Frederic Tcheng didn’t set out to make another documentary about the fashion industry. Then again, he views Halston as more of a corporate thriller that just happens to be about one of the most influential American designers of the last half-century.
Tcheng (Dior and I) admits he was reluctant, and wasn’t all that familiar with Ray Halston Frowick when a producer pitched the project.
“I had seen some photographs of him at Studio 54 with the sunglasses, and I knew that persona, but it was hard for me to take him seriously. It seemed like a cliché of the fashion designer,” Tcheng said during a recent stop in Dallas. “But I didn’t know much else, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people.”
Yet the filmmaker was curious enough to start researching. And he found that behind the disco-era glitz and flamboyance, and aside from his legacy of chic ultrasuede women’s wear, was a deeply private man from modest beginnings who built his own empire and then had it taken away by hubris and corporate greed.
“I felt like an archaeologist — just kept digging and digging,” Tcheng said. “Through this business story, I became obsessed with Halston. Everything flowed from there.”
That’s why Tcheng’s film is a hybrid of sorts, framed by noir-style scripted sequences of a fictional archivist combing through VHS tapes of shady business dealings involving the Halston brand following a corporate takeover in the 1980s.
That bridges the more conventional sequences chronicling his start in the business, his friendships with celebrities including Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli (who’s interviewed on camera), his controlling management style, his romantic entanglements during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the lasting influence of his simple yet elegant couture designs.
“He was never someone who talked about the past, so it became something like a game. I was trying to unmask Halston and find out who he was,” Tcheng said. “He was a master image-maker and a perfectionist. Everything became about making these images, which sometimes drove him to excess.”
After about one year of research, Tcheng said the production and editing process lasted more than 30 months. He hopes the result will highlight Halston’s achievements for a new generation, such as the “democratic” approach to fashion that included the promotion of plus-sized models and models of color.
The film also touches on Halston’s lucrative agreement to introduce a budget-conscious line at JCPenney during the 1980s that was mocked at the time, and even led to his downfall in the industry, but now seems a forerunner during an era when such licensing deals are commonplace.
“People don’t know who he is. That’s a problem when you’ve got someone who put American fashion on the map and had such a crucial impact on design — but also on the way business is done and images are created, or the way fashion designers are presented in the media,” Tcheng said. “He invented a lot of these things. It easier to appreciate how ahead of his time he was.”