Director Frederic Tcheng’s documentary covers the career of fashion icon Halston, pictured with Liza Minnelli. (Courtesy The Orchard)

‘Halston’ doesn’t dig beneath designer’s glam surface

Doc showcases fashion great’s art rather than character

The one-name superstar credited with revolutionizing American fashion in the 1970s gets the rise-and-fall treatment in the documentary “Halston.”

Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, the film vividly presents the accomplishments of the famed designer. It’s too bad it doesn’t go beneath alluring surfaces to explore his deeper character.

Director Frederic Tcheng, who made the superior “Dior and I,” chronicles the three-decade career of Iowa-born Roy Halston Frowick (1932-1990), who, calling himself Halston, created body-liberating designs that Liza Minnelli, appearing in the film, describes as “clothes that danced with you.”

We follow Halston from his days as head milliner at Bergdorf Goodman to his reign over an empire.

Archival footage reveals his design triumphs from the pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy at the JFK inaugural to his Ultrasuede shirtdress, seen on a Newsweek cover.

In 1973, Halston outshone his French counterparts at the “Battle at Versailles” show.

He also — uncommon at the time — included nonwhite models in hisrunway shows.

Corporate conglomerates entered the picture when Halston, in 1973, sold his entire business to Norton Simon Inc.

The empire he built featured, along with the clothing, products such as fragrances and furniture. He designed uniforms for the Girl Scouts and the NYPD.

Several factors caused Halston’s downfall, including a billion-dollar venture with retailer JCPenney. The deal infuriated Halston’s high-end devotees.

As takeovers by voracious corporations occurred, Halston lost creative control of his trademarks.

A cocaine habit, outrageous spending, despotic behavior that caused loyal employees to abandon him, and a problematic on-and-off relationship with Argentinean artist boyfriend Victor Hugo added to Halston’s woes.

Fashion enthusiasts will likely appreciate this film. Its interviewees — Minnelli describing a fit Halston threw at Versailles, Halston niece Lesley Frowick poignantly remembering Halston’s AIDS diagnosis and desire to reconnect with family, expressive jewelry designer Elsa Peretti showing off her Halston fragrance bottle — supply the requisite goods.

Tcheng also includes footage of fashion shows, nights at Studio 54 with Bianca and Andy, and a Halston visit to China.

He additionally illustrates how corporate Goliaths can devastate the creative terrain of even powerful and controlling artists like Halston. Viewers understand how Halston became the most successful American designer of his time and how he lost it all.

For some reason, though, Tcheng presents Halston’s downslide as a noirish mystery. A framing device in which actress-writer Tavi Gevinson, detective style, digs into the Halston archives for clues isn’t compelling or necessary.

What the film should have explored is the mystery of Halston himself, beneath the opaque demeanor, the affected high-born accent and the in-crowd glamour. Deeper insight into his character would have enabled us to truly feel, not merely consider, the tragedy of his story.



Two and a half stars

Starring: Liza Minnelli, Elsa Peretti, Lesley Frowick, Pat Cleveland

Written and directed by: Frederic Tcheng

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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