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Ultrasuede: Whitney Sudler-Smith on Halston's Era of Style

Posted: 12/29/11 12:02 PM ET

By Karen Kemmerle

Through his unconvential documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, director Whitney Sudler-Smith explores the exciting rise and devastating fall of America’s first real celebrity designer.

New York icon Halston first became well known in the United States for designing the famous pillbox hat worn by Jackie Kennedy at the Presidential inauguration. Later he dressed such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Lauren Bacall. In addition to his supreme talents as a designer, his rule as the undisputed king of the NYC social scene during the Studio 54 era enhanced his considerable notoriety.

Through film clips, interviews and archival footage, filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith takes his audience on a ride (literally, in his vintage Trans Am) back in time to the world of style that Halston personified during the 70s in NYC. While interviewing Halston’s friends—Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, Andre Leon Talley, and Diane Von Furstenberg—Sudler-Smith personally investigates Halston’s life and legacy, including taking us on a tour of Halston’s lavish New York City penthouse. Untraditional and refreshingly off the cuff, Sudler-Smith is an effective guide through the buzz surrounding the legendary designer. Dressed in an impeccable, studded Burberry trench coat, Whitney Sudler-Smith recently sat down with us to discuss his film and the iconic Halston.

Halston in Black and White

Credit: Pierre Schermann

Tribeca: From the documentary, it is obvious that you have always been enamored with the New York scene in the 70s, but what first intrigued you about Halston in particular?  

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I get asked this question so many times I forget what I should say. [laughs] Halston was so revolutionary. He was one of regulars at Studio 54. Together, Halston and [Andy] 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 the one of the figureheads of this special time in American history. That’s what really interested me in the subject. Halston was the first superstar designer. His story is compelling in that it’s this Shakespearean rise and fall amidst this incredible historical backdrop.  

Tribeca: Did you have any predetermined notions about Halston before you made the documentary? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I did. I went into this thinking that he was this superficial disco junkie, but he was a great artist and a revolutionary fashion designer. The more I talked to people, I found that Halston was loved and admired by almost everyone he came into contact with. He should be respected as the artist he was as opposed to solely representing disco and the Studio 54 days. Fashion-wise, Halston put the disco look on the map. It couldn’t have happened without him.

Tribeca: People who knew Halston personally seem so receptive to you and your film as evidenced by the legends that you were able to interview. How did you go about approaching Liza, who was Halston’s best friend, and the others of his entourage?  

Whitney Sudler-Smith: It was hard. A lot of these fashion characters, or characters in general, are hard to get access to, but fortunately a friend of mine knew this furrier, of all things, who was best friends with Liza. They told her we were doing a documentary on Halston and wanted to set up an interview with her. Liza was my first interview, which was a bit intimidating. You just have to email and approach different contacts and try to get these people to open up. If they are interested in the subject matter and you seem semi-legitimate, you have a good chance. Fortunately, for whatever reason, I came across that way [laughs]. Though, for the most part, it’s hard to get people to talk and especially open up about this time period. Some other characters I tried to go after weren’t exactly receptive…

Halston+in+Action

Halston in Action/Photo Credit: Piette Schermann

Tribeca: Who were some of those characters, if you don’t mind us asking? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: Tom Ford, who I think was inspired by Halston and his calm demeanor, but he was directing Louis Vuitton at the time and didn’t want to talk. Calvin Klein was not open. Others I wanted to interview were just too busy with their own lines or projects.  

Tribeca: In this process, did you have any contact with Halston’s family, or did they have any input? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I was in contact with the family. They were not that open to my documentary. I think they wanted a more fashion-centered approach to telling his story, but we wanted to be honest: Halston had his vices and that’s essential to telling his story. If we just had focused on the fashion, you would have had this ordinary academic fashion movie. His life was just so interesting with his business, the business failing, his social life, the socialites, the excess—which was just abundant—it’s just part of his character.  If you leave a bunch of stuff out, there’s just not that same level of integrity. 

