Catching up with ‘Halston’ director Frédéric Tcheng

Documentaries about icons in the fashion industry have been in vogue ever since Valentino: The Last Emperor became a huge hit in 2008. In recent years, there have been a slew of features about larger-than-life designers, ranging from McQueen and 7 Days Out (Karl Lagerfeld), to Jeremy Scott: The People’s Designer and Dior and I.

The latter was the most recent directorial effort from Frédéric Tcheng, who has now directed the new doc Halston, a peek behind the scenes at the life of the legendary late American designer. Halston was one of the biggest hits at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is now rolling out nationwide for audiences to see on the big screen.

America’s first superstar designer, Halston rose to international fame in the 1970s, creating an empire and personifying the dramatic social and sexual revolution of the last century. Reaching beyond the glamour and glitz, Tcheng’s documentary reveals Halston’s profound impact on fashion, culture, and business, capturing the epic sweep of the life and times of the legendary designer who set women free with his unstructured designs and strove to “dress all of America."

Framing the story as an investigation featuring actress and writer Tavi Gevinson as a young archivist diving into the Halston company records, Tcheng expertly weaves rare archival footage and intimate interviews with Halston’s family, friends, and collaborators including Jacqueline Kennedy, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, and Iman. What results is a behind-the-headlines look into the thrilling struggle between Halston’s artistic legacy and the pressures of big business.

GLAAD caught up with Tcheng to ask him a few questions about the impetus behind his latest behind-the-scenes look at fashion greatness.

Why did you choose to make this documentary about Halston?

When I started reading about Halston, it was the business story that completely pulled me in. I didn’t know how Halston had lost control of his company in 1984. My knowledge of Halston before that had been fairly limited, mainly about Studio 54, which is a common misperception. But the business story was astonishing. First, from a story standpoint - it was like a thriller - but also on a personal level, it resonated with me. After Dior and I, I was at a point in my career where I’ve had experiences with corporations that were pretty traumatic and made me realize how small a person can be versus the bottom line. Halston’s story offered me a way to address somehow the logic of financial capitalism. Financial markets rule the world we live in. And I think in many ways it all started in the 1980s with Reagan’s deregulations and the rise of huge conglomerates. That’s why I was fascinated by Halston’s struggle against the corporation in 1983. I saw all of these forces at play in a very powerful way. You can even see the beginnings of globalism and China’s awakening.

But Halston’s story is so vast. When I started to assemble the film, other important themes came forward, like the place of LGBTQ people in the ’60s, or the relationship between images and reality. There are so many layers to his story.

(L to R) Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Halston, Alva Chinn, Karen Bjornson

Halston remains one of the most iconic names in fashion. How do his life and work resonate today, culturally speaking?

His legacy is all around us, whether we realize it or not. Halston’s contribution is huge. He put America on the map in the 1970s. And from the design standpoint, minimalism is probably the single most influential movement in modern fashion history. And Halston was at the forefront of it. From a business standpoint, his partnership with JCPenney laid the groundwork for the way fast fashion operates today. He was reviled for it, but today others are reaping the benefits of his ideas. And lastly, I think his mastery of image-making and self-branding was so ahead of its time. We see it play out in our era with Instagram, and everyone projecting a curated image of themselves through social media. He was doing that at his own scale back in the 1970s. He was the first influencer.

Halston seemed to have kept his work, personal, and family lives all very separate. To you, who was Halston? How do you describe him?

That’s true. I think a lot of people of that generation approached privacy very differently than we do. He didn’t “come out” but he wasn’t hiding his relationship to his boyfriend Victor Hugo either. Many people knew. They were out in public at Studio 54 every other night. Victor was on the runway, or front row regularly.

But Halston was an intensely private person. He refused to talk about his family for instance or his upbringing. He was always very vague about things that distracted from the persona he had created.

The documentary frames Halston as an iconic figure who has been erased from history. Can you describe the process you had for unearthing this history?

(pictured right: Anjelica Huston and Halston)

His legacy has been actively erased by the corporation. They erased their video archive and divested the dresses that he had kept over the years. So the research we had to do was extensive, probably the most extensive I’ve ever done. And I must say that it was for me the most exciting part of the process. In a way, making the film quickly became a full-blown investigation. Our producers were relentless in pursuing footage and photos that had never been seen before. One of our biggest discoveries was recovering the raw tapes of an NBC documentary about Halston in China that never aired. The tapes were thought to be lost for 30 years but finally turned up after many searches.

We also had more than a thousand pages of memos. It was like reading a great detective novel. They detailed the day-by-day conflicts raging at Halston Enterprises. You begin to see two very different narratives emerge: Halston’s and the corporation’s. And I became obsessed with finding out the truth.

It's interesting to see Halston's shift from becoming one of the first American designers revered internationally... to striking a deal with JCPenney. Through your research, do you believe you gained insight into his goals and intentions? If so, what were they?

I think his goal was to very simple. It was to go as high as he could and grow constantly. So by 1982, he literally wanted to “dress everybody in America.” I didn’t want to cast Halston simply as a victim. His story has been told mainly as a cautionary tale, but people need to remember that through his association with the Norton Simon corporation, he achieved unprecedented success and creative freedom. He took a risk to do something no one else had ever done at that time. It may have been a Faustian bargain, but in the process, he became “Halston.”

As Liza Minnelli sings in the film: “Nothing’s gained if there’s nothing tried.” Halston definitely tried. He worked very, very hard. There was something deeply inspiring and life-affirming to me about Halston’s fearlessness: he was the first to defy European hegemony on fashion, the first to go mass market with JCPenney, the first designer to visit Communist China, and the list goes on. So I hope the audience is emboldened into “trying,” in whatever shape or form.

Was there anything that surprised you during the process making this documentary?

I never knew that Halston had been such a counterculture force in the early 70s. Most people remember the Studio 54 persona, and we forget the man who put models of color on the runway or chose the plus-size Andy Warhol superstar Pat Ast as a muse. He was a force for inclusivity and change. And his clothes reflected that. They liberated women from the constraints and structure of European couture.

How do you think Halston resonates today for the LGBTQ community... and for culture at large?

Halston’s journey as a gay man was very very important to me personally because it reflects the incredible journey of the gay community at large from the 60s to the 80s. He was a small town boy coming to New York to find a safe haven. He was part of the Fire Island community. He suffered Pre-Stonewall homophobia, he helped create a new society in the 70s with places like Studio 54, and eventually, he was taken by AIDS in the 80s, his family bravely deciding to be transparent about the disease at a time when it was stigmatized. It’s an extraordinary journey through America's queer history.

'Halston' is now playing in theaters in New York City and opens in Boston and Los Angeles this weekend. It will premiere later this year on CNN.