Dustin Pittman
September 09, 2019
In The Mix

Runway Rebel

A CNN documentary recalls the meteoric rise — and tragic end — of a very American designer.

Ann Farmer

While researching Halston, a new documentary about the iconic American designer, an archivist stumbled across Roy Halston Frowick's 1971 appearance on the game show What's My Line?

As celebrities try to guess the mystery guest's occupation, one inquires, "Are you famous for hotpants?"

"Yes," Halston confesses, a smile creeping across his movie-star handsome face.

In fact, Halston was famous for many things: his popular jersey halter dress and ultra-suede shirtdress showed his proclivity for chic, modern, minimalist garments. Halston perfume, which came in a novel teardrop bottle, once rivaled Chanel No. 5 in sales. Even people who didn't follow fashion knew of him.

Frequently photographed at Studio 54 with friends Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli, he was the picture of urbanity — his eyes shielded by omnipresent sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from his sensual lips.

And then it came to an abrupt end.

The film — which premiered August 18 on CNN, with an encore August 24 — presents the meteoric rise of this defining American designer, who died of AIDS in 1990 at age 57.

It also serves as a cautionary tale. By the end of his life, having sold his brand and lost control of his enterprise, he was blocked from creating new designs under his name. "It's a business story at the heart of it," says Courtney Sexton, executive producer and vice-president of CNN Films.

"Here is a story that people really don't know the depth and breadth of," producer Roland Ballester says. He zeroed in on Frédéric Tcheng to direct, confident that Tcheng, who directed the doc Dior and I, wouldn't get bogged down in the glamour and glitz that have obscured Halston's legacy as a visionary and a risk-taker.

Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Halston became a milliner to the stars at Manhattan's Bergdorf Goodman. He fabricated the pink pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy donned for her husband's inauguration, but she accidentally dented it. As a result, Halston says with a chuckle in the film, "Everyone who copied it put a dent into it."

He went on to create relaxed, liberating women's clothes that radically changed how the world viewed American fashion. When French and American designers faced off during the landmark 1973 Battle of Versailles Fashion Show, Halston's ethnically diverse models upended the historically rarefied atmosphere as they danced down the runway.

The documentary benefits from Ballester's friendship with Lesley Frowick, Halston's protective niece, who opened her archives and introduced the filmmakers to her uncle's models and friends. "It took a lot of convincing to get them all on board," Tcheng says. "The Halston circle is a very tight circle."

The effort paid off. Halston's devotees enthusiastically describe his genius at sculpting clothes: sometimes he'd construct a fabulous garment with only one seam. "He would just throw a piece of fabric on the floor and cut through it, pick it up, throw it on you, and, pff , it's a dress," says former model Pat Cleveland.

Tcheng also excavates darker notes. For instance, actress-writer Tavi Gevinson reenacts scenes in which an owner of the Halston brand destroys archival footage and sells off patterns. Yet the designer isn't presented as a victim; he's seen as someone always stepping into the future, even at the cost of his very name.

"The way that the Halston story unfolded, which was so dramatic, it felt like a thriller," Tcheng says. "What I wanted to capture was the complexity and mystery of a person. Nothing's black and white — everything's in-between."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2019.

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