I had no expectations going into last night’s Tribeca Film Festival premier of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston.
I hadn’t yet read through the NY Times‘ piece on director Whitney Sudler-Smith. Essentially, everything I knew appeared on the tip sheet: The film documented the life of legendary designer Roy Halston Frowick, and the screening was to be followed by a panel that included Fashionista-favorite André Leon Talley, American couturier Ralph Rucci and Matt Tyrnauer, director of 2008′s hit documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor.
It’s a good thing that I wasn’t anticipating anything in particular. Because this is a fashion film like no other fashion film. Whether it’s Unzipped or The Last Emperor or Lagerfeld Confidential or The September Issue, most well-received documentaries on the topic feature a living designer, with directors attempting to give a broader audience a glimpse into a world typically gated off from the public.
Conversely, Ultrasuede, tells the story of Halston through director Sudler-Smith, who is as much of character as the designer. The 42-year-old filmmaker has long been obsessed with the 1970s, and in particular Halston, so he reaches out to remaining members of the designer’s inner circle to see if life was really that glamorous back then. What results is a collection of unintentionally hilarious interviews with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Leon Talley as well as Halston proteges Naeem Khan and Rucci.
Of course, Sudler-Smith discovers that it was indeed glamorous, and sometimes miserable. He documents everything from Halston’s reign as Bergdorf Goodman’s milliner to the triumph of his minimalist aesthetic to his company’s financial failure.
What’s important to note is that Ultrasuede is the most “unfashion” of the fashion films. While attention was paid to the importance of Halston’s contributions as a designer–from the “one-note look” to his use of Ultrasuede–it was more about how the 1970s shaped his life. During the Q&A, the panelists were quick to address his legacy, or what little there is of it. Bill Dugan, Halston’s longtime assistant, said that “he was so revolutionary, people were afraid to accept it.”
Yet I think he’s still beloved by many outside of the industry. To a generation who came up in that era, Halston was fashion. I spoke with my mom today, who was a teenager in the ’70s and a huge fan of Halston’s work. Her “signature scent” was Halston. And while she couldn’t afford his clothes–even Halston’s JC Penney line was out of her budget–she understood how important he was. “Halston was so elegant,” she said to me. “He was the first designer that I liked.”
Later on–when she could afford something nice here and there–my mom fell in love with Calvin Klein, a label she still gravitates towards today. But she understands that without Halston, Calvin mightn’t exist: “He was just ahead of his time.”
So sure, maybe Ultrasuede will introduce Halston to a new generation. But there are still many who never forgot him–or his designs.