Halston was the first American haute couture designer to be taken seriously in Europe and to popularize the pragmatism of synthetic fabrics like ultrasuede, but his trajectory is nothing short of a celebrity cliché. Filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith follows the couturier’s rise (at some point he spent 100,000 dollars a year on orchids) and fall (when he probably spent quite a bit more on drugs and alcohol) in the documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston. A cross between Andy Warhol’s gregariousness (Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall, and Bianca Jagger were his pals), Yves Saint-Laurent’s virtuosity (he cut fabric with a genius-like lack of hesitation), and Karl Lagerfeld’s image-consciousness (he makes his entrances late and out of yachts), it’s kind of a surprise that Halston’s life hasn’t become documentary fodder before. Although Ultrasuede does a good job at crafting Halston’s narrative of 1970s excess (his Walk of Fame star claims the decade belonged to him) and subsequent downfall, the film is, from the very beginning, off-kilter due to the filmmaker’s own presence in the frame as a character stitching the scenes together and interacting with his interviewees, who, thanks to the uncomfortable technique, become much more than mere talking heads.
Sudler-Smith, who dons different 1970s outfits throughout the film (though certainly not consistently), can’t help but look like an ill-equipped, frightened little puppy conversing with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, Diane von Fürstenberg, and Vogue’s theatrically bitchy André Leon Talley, who delivers lines such as “Just let me talk, don’t interrupt” and “Can somebody give me another cappuccino, puh-lease.” Although the power imbalance between director and subject is odd at first, it strangely becomes the most interesting thing in the film, with the figure of Halston at times just hovering over the conversational awkwardness. The tension between the amateurish interviewer and the star interviewees who either school the filmmaker, roll their eyes, or belittle him gives Ultrasuede a layer of authenticity that its otherwise formulaic structure and storytelling fail to find.
Sudler-Smith seems somewhat aware of this as, instead of trying to hide these tensions in order to feign some kind of self-assertive professionalism, he stresses them through smart editing and camera shots that seem to give the divas being interviewed the reply the interviewer himself could never give. (For example, the camera shows designer Ralph Rucci’s excessively bejeweled wrist—he wears two watches, at least one of which is made out of gold—as he sings the praises of Halston’s minimalism and simplicity.) Still, the clumsiness of the filmmaker-as-character stops being cute when it slips into the very fabric of the film and we have to endure closure narration lines about how he started out the project thinking of Halston as just “glamour, girls, and cigarette smoke,” but now he realizes he’s not only a “true American original,” but a “friend loved by many.” Can somebody give me another cappuccino, puh-lease?