Unlocking the narrative

Frédéric Tcheng on his director's cut of Halston, Charles James, and Truman Capote's Black and White Ball

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Halston with Liza Minnelli wearing an Elsa Peretti cuff
Halston with Liza Minnelli wearing an Elsa Peretti cuff Photo: Berry Berenson Perkins

In the second instalment of my conversation with Frédéric Tcheng we discuss Halston's relationship to Charles James and costume designer John David Ridge, Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, Studio 54, the Amazon director's cut, envisioning a miniseries "Mad Men with the fashion world and Halston at the centre", and an upcoming project.

Halston is a story of inclusion and exclusion. His models, the Halstonettes, included Pat Cleveland, Anjelica Huston, Heidi Goldberg, Karen Bjornson, Beverly Johnson, Nancy North, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn, Connie Cook, and Pat Ast. Halston made most of the masks for Truman Capote's legendary 1966 Black and White Ball - but wasn't officially invited. The fragrance, and the designs of the 1976 U.S. Olympic uniforms helped this important fashion designer spread his wings.

Halstonettes - Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn, and Karen Bjornson with Halston
Halstonettes - Pat Cleveland, Chris Royer, Alva Chinn, and Karen Bjornson with Halston

What flickers as sophisticated paradise could only be reached through metamorphosis and a deal with the devils of commerce. And there are no fashions concerning the price - it still is your soul. It is precisely because decades have gone by since Halston's untimely death in 1990, and the spell he cast on those who knew him is not as impenetrable to those who didn't, that the unsightly aspects of Halston's dealings can come to the fore.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is a lot of mystery Halston created himself around his background. Mad Men might have found inspiration from him for Don Draper.

Frédéric Tcheng: I don't know of any connection, but I wanted to make something like Mad Men. You know, when I'm talking about the 5-hour version, I was envisioning something like a miniseries. Mad Men with the fashion world and Halston at the centre.

AKT: The Charles James collaboration with Halston was a total disaster.

FT: Total disaster.

AKT: I loved the exhibit [on Charles James] at The Met a few years ago.

FT: It was bound to happen. At some point you have to kill your idols. Halston was really a big admirer of Charles James and he really wanted to help him. We have a longer version of that scene that's going to be in the director's cut that's going to be shown on Amazon later this year. It's about 15 minutes longer.

Tavi Gevinsen in Halston red dress
Tavi Gevinsen in Halston red dress

He [Halston] mimicked Charles James, he would repeat things Charles James would say. And he would buy some of his erotic paintings from Charles James to be able to pay for his room at the Chelsea Hotel where he lived. They sort of collided and clashed.

AKT: It's a good reminder about technique. Charles James was a master of technique and people forget that Halston was as well, very differently so, with the cut on the bias.

FT: Yeah, in a very different way. Charles James came from that era of structured clothes from the Fifties. Along with Dior he was a real architect of clothing. Halston completely disrupted that technique. The fabric was going to be the architecture. It was more voluptuous and not figuring out a structure and putting fabric on it. It was a whole change of paradigm for fashion.

AKT: Absolutely.

FT: Suddenly the woman's body was not to be redesigned. It was there to be glorified.

AKT: It was a reaction to the Charles James tradition of designing clothing.

FT: I think he knew Charles James' technique in and out. It's funny, I don't know if you caught that, but when he hires John David Ridge, who is the designer who ends up replacing him when the corporation is closing in on him.

Frédéric Tcheng: "When I'm talking about the 5-hour version, I was envisioning something like a miniseries. Mad Men with the fashion world and Halston at the centre."
Frédéric Tcheng: "When I'm talking about the 5-hour version, I was envisioning something like a miniseries. Mad Men with the fashion world and Halston at the centre."

AKT: Who comes from costume design!

FT: Yeah, who comes from costume design. During the interview, John David Ridge told us he [Halston] just wanted to know if he knew who Charles James was. That was the one question. It's interesting, after all this clash.

AKT: It is interesting. I think it has to do with the pride in the craft and the art. When the name is fleeting, the marketing is out of your hands, the fabric remains. His archives - the pieces were being sold for next to nothing at some point! Anybody who is even the slightest bit interested in fashion watching your film must be going - Oh I wish I had had my hands on this, in a terribly selfish way!

FT: I know! I wish I could have been there!

AKT: What's the deal with the mystery of the tapes? You show us some of the tapes [which archive his work]?

FT: It's not actually a mystery, but it's said so quickly by Halston's lawyer that most people don't actually realise it. Halston had a copy of the tapes. The corporation was erasing their archive, but Halston had kept his archive.

Those are the tapes inherited through Lesley Frowick, Halston's niece, she had inherited them from her uncle. We had these tapes to start with but then we went much further with the research, discovering stuff like the China tapes that NBC said they had lost.

Halston with Anjelica Huston, one of his Halstonettes
Halston with Anjelica Huston, one of his Halstonettes Photo: Berry Berenson Perkins

AKT: That was from the trip to China in 1980?

FT: Yes. They had been doing a documentary about Halston and then they shelved it, except that no one knew where the tapes were. After so many attempts, they opened a box and we found these raw tapes. That was a big moment.

AKT: The detective part of it?

FT: For sure.

AKT: Then there's the locksmith part, that you reenacted. Do you feel like a locksmith yourself?

FT: I never thought of myself as a locksmith. I see myself as the man looking through the lock. For me the film is so much about looking. Looking at something you are not supposed to see.

Halston had such a lockdown on the narrative of his life, what he was going to talk about, what he was not going to talk about. Very much in the way people today use Instagram to project a certain version of their lives.

AKT: [I am pointing at the wall with bookshelves behind Fred] I read!

FT: Yeah, I read! As a filmmaker my job is very much to deconstruct that narrative that he proposed and trying to see through the keyhole of the mirror.

AKT: Inclusion and exclusion is also a big theme in his life, I felt. Where is he included, when is he excluded? When does he exclude or include? Barriers, boundaries and the different worlds.

FT: I agree, yeah. It was really important for me to include that anecdote in the beginning where he is being told at a society dinner in the sixties, that because he is homosexual he doesn't belong there. I think it was important to understand the rest of his life through this anecdote, this, I'm assuming, traumatic event. I think that's maybe as close to a Rosebud as I came.

You see him later in life, starting this business and going to Studio 54, because he decided he was not going to be told who's in and who's not. He is going to be the one who is deciding who's going to come in or not. And Studio 54 is interesting because it's like, as you said, it's inclusive but also exclusive.

Frédéric Tcheng: "As a filmmaker my job is very much to deconstruct that narrative that he proposed and trying to see through the keyhole of the mirror."
Frédéric Tcheng: "As a filmmaker my job is very much to deconstruct that narrative that he proposed and trying to see through the keyhole of the mirror." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And earlier, Truman Capote's Black and White Ball [in 1966] where he made how many of the masks?

FT: 150 masks or something.

AKT: But he wasn't invited. And the question is, was he there? Was he not there?

FT: He sort of snuck in.

AKT: What's coming up for you? More fashion?

FT: There's discussions about other fashion films. I'm focusing right now on a film about the art world and I've been shooting for three years already in France. I have one more year of shooting. This summer I'm really excited to start editing.

AKT: The art world is a big topic. Anything more specific?

FT: It's about an art foundation that's being built and I'm following all the socio-political ramifications of this project. I'm hoping it's going to be a portrait of France in transition. We've been following very closely the political shifts through this project.

Read what Frédéric Tcheng had to say on Liza Minnelli, Elsa Peretti, Tavi Gevinson, and the Battle of Versailles in Halston.

Halston is in cinemas in the US and opens in the UK on June 7.

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