Spellbinding

Frédéric Tcheng on Liza Minnelli, Elsa Peretti, Tavi Gevinson and the Battle of Versailles in Halston

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Truman Capote, Martha Graham, Betty Ford, Halston, and Elizabeth Taylor on the scene at Steve Rubell's Studio 54
Truman Capote, Martha Graham, Betty Ford, Halston, and Elizabeth Taylor on the scene at Steve Rubell's Studio 54 Photo: Dustin Pittman

Halston, by Dior And I director Frédéric Tcheng, shines light on the designer's crowning achievements and attempts to come to grips with his eventual fall. The first thought of Halston might be of Studio 54 with Andy Warhol or of Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat and cloth coat for JFK's inauguration at a time when wives in the public eye wrapped themselves in furs.

There is footage from the Nineties of a tipsy interview with Elsa Peretti, recent interviews including Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Pat Cleveland, Bob Colacello, and Joel Schumacher, and glimpses of the infamous Battle of Versailles Fashion Show that put American fashion on the map, and is documented on film in Deborah Riley Draper's Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution.

Frédéric Tcheng on Liza Minnelli in Halston: "She's such a genius. Even when she refuses to say something, you can include the refusal in the film because it's just very dramatic."
Frédéric Tcheng on Liza Minnelli in Halston: "She's such a genius. Even when she refuses to say something, you can include the refusal in the film because it's just very dramatic." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Frédéric Tcheng is also co-producer and co-editor of Matt Tyrnauer's Valentino: The Last Emperor and co-­director with Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Lisa Immordino Vreeland for Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel.

Frédéric and I met at the Brooklyn Academy of Music which is home to BAMcinématek and the Next Wave Festival the afternoon of the theatrical première of Halston, which was a highlight of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. We walked across the street to The Center For Fiction for a coffee and conversation. In the first instalment we discuss Liza Minnelli's impeccable refusal, Elsa Peretti's Marlene Dietrich move, the groundbreaking Battle Of Versailles, and being haunted by Halston.

Andy Warhol, when asked about whom he most liked to be seated in-between at a dinner, said that would be Halston and Liz Taylor to his left and right.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Something that Dior and I and Halston, your films, have in common, is that they include the most fantastic flowers. The fashion show for the House of Dior and Halston's orchids are so vivid I could almost smell them. Otherwise, it's very different to have a living designer [Raf Simons] who is haunted by a dead one than a dead one in the first place.

Frédéric Tcheng: Yes.

AKT: Is there also some haunting?

FT: Well, there's haunting but it's different. I feel like the people around Halston are still haunted by Halston. When we talked to the models, his niece of course, they all are so reminded of him all the time. They have dreams about him. It's interesting, it almost reminds me of a cult following. He had that power, that charisma that was really just spellbinding. You can feel that a lot of people are still under his spell.

AKT: The way Liza Minnelli says "I refuse!" so theatrically to go into certain places.

Frédéric Tcheng on Halston with Liza Minnelli and the Battle of Versailles: "He uses that to transform the event into this big splashy display of Americanness."
Frédéric Tcheng on Halston with Liza Minnelli and the Battle of Versailles: "He uses that to transform the event into this big splashy display of Americanness." Photo: Jean Barthet

FT: She's such a genius. Even when she refuses to say something, you can include the refusal in the film because it's just very dramatic.

AKT: How was it talking to her?

FT: It was a very hard interview to do for me because I was a little bit star-struck. And I think she was very nervous of saying the wrong thing. She knows that the story has been sensationalized in the past. And she's an expert on sensationalization. As she says in the film, like her whole life has been sensationalized, her mother's life [Judy Garland is heard singing two versions Over The Rainbow at the Camp: Notes On Fashion exhibition], her father's life [a clip from Vincente Minnelli's Ziegfeld Follies, chosen by Wong Kar Wai, was seen at China: Through the Looking Glass].

She was very wary of saying the wrong thing. It was hard to poke through, but as you see in the film, even when she refuses to answer a question, she does it in such an elegant, theatrical way. She's really a star, you can see the star power that she has still to this day.

