The designer Roy Halston Frowick is explained and introduced to a present-day audience in the new documentary “Halston,” from director Frédéric Tcheng.
The film, which was acquired at Sundance by The Orchard for theatrical release (it previously bought Tcheng’s 2014 documentary “Dior and I”), pulls back the curtain on the iconic American designer’s life and legacy, from his Bergdorf Goodman beginnings to his history-making J.C. Penney deal.
Tcheng began working on the project in earnest two years ago, but first met producer Roland Ballester two years before that and began fundraising. Following his work on “Dior and I,” he wasn’t sure he would launch into another fashion documentary, but upon being presented with the details of Halston’s life by Ballester, he was sold.
“At the core of it, it’s really the business story that interested me,” Tcheng says from the premiere’s after party, at CNN Films’ Sundance pop-up. “Whenever I approach a fashion story, I always look at ‘how does this go beyond fashion, and how can I tell a human story?’ And for me, what was devastating was to see how Halston was crushed by this corporation. I think
I’ve had experiences with corporations where I felt very alone, as a creative person, versus the logic of the bottom line. And it was important to me to talk about that.”
In addition to the Dior documentary, which focused on Raf Simons’ first couture collection for the house, Tcheng directed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” in 2011. However, he doesn’t see himself as a fashion person; his background is in engineering, a field he identified in much of Halston’s work.
“The sheer genius of his craft was actually something that I was totally unaware of, as someone who pays attention to fashion but not by any means trained in fashion. But the engineering of the clothes that you see in the patterns, with the way he would cut a garment in one piece of fabric, with one seam, two seams…if you have to compare it to someone contemporary, he’s like the Steve Jobs of fashion; really, there was a minimalism, a demand on himself to create the simplest, most pure clothes,” Tcheng says. “And that really impressed me; I had no idea.”
Tcheng mixed real footage with a few scripted scenes, featuring Tavi Gevinson in character as a young researcher in the Seventies piecing together Halston’s life (Cornelia Guest — who knew the late designer from when she was a girl — also has a small role in the film, as one of Halston’s muses, D.D. Ryan).
“She’s from that young generation, and to me that was very important to bringing Halston into the 21st century, and see how a younger generation would react to his designs and discover his designs,” the director says of casting Gevinson. “And I love that Tavi is one foot in fashion, but one foot in acting, and one foot in writing; she’s a triple threat. She’s someone who, like me, tries to envision fashion as a way to understand the world.”
Ultimately, the film aims to give a voice to the designer’s legacy.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t have an awareness of Halston. I feel like his legacy has been drowned by the corporate takeovers, and unfortunately the younger generation, or even me…I didn’t know, besides Studio 54 and the usual tropes, I didn’t really know that much about Halston,” he says. “And I was like, ‘how is that possible, that this man who was on top of the world, and achieved so much, how can he be forgotten 30 years later?’ To me, that was really sad, and it was fascinating to be able to open that time period and go into it.”
As for what’s next, he’s not ready to rule another fashion doc out just yet.
“Why not? Because I said ‘never’ before, and apparently it’s ‘never say never,’” he says. “I think fashion is a mirror of the times, and it’s just so much fun to see the world through the lens of fashion. And there are just so many stories, so I don’t pretend to have exhausted all the stories in fashion.”