Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston is Whitney Smith’s 2010 ode to Roy Halston Frowick, better known simply as “Halston.” Known for his modern, pared-down yet uber glam take on womenswear, Halston owned the seventies and proved that American design was as relevant as those from Europe. Smith – in a Smokey and The Bandit-type Trans Am and various hairstyles – sets out to uncover more about the designer’s life and legacy.
Along the way, he meets up with the imperious and formidable André Leon Talley, a chatty Liza Minelli (who was close friends with the designer), former model Anjelica Huston and legendary model Pat Cleveland, a favorite of Halston’s (she was known as The Moth, because she strutted toward the light. She also modeled in his triumphant “Battle of Versailles” show.) We also get a peek at the Halston archives, located at Lipscomb University in Nashville (who knew!) and a crash course in 70s era decadent music and nighlife.
The documentary, which is as light and airy as a swath of chiffon, provides something akin to a Cliff Notes version of Halston’s life and legacy. Although we get a glimpse into his posh home, posh friends (including Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger), his archives (located at Nashville’s Lipscomb University) and his decadent and ultimately tragic life, we don’t get much else. Smith touches on Halston’s significant influence – the Iowa boy became a milliner who put new First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in a pillbox and simple cloth coat and influenced the likes of Calvin Klein – but Smith fails to go deeper into the material. He also hits the highlights of Halston’s business ventures: the licensing of his name and his partnership with JC Penney (which led to his line being dropped by Bergdorf Goodman) and sort of tainted his brand, but yet which set the stage for the current democratization of fashion (e.g. Isaac Mizrahi at Target and Versace at H&M). Halston was ahead of his time in realizing that women wanted high fashion even if they didn’t have deep pockets, and he attempted to cash in on that idea before it was popular.
If Smith hadn’t been so concerned with asking shallow questions or in reliving the 70s – if he had looked deeper into Halston’s motivations and his genius – this would have been a much better documentary.