Frédéric Tcheng’s More Complete Look into the Legendary Halston

Image courtesy of MB Turner (CNN)

He was one of this country’s fashion designer, completely revolutionizing the way American women dressed. Roy Halston Frowick, better known as Halston, rose to fame by designing Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat for John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration. He was the first high-fashion designer to collaborate with a mainstream department store when he launched a collection with JC Penney. He introduced Ultrasuede as a signature material for womenswear. Halston was legendary.

This Sunday, “CNN” will be debut “HALSTON,” a documentary directed by Frédéric Tcheng, detailing the rise and fall of the acclaimed designer. Fashion Reverie had the privilege of speaking with Tcheng, in addition to supermodel Alva Chinn, one of the Halston’s esteemed models during his glory days.

Fashion Reverie: What inspired you to create this documentary?

Frédéric Tcheng: The producer Roland Ballester came to see me. It wasn’t my plan to make another documentary, so, I gave him a hard time in the beginning. I said I was done with fashion documentaries. I wanted to move away from that.

 Like many people, I didn’t know a lot about Halston. I had a very one-dimensional idea about Halston as a Studio 54 regular and all the decadence of that scene. But, when I started reading about Halston, I realized there was a lot more to Halston than partying and Studio 54.

I was especially interested in the ‘80s period, which was his downfall. I was at a time in my career where I had had similar life challenges. You must negotiate as an artist your relationship with the business side of your craft, and your place within the industry. It’s a cautionary tale, he sold his name and that’s why he lost everything. The more I dug into the story the more I realized how complex it was, and how many layers there were, and in a way, he wasn’t completely a victim. He had made that deal and that deal backfired, but he also profited from that deal for a very long time and became who he was because of it.

Fashion Reverie: Why Halston over any other American designers?

Frédéric Tcheng: As a filmmaker I’m obsessed with a good story. I didn’t set out to do anything about fashion. It wasn’t my end game. I mean, first you can argue that Halston is a very significant American fashion designer, the first to be really recognized internationally.

The story of Halston is just so epic and big:  the dramatic rise and fall, something essentially American, something powerful about a man who completely reinvents himself and rises to the top. There was a whole period of American life that could be explored through Halston and the fashion of that time. That’s how I decided to tell the story. I wanted to see if the story carried enough significance beyond fashion.

FR: What do you think set him apart from other American designers of his era?

Alva Chinn: Simplicity, elegance, and he was ahead of the curve. He was a maverick. Halston, business wise, was ahead of the curve. All these people that have all these subsidiaries under their design umbrella, they learned from his legacy, both good and bad.

FR: Why is this a good time for this documentary?

Frédéric Tcheng: If not now, when? People have forgotten how big and important Halston was, and how he revolutionized not only fashion, but the whole world around him. He was just as significant as Yves Saint Laurent, in some ways more significant because he created a whole new way of cutting clothes and changed what happened on the runway with models of color. He changed the business by working with JC Penney.

 Who talks about him today? No one. Unfortunately, great innovators and thinkers are sometimes forgotten.

Image courtesy of Berrt (CNN)

FR: Halston was known for creating relaxed urban luxury clothes for the American woman. Could you talk about that?

Frédéric Tcheng: He seized a moment in the ‘80s when American women were changing their lives. We had women going to work. They were leading active lives. He transformed American fashion completely from something that was more based on European couture to something that was liberating for the woman’s body. All the women who wore Halston said that they found freedom in his clothes. He doesn’t really try and transform the body of a woman; he celebrated the body of a woman through fabric.

FR: How did it feel to model his clothes?

Alva Chinn: In the front row would always be the ladies who lunch, his clients. Then the fashion editors who knew and understood what fashion. Seated behind his clients and the fashion would be the buyers and other industry people.

For me, the big deal was his clothes felt different from wearing office clothes. Halston was very simple, he could envision a dress by simply cutting a piece of fabric. He could translate the concept of fashion from the past and bring that concept into current times.

FR: Halston was one of the first designers to make a collection for an American retail store, JC Penney. Why did that relationship not work out?

Frédéric Tcheng: He was ahead of his time. Had time been on his side, it would’ve been a different story, because now everyone is doing partnerships with more affordable brands like H&M and Uniqlo. Unfortunately, he was the first, and like many who are first, he had to pay the price and suffer the rejection.

 He was very hungry for the future. He was also in a difficult position he had to compete with Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. He gambled everything he had into his career and that was very risky. But I loved how he dared to do everything.

