor The Orchard has already picked up U.S. rights to this suitably flashy Sundance premiere, which ought to follow a long catwalk of recent rag-trade docs, including last year’s “McQueen” and “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” in finding an appreciative audience, both at the specialty box office and in ancillary. This is terrain that Tcheng knows like the back of his hand, having edited Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and co-helmed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” before making a ravishing solo directorial debut with 2014’s “Dior and I” — the rare fashion doc with an aesthetic sensibility worthy of its subject.
Covering wild-card designer Raf Simons’s first collection for the venerable French fashion house, “Dior and I” was far more preoccupied with process and design than the more sparkly or salacious aspects of its chosen industry. “Halston” is inevitably a bit more gossip-fueled, given its subject’s flamboyant celebrity status, well-known Studio 54 shenanigans and ignominious professional fall from grace. (The guy was BFFs with Liza Minnelli and Bianca Jagger, after all — how clean an account do you want?) Still, it’s underpinned by a genuine, intelligent appreciation of Halston’s brilliance as a designer, the influential way he altered and sleekened the silhouette of American women’s formalwear in his pomp, and his unique technical facility with fabric: Minnelli herself best describes the lithe, swirling movement and surprisingly athletic glamour of his creations with her observation that “Halston’s clothes danced with you.”
Less successful (and consuming far too much screen time in a two-hour movie) is a mannered, fictional framing device that casts prodigious fashion writer Tavi Gevinson as a prying secretary in the Halston archives, sifting through assorted yellowing files and analog tapes to uncover the “truth” of the designer’s downfall, and breathily narrating proceedings with her findings. Shot, scored and accoutred with winkingly camp, shadowy film noir flourishes, this initially amusing distraction soon turns wearying, not least since it has little bearing on Halston’s own milieu or stylistic legacy. (Bring on Detective Disco, if you must.) Moreover, this faux cloak-and-dagger business yields no blinding revelations that aren’t industry knowledge: Tcheng’s film, diligently researched and flooded with fascinating archive nuggets, has all the receipts already in its hands, without need for fussy investigative posing.
When it reverts to conventional documentary storytelling, then, “Halston” is thrilling stuff for fashion nerds, as well as a poignant character study of a misfit ultimately undone by an excessive hunger to prove himself. We’re largely left to surmise the struggles of his upbringing as a gay child in a conservative Des Moines family, and how they shaped the fabulous, fastidious and falsely posh-accented persona that he constructed for himself before entering the industry as a Bergdorf Goodman milliner in the 1960s — famously placing the hat on Jackie Kennedy that launched a million pillboxes. Tcheng sweeps us infectiously through the high-living good times, as his personal line at Bergdorf’s grew into a buzzy independent fashion house, before a landmark 1973 show at no less decadent a venue than the Palace of Versailles sent him supernova.
Tcheng’s almost excessive wealth of video material gives us an atmospheric window into the fevered mood and swinging camaraderie that prevailed in the house of Halston through the 1970s, abetted by copious present-day interviews with the friends, associates and “Halstonettes” (his still-loyal coterie of favored models) that made up his busy inner circle. But business is mixed with pleasure, as “Halston” also methodically documents the chain of corporate partnerships and acquisitions that initially enabled the brand to soar — expanding into perfume, homeware, airline branding and even Girl Scout uniforms — before sputtering with over-ambition and over-crowding at the top. The beginning of the end is identified as Halston’s decision, in 1983, to literally cheapen his brand via a billion-dollar deal with JCPenney.
This unprecedented merging of high fashion and affordable consumerism prompted a major industry backlash from which the designer never recovered, though Tcheng oddly refrains from pointing out that the present-day ubiquity of haute couture fast-fashion collaborations posthumously ensured Halston the last laugh: he had immense foresight, if not much in-the-moment business savvy. The necessarily slower, more somber final act of this mostly riveting ride needs whatever silver linings you can read into it, as the deposed king’s retreat from public life, and his submission to the relentless AIDS epidemic that felled too many a glittering genius of the era, are handled with grace and care. The killer blow is the revelation that most of Halston’s samples were sold off by the company’s careless buyers, denying his memory even the complete retrospective wardrobe it deserves: finally, it’s in other designers’ clothes that his artistry is most enduringly visible.