Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 04, 2019 8:25 pm 
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Simple chic in Seventies New York

Halston's comfortable, minimalist designs (often in loose, flowing fabrics) dominated fashion in the America of the Seventies and early Eighties, perfection created in New York when it was a mess but creatively rich. Like every great couturier, he worked with lightning speed and a Midas touch. Designs flowed into handsome little sketches on paper and onto the backs of models, and it all had his distinctive look, whose influence lives on, three decades later. He was, to quote an authoritative recent Times article cued to accompany the theatrical release of Tcheng's Halston, to begin with a "small-town Midwesterner who ascended to the highest levels of fashion, an inspired technician whose bias-cut dresses, masterworks of structure and refined simplicity, altered the look of 20th-century American design." As the article also explains, he showed other sides of his talent designing the US 1976 Olympic uniforms, and uniforms for Girl Scouts leaders, the staff of Brainiff Airlines, and - a bigger, and totally different project - costumes for the dance productions of his friend Martha Graham. He also was a grandiose control freak, who liked to manage everything, and always traveled around with an entourage of models who were called the Halstonettes (who included black women when that was more rare). He made some great business decisions and at least one big horrible one - selling his brand to the bargain chain JC Penney, which essentially destroyed his own fashion empire.

Tcheng's film tells us all about this great American designer (maybe the greatest, anyway the most famous and still honored and imitated), his origins, rise, period of success, fall, exile when ousted from his own company and premature death of AIDS-related illness (apparently pulmonary Kaposi's sarcoma) at the age of 57 in 1990. He passed away in San Francisco, where his family then was, not in Des Moines, where he was born in 1932. Someone remembers him happily driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in an open Rolls Royce convertible - a rare sight because in Manhattan he was always chauffeured.

He went to California to be with his own, leaving New York, where he had flourished and had been one of the most seen celebrity faces at Studio 54 during its brief glory from 1977 to 1980. There, he was always photographed with Lisa Minelli and Andy Warhol. Sometimes, it is said, he would merely go in with Lisa, pose for the myriad cameramen there gathered, and then say "Let's go," and leave by the back door to go home. This explains a lot. Eventually he (like Saint Laurent, as well recorded in Bertrand Bonello's excellent film) did a lot of drugs and alcohol. He always had a cigarette in hand (it's always a long one in the photos, though, perhaps not lighted.) But he was a very hard worker, and it seems unlikely that he stayed up all night at the famous disco very often.

These women included, beside Lisa, Jacqueline Kennedy, whose pillbox hat he designed for her husband's inauguration as President, also Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Diana Vreeland. Angelica Huston was one of his models. Tcheng's movie lists more.

This is a very serviceable documentary but, like the recent effort about the eccentric car magnate John DeLorean, it trIes too hard to be different and only undermines its own interesting message. In this case this is with a running theme of "lost footage," of "mystery" using faux-found footage, maybe inspired by the fact hat an odious corporate manager (heard from at length here) called in after Halston foolishly sold his brand (perhaps valued at a billion dollars) to JC Penney, destroyed his collection of tapes - as well as his wardrobe of dress samples, the living record of his creations.

There is a little about those early years in Iowa, or elsewhere in the Midwest, where Roy Halston Frowick (his given name) grew up in a loving but by no means well-off family, during the Depression. And we learn that he went to the Chicago Art Institute for a while and then quickly became a milliner so gifted Lily Daché, the New York hat queen, invited him to join her, and from there he soon went on his own and became an in-house designer for the poshest of stores, Bergdorf Goodman. Success there led him to start his own multi-department* one-named "Halston" business. He was already ascendant in the Sixties, and designed many of the masks worn at Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball (though he may not have been there, and so perhaps not invited). Eventually he located in a very grand top floor skyscraper location, giant spaces with nothing but mirrors and light, the grandest fashion house you've ever seen. It may only have lacked the charisma of European history and elegance. But one of his first moments of glory was a show, with three other US designers, at Versailes, no less.

There is something very glitsy, almost oily, about Halston. His way of speaking hides his gayness only a little more than Truman Capote's, than which it's also deeper. He is very articulate, and this is a unique aspect, to hear a great fashion designer speak to us not only in well-turned sentences but in unaccented, American English. His one great model, apparently, was the rather mysterious Anglo-American couture great, Charles James. When he was in the great glass palace and he started losing his hold, he also began screaming at everyone, and this was doubtless fueled by hangovers leavened with cocaine.

But the harsh, megalomaniac side is leavened by the entry into the film of Lesley Frowick, Halston's niece, whom he took into the business relatively late in the game, but saw, and sees, when we hear from her, a softer, more human side of the man. She has written a book, obviously biased, because she loved him, but perhaps for now the definitive one, the 2014 Halston: Inventing American Fashion, with a forward by Lisa Minelli. Lisa is heard from in the film, and was a great friend who remains loyal, indeed refusing absolutely to speak a word of his drug use. When she went to Betty Ford, Halston is heard to say, well, some people have to do that sort of thing. Others can take care of it themselves.

The best moment, for me, where this film sings because it gets to the heart of couture as art, is when it shows the cutting of those "bias cut" dresses. It shows for a few moments how Halston could cut a big swatch of soft fabric and drape it around a naked model - these dresses were to be worn with nothing underneath - and voila! a beautiful dress with maximum freedom of movement, comfort, and elegance: magic. Here Tcheng finds a capture (there are many videos of the man in action; this is the age of those) of the creative genius of the man. Mostly, this a conventional biodoc. It lacks the specificity and originality of Tcheng's visually dazzling record of the fashion historian, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel or his 2014 Dior and I/Dior et moi, which more journalistically, contemporaneously, covers the arrival of Raf Simons to take over the House of Dior a few years ago. These delve freely into the nitty-gritty of fashion people on the fly. This one is archival films and talking heads.
*For those who want to do their homework and look at 1982's Halston designs at his best and in every facet, there is on Youtube a 21-minute promotional film narrated by Halston himself about that year. This will show you, better than anything in Frédéric Tcheng's latecomer documentary, what a season of his fashions was like and the range of products that fall under the Halston name, including, described in the film, "Halston" perfume, so much known and admired cab drivers recognized it.

Halston, 115 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019 and showed at at least a half dozen other US festivals. Theatrical release in New York City May 24, 2019.

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