Image courtesy of CNN

FR:  Could you talk about his relationship with Jackie Kennedy and the pillbox hat?

Frédéric Tcheng: She was a client of his throughout his fashion career. I didn’t know it went beyond a working relationship. At the time of the inauguration when JFK came into power, I think she was probably trying to send a strong signal to the American people that it would be a different kind of presidency and a different era in American life. He understood what women wanted and how they could express something through clothes.

FR: Halston really seemed to bring celebrity to fashion, was he the first to do so, or did he just revolutionize the concept?

Frédéric Tcheng: He brought celebrities to the front row and he was very smart about it. He had one of the best show spaces at the time. His runway shows were just spectacular at the Olympic Tower. Celebs were at the end of the runway, so they’d be in every picture. He was also one of the first to use video to thematically tape all of his shows. He understood the power of image. He invented the concept of Instagram before it existed, because he was living his life like a series of pictures.

FR: Halston helped elevate the career of so many models of color. Could you speak to that?

Frédéric Tcheng: That was totally revolutionary. He didn’t ask about or take credit for it. Those are the girls he wanted to have wear his clothes. He liked the diversity. Halston wanted different types of people to represent his brand. We’ve seen that in the ‘90s and 2000s the landscape for diversity has completely changed. but it’s a little bit of a pendulum swing.

A lot of people just look back at the ‘70s as the golden age of diversity. There really was a sense of embracing all different kind of looks on the runways and it came from America and Halston, and Europe followed that trend after The Battle of Versailles.

Halston and his models image courtesy of Dustin Pittman/CNN

FR: What did Halston look for in a model?

Alva Chinn: He had a whole crew before I came on, and they were all eclectic. He had plus-size models; he had Beverly Johnson, the first African American on the cover of Vogue. He had Heidi Goldman who was a blonde; he also had Marissa Berenson, who is still a major influence in fashion. When my time came around there was also Karen Bjornson.  Additionally, there was Pat Cleveland, Connie Cook, and Diane Dewitt.

During the Battle of Versailles, a lot of the models were shared by other designers. Most of us just wanted to go to Paris. There were so many of us for the Battle of Versailles show. He loved Amina Warfsuma, she was from uptown Harlem. She had a fabulous, voluptuous, curvy body. She worked for him before I did, and she was the girl from up in the neighborhood, and she acted like it, but he found her amazing.

FR: How do you think this documentary will help people re-evaluate his legacy?

Frédéric Tcheng: I really hope it does show the breadth and scope of his career and gives audiences a little bit of a taste for how his design perspective went beyond the appearance of being simple was revolutionary.

I think it’s time for Halston to come back to the forefront. He hasn’t had a protector whose been able to protect the legacy beyond the grave. A lot of designers have that, whether it’s Yves Saint Laurent or just a company that’s doing the job of protecting the legacy. In his case, corporate structures destroyed the brand. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more work to be done to put him back where he belongs.

Image courtesy of IMBD

FR: How do you think his legacy still has impact today?

Frédéric Tcheng: You can see it everywhere. On the business side alone, the JCPenney deal was groundbreaking and is a formula being followed by every mass retailer now. On the artistic side his minimalism is everywhere.

FR: Could you speak about his use of Ultrasuede, which represented his relaxed luxury American style?

Frédéric Tcheng: He loved Ultrasuede and new fabrics. Ultrasuede was introduced to him by a Japanese designer. What made him fall in love with it was that he could put Ultrasuede in the washer and it didn’t even wrinkle. Ultrasuede was very practical and versatile. He used it in pastel colors, and it became a huge hit. He used it not just in clothing, but home furnishings.

FR: Alva, what was the greatest thing you learned with working with Halston?

Alva Chinn: After a show once he pointed out to me that the audience was paying more attention to me than the dress I was wearing and he said, “ [that was] because your buttocks were swishing from side to side when [I] walked.” It was a great tidbit I found amusing.

He taught me to take constructive criticism as a gift. We all could learn from that.

FR: Describe your favorite Halston show for me?

Alva Chinn: Oh, I can’t do that. I have different memories of different things. My favorite moment though was our Around the World Tour. We went to major cities seeing different cultures. We went to Europe, and we went to China. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Alva Chinn image courtesy of fandango.com

FR: If you could have said one last thing to Halston, what would it have been?

Alva Chinn: Oh wow, you’re going to make me cry here. (pause) Thank you, and I love you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of what you shared with the world.

Kristopher Fraser

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