“ULTRASUEDE: IN SEARCH OF HALSTON”— America’s Celebrity Designer

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“ULTRASUEDE: IN SEARCH OF HALSTON” 

America’s Celebrity Designer

Amos Lassen

 Roy Halston Frowick is known as America’s first celebrity designer. In the 1970s he became an icon and a household name, and Halston meant fashion as well as the person that ruled the nightlife of New York City. Now director Whitney Sudler-Smith brings us a film about the man who had so much to do with the way people dressed and how they partied. Halston was synonymous with style and lifestyle and in this new film we see the life of the man through archival film footage, photographs and interviews with fashion and entertainment people who were his friends.

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Halston’s name was once on everything from towels to fragrances and he developed a signature fabric, ultrasuede. His friends included the most spoke about women of his time—Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Betty Ford, Babe Paley, Bianca Jagger, and Lauren Bacall. He was often at Studio 54, the epitome of an in-spot of the nightlife of Manhattan. He had talent and an epic persona and this is what many feel caused his fall from grace.

“The film features in-depth interviews with his best friend, Liza Minnelli; two of his leading models, Anjelica Huston and Pat Cleveland; fellow designers Diane von Furstenberg, Stephen Burrows, Naeem Khan, and Ralph Rucci; musicians Billy Joel and Nile Rogers (both of whom used “Halston” as a lyric in hit songs); journalists Bob Colacello and Glenn O’Brien (of Andy Warhol’s Interview), Jim Moore of GQ, Cathy Horyn of The New York Times, Amy Fine Collins of Vanity Fair, and André Leon Talley of Vogue, among others”.

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However, the film ignores some of the major aspects of Halston’s life out of the film. We used to hear of Halston’s wild escapades with drugs and sex and these are shoved to the side here.

Halston was the first American haute couture designer to be seriously considered in Europe. He was responsible for using synthetic fabrics and while this is mentioned what we really see is a man who comes across as a celebrity cliché. “Sudler-Smith follows the couturier’s rise (at some point he spent 100,000 dollars a year on orchids) and fall (when he probably spent quite a bit more on drugs and alcohol).  We see him as gregarious, a virtuoso and image conscious. However because the director seems to be everywhere in this film, it just does not work.

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“Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston” is Sudler-Smith’s own impressions of the designer – he appears on camera throughout the film as both narrator and someone who knew Halston slightly. In order to really get into the film, you must do so based upon how you like Sudler Smith.

A cross between Andy Warhol’s gregariousness (Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall, and Bianca Jagger were his pals), Yves Saint-Laurent’s virtuosity (he cut fabric with a genius-like lack of hesitation), and Karl Lagerfeld’s image-consciousness (he makes his entrances late and out of yachts), it’s kind of a surprise that Halston’s life hasn’t become documentary fodder before. Although Ultrasuede does a good job at crafting Halston’s narrative of 1970s excess (his Walk of Fame star claims the decade belonged to him) and subsequent downfall, the film is, from the very beginning, off-kilter due to the filmmaker’s own presence in the frame as a character stitching the scenes together and interacting with his interviewees, who, thanks to the uncomfortable technique, become much more than mere talking heads.

Most of the film consists of “Sudler-Smith trekking around Manhattan and interviewing various people who were intimates of Halston. The first interview subject presented is Halston’s famously close pal Liza Minnelli (a big plus, and the clear highlight of the doc), who comes across as a warm, unpretentious person who genuinely loved her friend. Minnelli soundly advises Sudler-Smith to avoid going the easy, trashy route and get to the generous man that she knew. To be fair, it does portray a balanced overview of Halston’s life and career, illustrated with slick motion graphics and an evocative soundtrack of ’70s pop hits. He also manages to wrangle down a lot of interesting people with deep connections to Halston. In addition to Minnelli, the subjects include André Leon Talley of Vogue magazine, fashion designer Chado Ralph Rucci, Bob Coachello and Glenn O’Brien from Interview magazine, model Pat Cleveland and actress Angelica Huston. An impressive array and he does get a lot of good, heartfelt recollections from them”.

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I suspect that had the film not been so fragmentary, it would have worked a lot better. Even with its problems, the film is enjoyable but shallow and because of the tremendous amount of information it is hard not to like the film. However, I had hoped for more.

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