AKT: I saw the Toni Morrison documentary [Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am] earlier this week, and you see her talking and I was thinking, who does she remind me of? Liza Minnelli! I never put the two together, but you'll see there is something in the way they smile and laugh responding.

FT: Really?

Frédéric Tcheng on Halston: "You can feel that a lot of people are still under his spell."
Frédéric Tcheng on Halston: "You can feel that a lot of people are still under his spell." Photo: Berry Berenson

AKT: You will see what I mean.

FT: It was at Sundance, I can't wait to see it. It's Timothy Greenfield-

AKT: … Sanders, yeah. In your film, there is the Battle of Versailles which was groundbreaking for American fashion and on the other hand, which I really like, you show the business side and the horror.

FT: Speaking of Versailles and Liza Minnelli, my friend made a funny joke. He's like, "Versailles must have been a real shit show for Liza Minnelli to come across as the voice of reason." I don't know if that's fit to print.

AKT: The whole Battle of Versailles is so steeped in ...

FT: I think it was interesting for me to see the whole film through the lens of the business. Even an event as groundbreaking as Battle of Versailles, for example, if you put it back into the business storyline, it comes right after he [Halston] sold his company to Norton Simon. So he uses that immediately as leverage.

And he uses Norton Simon, and especially Norton Simon's President/Chairman David Mahoney to pay for Liza Minnelli to come to Versailles because she was already a big star. As a fashion house he probably couldn't have done it alone. He uses that to transform the event into this big splashy display of Americanness. It's interesting that at every step of the process you can view his career through a series of very savvy, groundbreaking business moves.

AKT: The Elsa Peretti-designed perfume bottle with the curved neck flacon, that he insisted on, without the name on it. Many things were groundbreaking. I was wondering what people do remember about Halston. Is it mostly Studio 54?

Anne-Katrin Titze's Elsa Peretti bird's head ring
Anne-Katrin Titze's Elsa Peretti bird's head ring Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

FT: Unfortunately that's my experience.

AKT: Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat maybe.

FT: If anything, because the young generation, people like Tavi Gevinson, she knows about fashion, but she was telling me that a lot of her friends don't really remember Halston. A lot of the young people I talk to don't remember Halston.

And people abroad, I mean, we're not even talking about that because in France people don't know who Halston is for sure. He was completely overshadowed by other designers like Saint Laurent who have built a legacy through the brand and through usually a right-hand man who protects them, you know.

AKT: Right.

FT: Halston didn't have that. What he had was a corporation that was intent on erasing his legacy.

AKT: The selling of his name. He lost the right to his name!

FT: I know it's a little crazy to think about it.

AKT: The archival Elsa Peretti interview, where did that come from? She is getting drunk and is complaining "I'm drinking out of an imperfect glass," it's incredible.

Halston poster at the Quad Cinema in New York
Halston poster at the Quad Cinema in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

FT: It's an interview by Jeff Madoff, a videographer who did a lot of the Halston videos. I wanted to interview Elsa directly. We were talking to her and she was very gracious but she was kind of trying to do a Marlene Dietrich on us.

AKT: Don't show my face?

FT: Don't show my face. You can have the sound, but you can't show my face. It became a little complicated. By the way, I love that Marlene Dietrich film, where she doesn't show her face. That was a big inspiration for me. Big time.

AKT: The Maximilian Schell one [Marlene].

FT: Yeah, Maximilian Schell. So we were getting ready to get a sound man to go to Spain where she lives. And then I stumbled upon this interview and it was an hour long and I was laughing from the beginning to the end. I was like, this is all we need, she said it all. It was recorded in 1990, about two months after Halston died.

AKT: It was very fresh.

FT: It was all she could talk about. It was not supposed to be about Halston, it was supposed to be about her and her career but she kept talking about Halston. She would say things like "Now that Halston has died I can die too." She posted a photo of Halston just two days ago, a Polaroid of Halston and her, on her Instagram and her Facebook.

AKT: Did she see your film? Have you sent it to her?

FT: No, she hasn't seen it yet. We should go to Italy and show it to her.

Coming up - Frédéric Tcheng on his director's cut, Halston's relationship to Charles James, Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, and the business of Halston.

Halston is in cinemas in the US.

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