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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
If fashion designer Charles James was a master of the structured aesthetic, then Halston was a maestro of fluidity. “His clothes danced with you,” says Liza Minnelli in Frédéric Tcheng’s gripping documentary, articulating the revolutionary craftsman’s gift for flowy bias-cut silhouettes best. “It was a dress just because of the way he cut the fabric,” we are told later on about the technique of the renowned designer, who not only understood women’s bodies, but also honoured their modern-day priorities through the free-spirited late-1960s, and beyond.
Telling a thoroughly researched rise and fall story with artistic flair, Halston starts as an intimate investigative study of a pioneer who made a splash into the Disco Era, putting American fashion on the international map on a massive scale. Beginning his career as a milliner in Chicago, and then continuing at New York’s high-end department store Bergdorf Goodman in the 1950s, Halston left his first real mark on fashion by designing the deeply influential pillbox hat First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore during the Presidential inauguration in 1961. He then moved onto opening his first salon—a design Mecca with notable celebrity clients—launched his ready-to-wear line, and ventured out to best-selling perfume with a signature teardrop bottle. It was an unstoppable climb that crowned him as America’s first “celebrity designer”.
The scope of history and the breadth of involved subjects here make for an intimidating undertaking. With other fashion-focused documentaries already under his belt, Tcheng knows how to excavate the exhilarating aura of this alluring yet superficial world with all its massive egos, fake accents and era-defining gambles. To plunge the audience into the suspense straightaway, he accessorises Halston’s story with a compelling framing device, inventing a fictional archivist (played by Tavi Gevinson) going through company records. This approach could have easily become a superfluous gimmick, but Tcheng commands it skilfully. Tcheng indulges in the brand’s and its creator’s prosperous good times for nearly half of the movie, before a number of poor business decisions (derived from an insatiable appetite of control) paved the way for their unfortunate fall from grace.