Fashion on Film: Review – Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston

Roy Halston Frowick, or Halston to you and I, is the designer who began his career as a milliner for Bergdorf Goodman (designing Jacqueline Kennedy‘s iconic pillbox hat), who went on to become “the best designer in America” in 1972 (Newsweek).

After launching his eponymous womenswear label in 1968, which included heavyweight cashmere evening dresses, jersey sarongs (a design aesthetic since emulated by Diane von Furstenberg) and ultrasuede wrap coats; his effortlessly elegant creations soon became the uniform of the jet-set glitterati and elevated him to the status of America’s first celebrity designer. Elsa Peretti became his muse and socialites and celebrities flocked to be around him and experience the decadence, with A-list clientele and supporters including Liza MinnelliLauren BacallBianca Jagger, Betty FordBabe Paley and Elizabeth Taylor. Halston was regularly seen on the “scene” at New York’s now legendary hotspot, the fabled Studio 54, surrounded by the rich and famous, including Andy Warhol and Truman Capote, earning him the reputation as the King of fashion and nightlife.

Such was his success, that Halston expanded his range into menswear, shoes, accessories and a line of fragrances, establishing him as the first American designer to exploit the world of fashion licensing – putting his brand name to everything from luggage, to carpets, cabin crew and girl scouts uniforms. He also designed a range for US store JC Penney, a move that irreparably damaged the brand, with the line discontinued after a year. But that aside, his collaborations at the time are now indicators of just how much of a visionary he was. Today, everyone from Karl Lagerfeld for Macy‘s and Alber Elbaz (Lanvin) for H&M has collaborated with a major high-street retailer to bring high-end fashion to the masses, at an affordable price.

Unfortunately, the excesses of the late 70s eventually caught up with Halston, and his hard-partying lifestyle – fuelled by drugs and booze eventually led to his abrupt downward spiral. In 1973, the designer sold his name to Norton Simon Industries for a large sum of money, but a decade later he lost control both professionally and personally, and was fired from the label. Halston died of AIDS and cancer related causes in 1990.

It’s unbelievable to think that such an iconic designer has never been the subject of a film before, considering how he defined a decade of fashion. But in a new documentary, “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston”, filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith takes us back to the 70s and its Halston heyday, on a journey through the designer’s life. It’s a fascinating combination of archive footage and an array of interviews with the survivors of Halston’s empire, like Liza Minnelli, whom he designed stage costumes for; Anjelica Huston, who starred in Halston’s ad campaigns and catwalk shows, and Pat Cleveland, one of the original Halstonettes – the designer’s official group of models. Diane von Furstenberg appears in the film, as does Bob Colacello,Vanity Fair writer and former Editor of Interview magazine. Singer Billie Joel also pops-up, having famously mentioned a Halston dress in the 1979 song “Big Shot” – and a brief history behind Halston and his larger-than-life persona is provided in an interview with another larger-than-life persona, Andre Leon Talley

Sudler-Smith, a screenwriter and filmmaker, is an interesting choice as presenter/interviewer. Ultrasuede is his directorial-debut and being two years in the making, his ever-changing 70s hair and fake or real(?!) moustache are almost as compelling to watch on screen as Halston himself. In some scenes Sudler-Smith is a brunette and tash-less, in other scenes he’s verging on a bleach-haired, over-tanned Shane Warne-esque metrosexual man. Wearing Raybans. Indoors. Very fashion. Very scary. Shots of him driving around New York city in a Dukes of Hazzard style pontiac trans-am are also a comical nod to the 70s. But from the film’s start, you find yourself asking who Sudler-Smith is in terms of his fashion credentials (he has none by the way) and why is he making this film? By the end, you’re still thinking the same. As Grazia magazine’s Style Director, Paula Reed told me, “that Whitney guy is no Dimbleby!”.


However, if you’re a Halston fan, with a Mother who still owns an original gold-lurex Halston wrap dress (that baby is now mine, ALL MINE!!) , then you’ll enjoy this film, despite it being slightly oddly pieced together. The only thing that’s crucially missing is the real ending to the story. No, not the one where all the Halston archives, including press files featuring iconic images, end up in the back-room of an office in Nashville, Tennesee (museums like FIT had no space to exhibit it). But the slightly happier ending that tells of how the Halston label was revived via eight separate owners and six designers. In 2008, Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Choo’s Tamara Mellon, and stylist Rachel Zoe brought the brand back to life, installing former Versace designer Marco Zanini as creative chief, showing a collection in February 2008. Online fashion website Net-a-Porter signed on to sell pieces immediately after the show.

However, Zanini was dismissed in July 2008, amid rumours that disagreements had taken place among the creative board as to the direction of the new line. The Spring 2009 collection was then presented at the Museum of Modern Art by an unnamed design team and in 2010, designer Marios Schwab took over as the head of design for the label. In the same year, actress and fashion icon, Sarah Jessica Parker was appointed as the president and chief creative officer of Halston Heritage, the label’s diffusion line which pays homage to original Halston archival looks. Jessica-Parker was a key force in building a new Halston fan base when she wore pieces from the line in the “Sex and the City 2″ movie, including a white dress for the film’s official poster (below). The dress sold out within hours.

In late July this year (2011), both Weinstein and Mellon announced they were leaving the label, which was shortly followed by the quick exit of Schwab and Jessica-Parker. The fashion industry is still scratching its head as to why. In its present form, the designer-level Halston collection is now discontinued, and the label is to focus on Halston Heritage. No successor has since been named and there is no Spring / Summer 2012 collection.

Whatever happens to the label going forward and no matter how many times it’s reborn under the direction of new fashion heavyweights – the man who put America on the map fashion-wise, will always remain a true vanguard of the cross-pollination of art, music and style in the 70s. And talking of music, the docu-film also reveals an interesting tale from Nile Rogers, guitarist in the band Chic. He tells of how the group were invited to a New Years Eve party at Studio 54 by Grace Jones, to meet Halston and hang out. The band never made it into the club which had a strict ‘only New York’s best dressed’ door policy (and Grace forget about them, tut tut), so all dressed up with nowhere to go, they ended up slightly the worse for wear in a restaurant. As a lyrical response to the doorman who turned them away from the club, they penned a song called “F**k Off” which went something like, “Aaaaaah F**k off” (Rogers sings it in the film!). They later changed the lyrics (and yes, you know what’s coming next)…. the 1978 hit “Le Freak” was born. Aaaaaah Freak Out!

“Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston” opens across selected cinemas on September 23rd and is available on DVD from November 7th. To watch the official trailer, head HERE.

Follow Kate @katelawson_

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