In the 70s, the American designer Halston was one of fashion’s biggest stars. But since his death from an Aids-related illness in 1990, his reputation has dimmed, despite attempts to revive his company (one of them involving Harvey Weinstein and Sarah Jessica Parker). Now comes this flattering, myth-inflating documentary by Frédéric Tcheng, who gives us the story of Roy Halston Frowick, a kid from Des Moines, Iowa, who reinvented himself in New York as a milliner to the super-rich and joined the big league by putting Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat at JFK’s inauguration. He became one-name famous by designing party dresses that one interviewee gigglingly describes as best worn without knickers.
This profile has a pretentious – and pointless – framing device in which fashion writer Tavi Gevinson plays a fictional archivist who turns detective to investigate his life. As well as understanding the fashion mood of the 70s, Halston savvily realised that dressing his beautiful celebrity pals Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston and Bianca Jagger was the best possible advertisement. He also increased diversity on the runway, promoting African American models, and his muse was Pat Ast, the frizzy-haired size-20 actor who had worked with Andy Warhol.
His secretary pinpoints the beginning of the end for Halston as the opening of the Studio 54 nightclub, where he picked up a $1,000-a-week cocaine habit. He spent money like crazy, once sending a private plane to fetch his dinner. Then there were the business decisions. In 1983, he signed a disastrous $1bn deal with the US high-street chain JC Penney – appalling his elite fanbase. By 1984, Halston lost the rights to his name and company.
The archive clips suggest Halston is a role Richard E Grant was born to play: the designer had a long-limbed loucheness, grandiose affectations and put-on accent, along with a fierce perfectionism.
Comebacks come no more enigmatic than The Barrel, the first single to be taken from Aldous Harding’s third album, and its accompanying video. It featured the New Zealand-born singer-songwriter performing stylised dance moves and giving knowing looks to camera while variously wearing a tall white hat, a white ruff and enormous platform boots; a grotesque blue mask and a T-shirt and white underpants accessorised with a pair of maracas. The lyrics were as puzzling as the video: “I know you have the dove, I’m not getting wet … show the ferret to the egg, I’m not getting led along.”
Perhaps understandably, what the whole thing was supposed to be about was the subject of considerable online debate. Depending on whose interpretation you plumped for, the video was either a homage to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal 1973 film The Holy Mountain, a nod to the national dress of Wales (where Designer was partly recorded and where Harding currently resides), analogous to the faintly disturbing vision of pregnancy found in Sylvia Plath’s 1960 poem Metaphors, inspired by postmodernist poet Susan Howe’s book Singularities, which surveys the 17th-century First Nation wars in New England, somehow related to menstruation or – a more cynical view – a canny artist doing a load of self-consciously weird stuff on screen with one eye on the end result being GIF-able and meme-worthy. Whatever it was, Harding wasn’t letting on: “I feel we’re expected to be able to explain ourselves after we’ve worked the space and have purpose, you know, in a little bag that you carry around everywhere,” she told NPR. “But I don’t necessarily have that in me.”
Long-term observers of Harding’s rise might note that this is all par for the course. After attracting attention for a pared-down, folky debut, things in Harding’s world got weird fast. On 2017’s Party, the lyrics became more oblique, her videos more inscrutable, her interviews more vague and her live performances more mannered and strange, as evidenced by the divisive explosion of bug-eyed gurning that accompanied her appearance on Later With Jools Holland. For everyone moved to purple prose by her stagecraft, there was someone expressing their displeasure in more earthy terms: “She looks like she’s escaped from the nut house,” protested one YouTube commenter.
For anyone braced for a further explosion of oddness, the strangest thing about Designer might be how disarmingly pretty it is. The staginess of Harding’s vocals has been slightly toned down, although she is still wont to sing with a curious enunciation, as if she’s invented her own accent. The tunes are sweetly charming. The music, meanwhile, is drawn in soft, warm tones: piano, Mellotron, fingerpicked nylon-strung acoustic guitar, subtle shadings of woodwind and brass, gently pattering congas. It occasionally sounds like a lost Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter album from the immediately post-psychedelic era – there’s a faintly lysergic shimmer to the tempo shifts and pregnant pauses of the title track – and occasionally like the work of Leslie Feist. The emotional temperature seems to drop midway through, with Damn’s hushed six and a half minutes ushering in a shadowy, twilit mood that lingers to the album’s conclusion, but even then the songs are draped with graceful, inviting melodies: driven by the muffled tick-tock of an ancient-sounding drum machine playing a vaguely Latin pattern, Weight of the Planets is particularly lovely.
