"Halston was Instagramming before Instagram even existed," says Frédéric Tcheng, the director behind cult fashion docs Dior and I, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and now, Halston. "He understood the power of images, how to manipulate them and how to project a certain illusion of success, and that’s what people do in our age of social media, projecting a certain narrative about their lives."
Following a stint at engineering school ("I can build a bridge," the French-born filmmaker tells Refinery29), Tcheng arrived at fashion documentaries post-film school, assisting a friend behind the scenes on 2009's Valentino: The Last Emperor and earning himself an editor credit in the process.
It was through research into former Vogue editor Vreeland in 2011 that Tcheng discovered Roy Halston Frowick, the designer who dreamed of dressing "all of America" and, to all intents and purposes, succeeded in changing the course of the industry, constructing the fashion landscape as we know it in 2019.
Loosely based around 215 supposedly lost tapes, the new film marries archive footage and intimate interviews – among them icons such as Liza Minnelli (who picked up her 1973 Academy Award for Cabaret in a Halston frock) and the model Pat Cleveland – with a fictional storyline that casts Tavi Gevinson as an archivist exploring the company records.
In anticipation of the film’s UK release on 7th June, and in a bid to learn more about his take on the industry from the other side of the lens, Refinery29 caught up with Tcheng on a call from New York.
What’s your earliest fashion memory?
It’s funny, my friend in junior high school was obsessed with fashion and would tear pages from Vogue and put them above her bed, that’s when I really became conscious of fashion and the visual codes of the industry. It was the time of Chanel – Karl Lagerfeld, Claudia Schiffer, the bathing suits... I wasn’t very fashion forward, that came later. My first love was film. I was obsessed, I would rent movies from the public library and watch five a day.
Your films actively celebrate the fashion industry. Why is this important to you?
I don’t know that it’s especially important to me, but I think the subjects are important. I fell into fashion – when I came out of film school, my friend was producing a film on Valentino and so I started helping out. When the film became successful it opened a lot of doors, suddenly the fashion world became interested in fashion documentaries. In 2007/8 there were a few documentaries that hadn’t been doing very well at the box office, but then suddenly it was like an onslaught with The September Issue and all that.
I think people realised that fashion was fun, and it coincided with digital cameras being available too. Documentary got a big boost in the late '00s – fashion was a great subject because suddenly you have multimillion dollar sets for free. We could get Valentino’s castle or a fashion show at the Coliseum – it was very close to a Hollywood production except you didn’t have to build all these sets, someone else did. Fashion is great escapism and I think people need that in times of economic downturn, which was exactly what was happening in 2009 when Valentino came out. People like to dream and fantasise, and Diana Vreeland, Dior and I – all these films provide some kind of dream. You don’t build a wall of flowers in your home, you know?
How do you choose your subjects?
It’s an emotional decision, you have to go with your feelings – that’s how it worked for Dior and I, with Raf Simons there was a kinship, I felt I understood him. It’s like the process of falling in love. For me you start seeing the world from someone else’s lens.
He was so mysterious. I had trouble relating, especially because I knew mostly the Studio 54 persona: the sunglasses, the cigarette holder… I didn’t know his fashion. Through research I recognised the story was dynamite, and it allowed me to talk about the business side and how the fashion industry operates. In the process I fell in love with Halston, he’s so interesting. I discovered other layers, the counterculture Halston of the early '70s who put a plus-size model on the runway, or who was inclusive in terms of the diversity of his models. He was collaborating with Warhol; there was something so free-spirited about that earlier Halston, and going back to the '60s and the hardship of being gay in high society, all of that is something I can relate to.
The film mixes narrative and documentary. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I’m interested in trying things that haven’t been tried before. It’s important, to move forward. And I realised immediately that the Halston story was not plain and linear, it had a certain mystery. He had a specific narrative about his life and I needed to deconstruct that, so it was about an investigation – I had to do detective work to actually get to the bottom of the story. I also wanted to tie it to the new generation, and Tavi Gevinson is someone that I’ve admired since she started; now she’s an actress, it was kind of a perfect fit.
How much do you consider your role as preserving major fashion – and cultural – moments on film? Dior and I, in particular, highlights a massive event in both contemporary fashion and the house's history.
Well it’s not innocent that Tavi plays an archivist in the film. She’s a bit of a doppelgänger for me and the work that I do, which is foreign examination of images. You know you have these 215 tapes of Halston’s life – that’s what we started with. Can you tell who the person is through these tapes? How much can you tell? How much of the real story, the real person can you actually uncover? And how images can be deceiving; you know sometimes you see this amazing success in these images, and then you realise there’s another story that’s not being told. I think it was all part of what I was thinking about because as a filmmaker you deal with images all day long, and our culture is so much about images too – think about Instagram. So for me it was interesting to use a character of the archivist, someone who deals with images in the film.
Halston is in cinemas from 7th June