Following on from his 2014 documentary, Dior and I, Frédéric Tcheng continues to delve into the world of fashion with his latest film, Halston, which opened in New York City this week. It’s a shimmery but cautionary tale of beautiful women, ruthless villains, and an all-American hero from the cornfields of Iowa who makes it to the big city and becomes fashion’s superstar.
Early in his career Halston invited his idol and couturier friend, Charles James, to design a range with him. It did not go well. While Halston greatly admired James’s engineering, he realized that modern glamour should be less fussy, with less scaffolding, allowing fabric to flow with the body’s movements. James meanwhile went to the press to accuse his former friend of plagiarism. From that moment Halston worked alone.
Halston’s singular vision
When he wasn’t a solitary emperor sketching at his red lacquer desk in his mirror-walled office high up in the clouds of midtown Manhattan, he was partying surrounded by an adoring Hollywood elite and his Halstonettes, a hive of models wearing his creations that traveled everywhere with him. A cross between Oscar Wilde and James Stewart, speaking with clipped hauteur, his face hidden behind a cloud of smoke rising from his cigarette holder, Halston emanated 70s elegance, while his matt jersey halters, ultra suede shirt dresses, teeny hotpants, bias cut gowns and caftans offered that elegance to others.
The documentary which weaves intimate interviews with rare archival footage covers his 1961 big break when he put Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat for her husband’s inauguration to his late-60s move from millinery into womenswear, through to his 70s skyrocket when he expanded into perfume, homeware, and outfitted airlines, Girl Scouts, and even the 1976 U.S. Olympics team. Halston was ubiquitous, the physical embodiment of his laser-focused aesthetic. There he was at Studio 54, there he was on TV with Phil Donahue, there he was in China with his extensive entourage followed by a photographer from Womenswear Daily.
Rise and demise of Halston
In an interview, the designer is asked “Is success fun?,” to which he replies, “Oh sure, it’s fun, and it’s not fun, and as my mother says, it’s the price you have to pay.” Having sold his company to Esmark, motivated by a desire to dress all Americans, in a controversial move the designer then agreed to a 1 billion dollar deal with JC Penney which prompted the evening news to announce, “Halston moves from class to mass!” and Bergdorf Goodman to promptly drop him. Luxury designers partnering with department stores would become common towards the century’s close but in the early 80s it was a risky move, and a bookend to the last time Halston attempted to collaborate, the Charles James debacle. So begins the “not fun” period; here is the price he has to pay. Feeling control slipping from his grasp, the micromanaged micromanager resorts to arriving in the office at four in the afternoon in order to avoid executives who dared demand of him to trim the flower budget for his office.
Spiraling cocaine use and a HIV diagnosis provide the epilogue of this story but it is the third act that resonates so tragically. A fumbled attempt to buy back control elicited the ruthless corporate rebuttal, “You don’t own your name, pal, we do.”
To some, the luxury fashion sector and mass market retail might seem neighborly but they often do not even speak the same language. They might make friendly noises across lawyers’ desks during a heady contract-signing rush but completely misunderstand each other immediately thereafter. “Volume!” cries one exec remembering that the focus of the JC Penney deal was to shift immense quantities of product. But if it was the volume of a batwing sleeved chiffon gown cut from one single length of fabric that put Halston at the top, this new volume would bring him to the bottom.
Namesakes losing their name
Esmark’s efforts to isolate Halston, granting lowly staff members authority to circumvent the designer for decision-making, are familiar and ongoing practices in high stakes fashion takeovers–or takebacks. Lurid headlines of behind-the-scenes power moves in the recent PVH/ Raf Simons divorce were all over fashion news at the beginning of this year.
To another question posed in the documentary––Is it tougher to get on top or stay on top?––Halston did not have a ready response. Perhaps the better question might be: how do designers avoid flying too close to the sun when corporate greed necessitates the scaling of ever new heights?
Since Halston, Thierry Mugler, Jil Sander, John Galliano, Roland Mouret are among the designers who have been shown the door after seeing their names wiped from the mastheads of their own companies, but the fashion industry isn’t the better for it. Currently at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the “Thierry Mugler Couturissime” exhibit, the first such show dedicated to the designer, is captivating a new generation of fans who wonder why isn’t fashion this exciting anymore?
But perhaps the most confounding irony in Halston’s story is that although the brand has changed ownership a further half dozen times in the years since, and has seen a revolving door of creative directors (the most famous being Sarah Jessica Parker) all of whom have failed to ignite anything close to the excitement its namesake founder created with the mere snap of a bolt of lamé cloth, it has been rebranded as Halston Heritage.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos: Movie poster, Halston.film; Sequined Halston evening dress, 1974, USA Gift of Celanese, 80.128.12 from YSL + Halston: Fashioning the 70s Photograph by Eileen Costa © The Museum at FIT, WikimediaCommons