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    Halston Is the Subject of Gay Filmmaker’s Latest Fashion Doc

    By Gary Kramer–

    Out gay filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng’s latest film, Halston, opening June 14 in the Bay Area, is a documentary about the American designer told through film clips, archival footage and interviews with friends, enemies and family members as well as a fictional narrator, Tavi Gevinson.

    Halston was a Midwesterner who became a milliner at Bergdorf Goodman’s, a designer who staged a fashion show at Versailles, and then a household name, with successful launches of perfume and other goods. His career also involved partying at Studio 54, friendships with Liza Minnelli and an entourage of models, as well as a savvy business deal with the Norton Simon empire. Unfortunately, it ran into trouble after a deal with J.C. Penney, some drug use and other issues.

    Featuring nearly 2000 striking photographs, film clips and footage of his life, work and clothes, Halston nimbly depicts the designer’s experiences and questions Halston’s hubris. Tcheng spoke with me for the San Francisco Bay Times about his fabulous new film. 

    Gary M. Kramer: What made Halston such an irresistible subject?

    Frédéric Tcheng: It’s all my producer Roland’s fault. He convinced me. I swore I would not do another [fashion doc]. But the story was too good. It’s a curse. I keep making them. This one was fun and different from all the others. It was a grand American story. Halston is no Raf [Simmons, subject of Tcheng’s Dior and I], an introverted Belgian. There was more to play with here in terms of storytelling. It was fun to have a narrator and work with Tavi [Gevinson] and take the narrative out of its boundaries.

    Gary M. Kramer: Why did you decide on that approach of using Tavi as a narrator?

    Frédéric Tcheng: It’s all a matter of images you have in your head. When we started researching and recording Halston’s story, the corporate takeover resonated with me. It had all the trappings of a thriller and the erasing of these tapes—it was so crazy that they would have done that! It was a strong gesture of discarding this person’s work, but images are so important to me as a filmmaker, so that’s how the whole scripted [approach] unfolded from there—that image.

    Gary M. Kramer: You showcase some amazing film clips, photographs and fashion shows. Can you talk about assembling the film (as co-editor/director)?

     Frédéric Tcheng: I’m obsessive. I watch and sort everything. It was the biggest research project I’ve done. I found the NBC tapes of China. That’s why we have footage of him preparing for the trip. They scraped the project and the tapes were supposed to be lost but Roland and James Paul Dallas, our archival producer, kept bugging NBC and they found five tapes of raw footage on the shelf. It was not edited or filtered, and you could see Halston at work in all his glory and abusive tendencies. That’s how it became more of a sequence in the film. I wanted to view it twice from an idealistic and a dark side—rewind the tape and see how images can be double-edged and ambiguous in nature. In our culture, where everyone is projecting our lives, Halston was doing that on a large scale in the 70s. It makes you think of what images can mean and how they can be constructed.

    Gary M. Kramer: What are your thoughts about his celebrity image and how he promoted himself as master publicist?

     Frédéric Tcheng: There are two aspects I can relate to. The perfectionism—he’s an artist. The image is not in a void; it’s supporting his vision and art. He has specific ways he wants things to look. He does everything in his power to achieve that, even if it drives people crazy. And, he’s a gay man who grew up in the Depression Era. You have to remember gay boys or girls had to grow up wearing a mask. You develop this ability to disguise who you are because you don’t feel comfortable saying it in public. Halston was reinventing himself and projecting his image, and I think that has to do with his sense of survival that he needed to take his own image into his own hands to project something strong. Being gay in the Midwest you were very vulnerable. Some may think it’s phony, but you control who you are.

     Gary M. Kramer: How do you reconcile the madness with the genius?

     Frédéric Tcheng: There are two sides to a lot of things. You can find something opposite in every person. That’s the nature of man. I don’t find it to be a contradiction. We tried to connect the dots as best we could, and for me, it was about finding the right sound bites from the right people. No one said he was a bad person. He had success until the early 1980s and riding that wave, it’s easy to be affable, but when things turn sour, you get in survival mode. People attack you so it’s all about circumstances. I don’t see it as a contradiction. There’s not one Halston.

    © 2019 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer