Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston

Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In the Seventies and early Eighties, Roy Halston Frowick was one of the biggest names in American fashion. His simple, elegant clothes ended decades of obsession with more formal glamour and helped America to find its cultural voice, but ultimately he would die alone, having lost his fortune and his reputation. Last year Whitney Sudler-Smith set out in search of the memories that remain.

Before continuing with this review, I'll come clean - Halston's work really isn't my thing. That said, the best documentary-makers never depend on preaching to the converted - instead they aim to show us why their subjects matter to them and to bring us to a point where we at least understand why those subjects are important, even if we don't acquire the same enthusiasm for them. In this regard, Sudler-Smith's film is at least partially successful. It's also interesting in ways that have nothing directly to do with its subject at all. It's framed by an interview with Liza Minelli, reportedly the designer's best friend. In their first scene together, Sudler-Smith asks if he can touch her dress, which she agrees to, and they both admire the fabric. This sets the stage for a documentary full of odd little moments; not conventionally edited conversations but little moments where doors open at awkward times, phone calls interrupt proceedings, and people order more coffee. It as least as much about the journey as about the man at the heart of it all.

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All this seems entirely appropriate. Fashion is, after all, about artifice, something of which Halston was always acutely aware. Despite his apparent hero-worship of the designer, Sudler-Smith gradually chips away at a carefully crafted self-image. There's the man, an icon of cool, surrounded by glamorous women who change their clothes five times a day - but if you pay attention you'll see he always wears the same clothes. Those famous dark glasses were there to shelter his hangovers in a mirror-plated office made painfully bright. The adoring women mask a man in a troubled on-again off-again gay relationship with a promiscuous porn star, in the age when nobody dared to talk publicly about AIDS.

There's the less sympathetic side of Halston, too. The nasty little jokes about Andy Warhol, supposedly a friend. The clubs where teenagers desperate for attention would stand outside shivering all night in the hope of being chosen for entry. The gradual descent into rock n' roll excess, with tens of thousands of dollars per year spent just on orchids to decorate the office. Tantrums, outrageous demands on the staff, a sense that this was a man who found himself going to extremes just because he could. A former model with a voice like a film trailer narrator recalls how she tried to save him from himself. Sudler-Smith splices in clips from Caligula in case we don't get the message.

There's certainly plenty of material here - a personality, as Halston described himself. The trouble is that this kind of story is hardly new and Sudler-Smith seems too easily wowed by excess to ask deeper questions. Fans of Halston's work will enjoy occasional snippets of insight from wiser interviewees and will enjoy the vast number of spectacular dresses on display, but there are no major revelations. It's a flashy documentary with little below the surface, which some may consider apt; indeed, it fits neatly into a tradition of American obsessions in which Halston was an archetypal figure. Like the designer, Sudler-Smith has been consumed by his art.

Reviewed on: 12 Feb 2011
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Roy Halston Frowick defined the Seventies with the glorious excesses of his fashion designs and decadent lifestyle, dressing movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor.
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Director: Whitney Sudler-Smith

Starring: Patricia Altschul, Phillip Bloch, Thom Browne

Year: 2010

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Glasgow 2011

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