Roy Halston Frowick’s slicked-back hair, mirrored sunglasses, and inimitable swagger loomed larger than life at an advanced screening of filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith’s Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston at Manhattan’s Core Club on Friday afternoon. The documentary tracks the American designer’s meteoric rise, from the maverick milliner who created Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, to the master of Studio 54-era minimalism, to the unseasoned businessman who signed a catastrophic contract with JC Penney in 1983.
The documentary offers few revelations for fashion-philes (“It was hard because people were pretty reticent to talk about Halston after the book [Simply Halston: The Untold Story] in the early ’90s by Steven Gaines,” Sudler-Smith said of difficulties with production. “Some people thought it was going to be another tabloid look into his life”), but it represents a solid primer complete with classic footage, including a drive in the designer’s Trans Am down to faith-based Lipscomb University in Tennessee, where the Halston archives are housed.
In the film, Liza Minnelli tells Sudler-Smith that Halston “was daring and unstoppable. He was an all-American kid who could make it in New York because he understood what people wanted. He used to disturb ’em. He used to fuck ’em up.” Andre Leon Talley says, “From the beginning, he stood for American simplicity,” later describing a girl wearing a Halston dress as “like the lights came on.” Harold Koda, Curator in Charge at the Met’s Costume Institute, regrets “that he never talked about the making of things, only the women wearing them.” Cathy Horyn recalls Halston’s meeting with the French at the 1973 fashion show at Versailles, Anjelica Huston recounts her time as a Halstonette, and Billy Joel remembers the panic at the original disco.
If Sudler-Smith is successful in reviving the image of the man, the label’s future is still uncertain.
“I think it’s terrible,” legendary model Pat Cleveland said on Friday during a talk after the screening. “I’m so upset because Bill Dugan, who recently passed away, was [Halston’s] right-hand man, and he should have taken over Halston. But people at the top think business and just want to get that name, but they don’t realize the work that goes into designing. You can’t just be a name. [Former Chief Creative Officer Sarah Jessica Parker] really appreciated Halston, and she was very respectful of the company, but you have to be a designer.”
Cleveland imagines a different future for the design house she once called home. “I think it should be a foundation, the Halston Foundation, and have a series of designers that come through to make their footing in the world of fashion. They should go to the schools and hire ten or twenty designers to do one line, each one can do sports or evening, and that would be the future of it—to serve a purpose. It still has value.”
Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston will be available on Video on Demand December 26 and in select theaters beginning February 2012.