You can’t really speak about ’70s fashion, glitz or glamour without including Halston. The designer who popularized “less is more” and “casual chic” was adored by the likes of Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford, Bianca Jagger, Candice Bergen, Jackie Onassis and Lauren Bacall, just to name a few. He held court at Studio 54, palled around with Andy Warhol, mastered licensing and sold his business for a fortune.
But after losing control of his brand, Halston retreated both personally and professionally. He died of AIDS in 1990.
In his documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, director Whitney Sudler-Smith talks about the man with the legendary designer's friends and contemporaries—Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, André Leon Talley, Billy Joel and Diane von Furstenberg, among others.
The Tribeca Film movie, now available on video on demand, opens at the IFC Center in New York on January 20. We caught up with Sudler-Smith to ask him about America’s first celebrity designer. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: Clearly you have a fascination with the ’70s, but what drew you to making a documentary about Halston in particular?
Whitney Sudler-Smith: I think the fact that Halston was so revolutionary was what first got me interested. He was one of the regulars at Studio 54. Together, Halston and Warhol ran the New York social scene, fashion-wise and art-wise. Through Studio 54, they co-represented this magical era that no longer exists. New York was very different back then. The city was bankrupt and crime, drugs and prostitution were endemic. Out of all the turmoil came this great explosion of art, fashion and music. Halston was one of the leading figures of this special time in American history. That’s what really interested me initially in the subject. Halston was the first superstar designer. And his story is compelling in that it’s this Shakespearean rise and fall with an incredible historical backdrop.
MORE: You met with some giant names in Hollywood and fashion. What was it like to sit down with stars like Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, Billy Joel and André Leon Talley? Were they eager to talk about Halston, or did you have to do some wrangling?
WSS: Everyone couldn't have been more helpful—of course, scheduling them was a different matter. But Halston was a revered and respected person in their lives, and they wanted to do whatever they could to help tell his story. Liza was amazing—and incredibly intimidating. I walked into her apartment for the interview, and the first thing I saw were all these hand-painted Warhols of her and of her parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli. It was quite daunting, to say the least, but she couldn't have been sweeter and was a huge help in attracting other talent.
MORE: In your interviews and research, did anything really surprise you about Halston?
WSS: I went into this film thinking that he was this superficial disco druggie, but what I really came away with was how great an artist he was, and what a revolutionary fashion designer. I also found that he was loved and admired by almost everyone he came in contact with. Halston should be respected as the artist he was, as opposed to solely representing disco and the Studio 54 days. Fashion-wise, he put the disco look on the map. It couldn’t have happened without him. I really had no idea.
MORE: You included parts of interviews that might have been expected to be edited out—like André Leon Talley telling you, “Don’t interrupt.” What was the thought behind keeping some of those “candid” moments in?
WSS: We just wanted to be amusing. This is a fun film, and although we take the subject seriously, we clearly don't take my character very seriously—he's a bit out of his element. It was more for non-fashion outsiders, to follow the story as one would who didn't know anything; I hoped it was a device to make the viewer more empathetic toward the story and its subjects.
MORE: Studio 54 plays a big part in the film. Would making a movie about Halston be impossible without including the club? And what would you give to be able to time-machine back to one of those nights?
WSS: Well, his look did define the Studio 54 look, and that's what he's probably best known for. I suppose you could leave most of the 54 stuff out, but it would be a lot less interesting. Everybody loves the mystique of that place—that lost, forbidden world. I would have loved to have checked it out!
MORE: Your own appearance changes several times during the movie. Was it filmed over a long period of time?
WSS: It was filmed over a year and a half. As the film is a bit of a surrealist pastiche, I wanted to mix it up, provide some comic relief to an already pretty heavy story. My character is a bit of a Dante taking you through the nine rings, with ridiculous ’70s-style outfits.
MORE: There’s not much talk about Halston’s youth—how a boy from Des Moines, Iowa, ended up the face of ’70s fashion and glamour. Why did you decide to leave that part out?
WSS: The whole idea of the film was to avoid the typical documentary/Biography Channel thing—the kind of A to Z trajectory of one's life. We touch upon his early days, and his start as a milliner, but I wanted to hit the ground running.
MORE: Halston’s story ended with such a sad and lonely conclusion, especially when compared with his life, which was rich in success, glamour and excess. What do you want people who see this film to take away from his life, and what do you think Halston’s legacy is and will continue to be?
WSS: Well, as [Vanity Fair writer] Bob Colacello says at the end of the film, “you can't have greatness if there was no tragedy in the first place.” Halston was a great artist, and a tragic figure because of it, and I wanted people to know of this incredible person in an incredible time. I also want the viewer to walk away wanting a glass of champagne, as it's a fun film and a bit of a celebration.
In regard to his legacy, you can see his minimalist influence in many designers' work today: Michael Kors' sleek furs and trouser suits; Derek Lam's columns; Marc Jacobs' 2010 spring line. Halston really changed fashion.
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