The lyrics are cryptic almost to the point of impenetrability and are clearly going to keep Harding’s army of online interpreters busy for some time: relatable everyday incidents are swallowed up by bizarre imagery. If it’s hard to say what Treasure or Zoo Eyes are actually about – “I made it again to the Amazon, I’ve got to erase the same as the others” opens the former, while the latter concludes with repeated demands to know “what am I doing in Dubai?” – a distinct sense of disquiet and darkness seeps through the splintered imagery, scraping unsettlingly against the music. She alludes to something grim and bloody in the lyrics of Treasure, completely at odds with its breezy musical setting; the honeyed vocals and beautiful harmonies of opener Fixture Picture conceal a bleak worldview: “You can’t be pure and in love.” Even if you don’t feel like spending hours trying to unpick what she’s on about, there’s something oddly compelling about the contrasts.
Making an album that’s both captivating and indecipherable is no mean feat. What seems like the work of an unbiddable artist, operating according to her own baffling internal logic, turns out to be something rather more finely wrought: the fractured and confusing weighed out against the straightforwardly appealing, the darkness balanced by airy light. It’s a strange world that Harding has created, but it’s also an inviting one.
This week Alexis listened to
Four Tet: Teenage Birdsong
Kieran Hebden continues to wend his way down a beautifully idiosyncratic path: sunlit pastoral electronica, devoid of indulgence, thick with melodies.
Rihanna is reportedly about to make history as the first black female to head up a fashion brand at the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, LVMH.
It would be the first new fashion house the group, which owns Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, has launched since Christian Lacroix in 1987.
The new brand is expected to take the singer’s last name, Fenty, which she uses for her make-up and lingerie businesses. Speculation was fuelled this week when she stepped out in an oversized pair of sunglasses with the brand’s logo visible on the side.
Rihanna has filed a lawsuit against her father, Ronald Fenty, in a dispute over the use of the Fenty name by their respective companies. The lawsuit stated he “egregiously and fraudulently misrepresented to third parties and the public that their company … is affiliated with Rihanna”. Rihanna is asking for a legal injunction on the use of the Fenty name, as well as unspecified damages.
The deal would be a shrewd business move for LVMH, which has been courting the singer for some time. While she worked on a capsule collection of sunglasses in 2015 for LVMH’s Dior, she collaborated with Puma in 2016, generating $1bn in sales for the sportswear brand.
In 2017, LVMH lured her back to collaborate on her make-up line, Fenty Beauty. The range, which was praised for encompassing a wide range of skin tones, reportedly made $100m in sales within 40 days and was named as one of Time Magazine’s 25 best inventions that year.
Her lingerie line, Savage x Fenty, which launched in May 2017, has enjoyed huge success and acclaim for its inclusivity. Pitched as the antidote to existing underwear brands such as Victoria’s Secret, which has been accused of being culturally out of touch and objectifying women, the TechStyle Fashion Group-backed brand includes sizes ranging from from XS to 3XL and features plus-size models in its campaigns.
“I accept all of the bodies,” Rihanna told US Vogue last year. “I’m not built like a Victoria’s Secret girl, and I still feel very beautiful and confident in my lingerie.” TechStyle’s CEO told the trade publication WWD at the time that he chose Rihanna because she was “the right partner to bring instant credibility and exposure” to the brand.
While the details of her new fashion brand remain under wraps, its concept is a reflection of the state of play in the fashion industry. Established and heritage brands are increasingly teaming up with high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna – who has 67 million Instagram followers – to work on collaborations and endorse products thanks to the influence they hold over the lucrative “Generation Z” consumer market.
The Kardashian family are another prolific example of this and have been tapped by several fashion houses, including Calvin Klein, all eager to attract their combined 508.7 million social media followers.
It would also signal a further evolution in what it takes to head up a fashion house in the 21st century. Like Virgil Abloh, who was appointed as the artistic director of LVMH’s flagship brand Louis Vuitton last year, Rihanna has no formal fashion training. Abloh’s first Vuitton collection is selling 30% faster than the much-hyped collaboration with Supreme from 2017.
Abloh’s mentor Kanye West is another example of a successful musician-to-designer transition. Aside from his claims that his clothing brand Yeezy “will become the biggest apparel company in human history”, it was reported last year that his brand had received a $1.5bn valuation.
The launch of Rihanna’s brand could go some way to answering calls for more diversity among fashion’s leaders. Last year, she became the first black woman to be on the September cover, traditionally the largest and most important edition of the magazine, of British Vogue.
“A fearless music-industry icon and businesswoman, when it comes to that potent mix of fashion and celebrity, nobody does it quite like her,” said the editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful, of Rihanna.