Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 13, 2019

Cardin, Halston, St. Laurent

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Before my wife became a tenure-track professor in the Economics and Business Department of Lehmann College/CUNY in New York (now successfully completed), she was an adjunct at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY school that was a first choice for many aspiring designers—many of whom were contestants on Project Runway.  In Project Runway, there were dozens of entrants but only one won the grand prize after weeks of contests involving, for example, making dresses out of paper shopping bags, etc. She was curious about how their work stacked up against other aspiring designers, all of whom hoped to get the first prize, $100,000 plus having a collection of their work showcased during Fashion Week in New York. My wife also enjoyed watching designer clothing being made since she is a stylish dresser unlike the women I knew from my Trotskyist days who would consider owning a Michael Kors handbag tantamount to crossing a picket line.

So what does this have to do with me? In the course of watching Project Runway, I became a devoted fan. Back in 2010, I wrote about a spin-off of the show titled “On the Road with Austin and Santino” that followed two finalists around the country designing a wardrobe for plain janes. I wrote:

The last episode…was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

With Project Runway under my belt, I made a point of reviewing any film featuring haute couture designers, including a Karl Lagerfeld documentary, one about Valentino Garavani, and a CounterPunch review (!) of a narrative film about Yves St. Laurent.

Recently, I got my hands on three documentaries about the designers mentioned in the title of this article, including a documentary on Yves St. Laurent made by Olivier Meyrou in 2007. Titled “Celebration”, it was suppressed by his estate until now since it depicted a frail and pathetic 71-year old man in the early stages of dementia, but who was still capable of mounting one of his memorable shows.

Still alive at 96, Pierre Cardin is arguably the most important designer of the 20th century. “House of Cardin” was shown as part of the DOC NYC film festival and will likely make it into theaters sometime in 2020. For most people, including me, Cardin was only a brand name (I have his cologne, so there), but this fascinating documentary puts him into the larger context of social history.

To start with, his father was a wealthy landowner in Italy of French descent who moved back to France in 1924 because he opposed Mussolini. He apprenticed for a clothier at the age of 14 and then left home to work for a tailor in Vichy in 1939. After the war, he moved to Paris where his burgeoning career including designing the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Cocteau, an open homosexual, introduced the drop-dead handsome young Cardin to other gay film makers, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti with whom he had flings as the nonagenarian designer recalls with a smile.

To put Cardin into cultural context, he was a futurist in the tradition of both Italian and Russian artists of the early 20th century. His dresses and gowns employed stark geometric patterns that were a break with the frilly designs of the past favored by the bourgeoisie. These outfits on display at the Museum Pierre Cardin in Paris are typical.

In the 1960s, Cardin’s clothing was favored by the young and the rebellious who had money, of course. Once he introduced an affordable prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) line, his clothing became as popular as Levi jeans. Among the people who loved Cardin’s fashion were the Beatles who make a pitch for him here.

At one point Cardin refers to himself as a socialist designer, although I think he is going a bit overboard there. Perhaps if the capitalist class was made up primarily of homosexual dress designers, we’d be better off at least on the basis of all the films I’ve seen about this wing of the bourgeoisie. Dare I call it progressive?

Now available on Amazon Prime, “Halston” tells the story of Roy Halston Frowick, who was born in Des Moines in 1932, the son of a typical corn belt family. Like Pierre Cardin and just about every male designer I’ve seen in a documentary or on Project Runway, he showed an affinity for sewing and designing from an early age.

After moving to New York in 1957, he became the head milliner (hat designer) at Bergdorf-Goodman where he became friends with Andy Warhol, a window-dresser at the time. Later on they would reunite as Studio 54 regulars in the 60s. Halston, who had dropped the first and last name, became famous for designing the cloth dress and hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in sharp contrast to the mink coats other wives were wearing. Like Pierre Cardin, Halston had an aversion to haute bourgeois pretensions.

Once he gained fame for his hat designs, he went out on his own and became one of America’s most popular dress and gown designers. If Cardin was influenced by futurism, Halston made his mark by designing clothing that women felt comfortable in, almost like sleepwear. Often made out of a single piece of cloth, they never made a woman feel constricted. They were almost like the gowns of Greek and Roman antiquity. Here’s some examples:


Like Cardin, Halston wanted to reach as many customers as possible. Partly to make more money but also because he was no elitist. He made a deal with J.C. Penny for a ready-to-wear line that appalled Bergdof-Goodman’s management so much that they dropped his upscale line from their store. Cardin went through a similar experience. In 1959, he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale for launching a ready-to-wear collection for the Printemps department store, but was soon reinstated.

In the 1960s, as his fame grew, his company was made offers that he couldn’t refuse. The Halston name and his business were purchased by Norton Simon, Inc and then by Esmark Inc. He was under enormous pressure to pump out designs for the sake of their bottom line but he grew frustrated by corporate interference. They were looking for someone more along the lines of those who made their mass marketing products,  but it was impossible for Halston to abandon the imperious stance of a star designer, all the more so since he had a major cocaine habit.

Finally, Esmark got fed up with him and changed the locks in his office in 1984 so that only those vetted by them could gain entrance. He could not even start a new business in his own name since Esmark had a lock on it as well.

Just four years after he was fired from Esmark, he learned that he had HIV and moved out to San Francisco to live with his brother. Until his death in 1990, he remained reclusive and was at least able to reunite with a family who loved him without qualifications.

Just acquired by KimStim, a leading-edge film distributor based in Brooklyn, “Celebration” will likely be available as DVD or VOD before very long. (Check their website for information).

We hear very few words from Yves St. Laurent in this cinéma vérité film but plenty from his one-time companion and business partner Pierre Bergé who functions pretty much as his care-giver in this poignant 74-minute documentary. At one point, he works with St. Laurent to prepare for the delivery of a speech thanking industry figures for one of his many awards. Bergé reminds him to stand up straight and to smile. For the entire film, we see a grim-looking St. Laurent who almost always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Since his fingers tremble, that’s probably easier for him.

The film is not so much about the fashion business as the other two films. Rather, it documents the ravages of old age and fading glory. My suggestion is to watch in in tandem with the narrative I reviewed for CounterPunch. While it was also painful for its depiction of how the French military made Yves St. Laurent suffer as a draftee during the French-Algerian War, it also shows his creative prowess that made him legendary in fashion circles. Like “Halston”, it is for rent on Amazon Prime.


1 Comment »

  1. Oooh Louis…are you the 17th, 18th or what? Haut Haut Haut! Post something, post what! post Proyect?

    Comment by Anthony Boynton — November 14, 2019 @ 4:34 am

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