One of the consistent criticisms of documentaries that focus on an important cultural personality is that they follow a basic chronological pattern. They trace the life and times of said person, presented through archival footage and talking head interviews with those who knew them. A documentary that does this can often come off as the cinematic equivalent of reading a Wikipedia article, giving the viewer a bullet point look at the life of an iconic figure. Halston – the latest documentary from Dior and I director Frédéric Tcheng – tries to take an exhausted formula and breathe new life into it, but instead, Tcheng mucks up an intriguing story with a clumsy narrator device, by-the-numbers storytelling, and a myopic look at its subject’s life
Halston begins presenting the idea of two Halstons: the Iowan who came to New York under the name Roy Halston Frowick, and who that man became when he entered the world of fashion, the mononymous Halston. Halston became one of the most important figures in United States fashion from the 1960s through the 1980s. As a hatmaker for Bergdorf Goodman, Halston make Jackie Kennedy’s infamous pillbox hat, and dressed such celebrities as Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. As his empire grew, Halston’s talent in fashion knew no bounds, crafting everything from intricate dresses to Hot Pants, crafting outfits for everyone from the 1976 U.S. Olympic team to the Girl Scouts.
As Halston’s influence grew, so did his responsibilities and power. Halston’s missteps in business, his love of the excess, and his attempts to work with quantity-focused department stores led to his downfall. By the time he died in 1990 from AIDS, Halston has become passé, not even in control of his own name or company anymore.
In an archival interview with Halston, he states “the past just doesn’t interest me so much,” and Tcheng tends to agree, especially prior to Halston’s popularity. Even though Halston begins presenting the idea that Halston shed off his old persona to become a fashion symbol, there’s no real interest to see what caused this shift in him. In another interview, Halston points out that while he had a home in Iowa, it’s no home to him anymore. It’s that type of statement that begs investigation, a perfect direction for a documentarian to explore in figuring out Halston truly was. Yet Tcheng instead goes the more obvious route, hitting all the major landmarks that can already be found when it comes to Halston. Near the end of Halston, Tcheng introduces his most captivating interviewee, Halston’s niece Lesley Frowick, who Halston hired to work for him late in his fashion career. Frowick comes ready with boxes of old photos and stories about Halston’s life, but the few minutes spent on his past only makes one wish the whole film had regarded Halston’s pre-fame life more thoroughly.
Even more incomprehensible is Halston’s awkward narrator, who is explained at the very beginning to be fictional. Tavi Gevinson plays the character listed as “Chloe the Narrator,” who shows up throughout the film, digging through old newspapers and video footage of Halston and commenting on the findings. There the implication that there is some sort of mystery that Tcheng is trying to inspect through his look at Halston’s life, but the whole Chloe character seems like a last-minute addition to make Halston not feel so by-the-numbers.
Halston ends up frustrating because Tcheng presents fascinating avenues without ever exploring them. Yet Tcheng seems to have more interest in the rise and fall of Halston’s popularity and brand than Halston himself. From the bare glimpses we get of the man outside of his company, Halston was a man trying to avoid his past, attempting to become mainstream in an industry that shied away from off the rack fashions, all while battling drugs and maintaining popularity in a culture that wasn’t accepting of gay men. Halston the man is ripe with possibilities and depth, while Halston the film is content to skim the surface.