In the New York of the 1970s, the fashion designer Halston was the epitome of a certain kind of cool. Being in his presence, whether at Studio 54, where he frequently held court, or at one of his famed parties, was proof of arrival. Director Whitney Sudler-Smith was born too late to bask in Halston’s reflected glow, but he admired him from afar, and his documentary Ultrasuede seems primarily like an attempt to close the distance between them. Growing up, Smith relates, he thought Halston—born Ray Halston Fenwick in Des Moines, Iowa—“was the coolest,” which sets the tone for the movie’s googly-eyed viewpoint. A frequent onscreen presence, coiffed in what he accurately calls “a series of unfortunate haircuts,” Smith frequently assures his subjects that their conversation will be “painless,” a sycophantic approach that gains him plenty of access, but precious little insight.
Beginning with Halston’s close friend and confidante, Liza Minnelli, and running through a roster that includes André Leon Talley, Diane Von Fürstenberg, and onetime Halston model Anjelica Huston, the movie records plenty of admiration for Halston’s sleek, minimalist style. He began as a milliner, designing the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration, and retained a craftsman’s appreciation for the inherent qualities of different fabric. Designer Ralph Rucci recalls with awe how Halston threw a bolt of cloth on the floor and cut out a seamless wrap dress by hand, without the aid of a pattern or sketch. Although his life was associated with excess, from sex and drugs to his six-figure orchid habit, Halston’s clothes were characterized by elegant simplicity. As Rucci fondly recalls, “Nobody looked tasteful anymore.”
Disregarding Minnelli’s advice to “fuck the gossip,” Smith eagerly tracks down tales of coke binges and indiscriminate sex, even when it takes him far afield. Nile Rodgers of Chic recalls how the band’s hit “Le Freak” grew out of an angry late-night jam after the band was refused entrance to Studio 54, a nifty anecdote that has zero to do with the movie’s ostensible subject. Halston’s assistant, Naeem Khan, recalls a Valentine’s Day bash at which the nude waitresses had their pubic hair dyed red and shaved into hearts, but due to sloppiness or sleight-of-hand, it’s unclear whether the party was Halston’s. Smith fluffs the end of Halston’s career as well, when the designer loaned his imprimatur to so many corporate entities that he eventually lost the rights to his own name: Was it simply a drug-addled cash grab, or did he genuinely believe he was democratizing fashion? Ultrasuede doesn’t answer that question, or endless others, but at least Smith has proof that he spent ample time with the beautiful people.