Stanley Clarke: Halston

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Jazz and the movies have a long history. Many silent films were accompanied by live ragtime, and jazz was performed in movies or was a mainstay of movie storylines for decades once talkies emerged in 1929. Movie scores by jazz artists is a different matter. That started in the late 1950s with I Want to Live (1958/Johnny Mandel) and continued with Anatomy of a Murder (1959/Duke Ellington), The Subterraneans (1960/Andre Previn), Paris Blues (1961/Duke Ellington) and Blow-Up (1966/Herbie Hancock) to name just a handful of the early ones.

Recently I had an opportunity to see an advance stream of Halston, a fascinating new documentary directed by Frédéric Tcheng. The film details the rise and fall of the designer who changed women's fashion in the 1970s and, in the early 1980s, and became the industry's first wildly successful brand. Halston started out in the late 1950s as a hat designer at New York's Bergdorf Goodman, which at the time was society's walk-in closet. His big break came when he created Jackie Kennedy's cream pillbox hat for the 1961 inauguration of her husband. Suddenly, Bergdorf began promoting Halston in ads in the 1960s, a first for the prestigious store. In 1966, he made more than 100 masks for Truman Capote's Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel.

In 1968, Halston left Bergdorf Goodman to start Halston Limited just off Madison Ave. He gave Elsa Peretti her start, transforming her into a jewelry-designer superstar who would design his off-center fragrance bottle. He launched the careers of models Pat Cleveland, Nancy North, Karen Bjornson among others. By the early '70s, Halston had created a clean, simple look for the soft decade that flowed and exuded elegance and ease, youth and freedom and power without being masculine. As Fred Rottman, Halston's workroom supervisor, notes in the film, Halston took concepts developed by designer Charles James and relaxed them. Along the way, he invented hot pants and was the first to exploit celebrity to sell an image.

But by 1983, Halston's ambitions put him on a collision course with ruin. That year, he signed a six-year licensing deal worth $1 billion with J.C. Penny. Overnight, the Halston name became mass market and accessible to anyone who wanted his name on their back. His shift from class to mass compelled Berdorf Godoman to stop carrying his high-end couture lines. In 1984, Halston's fussiness and couture approach caused delays in delivering his mass-market concepts, compelling the new owners to bring in others to continue his lines without his input or permission. Tragically, Halston had sold away all rights to his name in an era when conglomerates were becoming expert at turning art into trash for every last dime.

In 1988, the designer tested positive for HIV, and in 1990 he died of an AIDS-related illness.

The Halston documentary is fascinating for its look back at an era before designers understood the perils of being bought out. Before his move to the mass market, Halston's lines were breathtaking and bold, defining the youthful chic of the 1970s and early '80s, when Studio 54 was the rage and celebrity, fashion, music and art all intersected in New York.

The documentary's original music was composed by Stanley Clarke and is a fascinating, eclectic listen. Clarke's compositions are acoustic and electronic, and as loose-fitting and liberating as Halston's designs. Throughout the soundtrack, there are musical references to disco, catwalks and the glittery, narcissistic world of the 1970s and early '80s. What I love about the soundtrack is that it isn't trying to be a part of an era nor is it trying to surface the essence. Instead, Clarke's score is an impression of Halston's revolution and era. The music frames the film's scenes perfectly but remains vibrant, sympathetic and contemporary.

JazzWax clips: Here's the film's trailer...



Here's Stanley Clarke's The Beautiful Models...



Here's Where Is Halston...



Here's 2 a.m. at Studio 54...



Here's 52 W. 54th St...



And here's Walking the Runway...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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