A New Doc Goes In Search Of Halston
The very name “Halston” conjures seventies excess and glamour—so much so that most people don’t even know his real name. (It’s Roy Halston Frowick, FYI.) But director Whitney Sudler-Smith went searching for the man behind the label (and the endless licensing, which Halston pioneered). His new doc, Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, premieres tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival. Below, Sudler-Smith talks to Style.com about the friends (Diane von Furstenberg, one-time Halston model Anjelica Huston), the fashions, and the eventual fall.
Plus, check out a preview of the film below the interview.
Why make this movie, and why Halston?
I thought the whole glamorous, chic decadence of the seventies was interesting. So I explored doing a film on a figurehead of this incredible time in American history. Halston was so cool, how could you not do it?
You don’t spend much time on his pre-fame existence.
We kind of wanted to avoid the typical Biography Channel A-to-Z trajectory. We do say he was a Midwest boy, but we didn’t want to get into his early career working in Chicago. We wanted to get to the good stuff!
Halston had a minimalist aesthetic but lived a maximalist lifestyle. Is there a weird logic behind that?
New York in the seventies was incredible—the city was basically bankrupt, crime and drugs were endemic. In Times Square, you’d get mugged or stuck with a needle. It was a crazy time, and out of this grew an explosion of fashion and art and music. People had a bad hangover from Vietnam and Watergate, and all this complexity going on around them, and they essentially wanted simplicity in clothing. Halston played into that “less is more” aesthetic—you’d dress well, and simply, but you could also go out and disco in that dress.
His name was everywhere at one point. It was a good thing at first, but then it wasn’t.
He made his mark in the early seventies, before this advent of celebrity. He licensed everything from luggage to Girl Scout uniforms, which helped out from a financial standpoint—as well as the perfumes. With Reagan coming into office, his clothes sort of went out of fashion. It was tough.
Was doing clothes for JCPenney the moment things started to go downhill?
Yeah, pretty much. The JCPenney thing was just a no-no. That really did cheapen it, unfortunately. In retrospect he was a visionary, because nowadays that’s what all the big designers are doing. But at the time it was a scandal that he would do something so low-rent. I hope the new Heritage line with Sarah Jessica Parker will resurrect the brand.
Did people you interviewed have any less-than-positive things to say about him?
No. Despite his shortcomings, people really did love him. And they wanted to give whatever they could for his story to get out there. But I tried to interview his secretary for 15 years—she hung up on me. That was the other side of the coin. It was a crazy work environment toward the end. But what people said was that it was just a different time. Things that are bad now were considered naughty, but not necessarily bad. People didn’t do rehab in the seventies.
Which interview was the toughest to set up?
We were trying to get Anjelica Huston here for years. I think she was skeptical. I showed her half-brother, Danny Huston, who had acted in my first film, a rough cut. And after all the cajoling and pleading, I got to sit down with her in her beautiful house in Venice Beach.
Anyone you didn’t interview but wish you had?
I’m sorry we didn’t get Tom Ford. He really embodied a lot of that Halston spirit. Not that decadence, but the genial sense of naughtiness and sex and glamour in fashion. Maybe he didn’t get my e-mails—who knows?
You got some great material inside Halston’s old house in New York.
Which was fantastic. It was designed by Paul Rudolph and is now owned by Gunter Sachs, who was one of the great playboys of the sixties, and it really hasn’t been updated. And we found some rare footage of [Halston] walking down the cantilevered steps in the living room and coming out the front door.
Halston came from humble roots and transformed himself into this cosmopolitan personality, much like Chanel did. Did you get the sense that people knew where he came from?
He did kind of reinvent himself with this very haughty way of talking that didn’t come from Indiana. But I think he was very proud of where he was from. Part of the JCPenney thing is that he wanted to bring high fashion to middle America—going back to his roots. He says when he was a child, his parents always took him shopping at JCPenney. He really wanted to dress America, which I think was a very noble idea. But the line didn’t sell.