Tribeca: So in your view, what makes Ultrasuede special is its presentation of both sides of Halston. 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: Yeah, and I was honest. He’s just such a fun character that you just want to tell it like it is without holding anything back. Hopefully we did, but we weren’t too gratuitous. 

Tribeca: Didn’t Liza give you advice along those lines?

Whitney Sudler-Smith: “Don’t go for the trashy stuff, f*&% the gossip.” And we followed her advice as much as we could. But there is still some fun gossip that we just couldn’t leave out.

Director Whitney Sudler-Smith

Director Whitney Sudler-Smith/ Credit:Deborah Anderson

Tribeca: This was not your traditional talking head documentary. People were fresh, funny and delightfully off the cuff. Can you talk about your interview process and your own role in Ultrasuede? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: Talking heads are death. You want action, quick cuts, and lots of footage. You want it to be fun. When you are having one-on-one conversations with these interviewees, you can get more open and honest answers if you are next to them. I’m almost a character in the film, because I serve as the presenter. It’s kind of nutty, almost like I’m Dante taking you through the nine rings of hell. I provide a bit of comic relief. We just didn’t want to do your typical A-Z trajectory of your typical documentary. We wanted to make Ultrasuede informative, unconventional, fun, edgy and slightly wicked. 

Tribeca: Do you still have the Trans Am?  

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I no longer have the Trans Am, thank God! [laughs] The Trans Am was my chariot that got me from place to place. 

Tribeca: You compress so much about Halston’s life in 90 minutes. How long did the filming process actually take?  

Whitney Sudler-Smith: We shot over a year, year and a half. The real challenge was editing. We had over 160 hours of footage—that’s with filmed interviews and all the stock footage and video we acquired. We were literally in the editing room for two and half years. One of our producers who helped edit was Anne Goursaud, who’s a genius. She edited a lot of Francis Ford Coppola’s films in the 80s and early 90s and is very talented. We had another great editor, John Paul Horstmann. You just have to create the story in the editing room. We tried a bunch of different approaches until we found one we liked and stuck with it. It took a lot, but everyday you just whittle it down, but it was still almost two and half years in the editing room.

Halston NYC

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film

Tribeca: I had no idea of the architectural influence of Halston. His home was stunning. Did you find yourself discovering new things about Halston as well? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I did my research, but I was surprised to learn just how humble and loved Halston was. People were just so devoted to him. He also had this fun, naughty side. He was particularly more naughty than I could have imagined. So I appreciated that. 

Tribeca: One of the most interesting elements of Halston’s home was the huge wall of original Polaroids by Andy Warhol from the Studio 54 days. When you went to visit the home in the present day, I was surprised to see all the photographs still there. How did the current owner come into possession of them? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: They came with the house. In Halston’s home, there are all these great Andy Warhol Polaroids of the Studio 54 crowd circa the late 70s. When the owner bought the house, he was also able to buy the photographs. The owner of the house is named Gunter Sachs, who was a great playboy of the 60s and was briefly married to Brigitte Bardot. He unfortunately committed suicide, but he kept up this house in homage to the time period. It’s a really cool house on 63rd between Park and Lex. You should check it out. 

Tribeca: Rachel Zoe often says that someone is “having a moment” when wearing a designer. A good example of a “Halston Moment” would be Liza Minnelli when she wore his yellow outfit to the Oscars or Sarah Jessica Parker wearing Halston on Sex and The City. Do you have any favorite “Halston Moments”? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: None that particularly stand out, [pauses] but the film was called Ultrasuede, which is a fabric that Halston literally put on the map. The shirt-wrap dress he made out of ultrasuede, which Sarah Jessica Parker wore on Sex and the City, was the biggest selling dress of all time. The dress was amazing; the First Lady wore it, as did movie stars and socialites. Everyone wore this dress. It’s genius because it’s like suede but you can wash it. It became so iconic and really represented his success—the 70s was this dress. It’s also a cool sounding name, Ultrasuede.

Halston in Shades

Photo Credit: Roxanne Lowit

Tribeca: What are your future projects? Do you have any more films lined up?  

Whitney Sudler-Smith: I have, but I have to be totally top secret because I don’t want anyone to steal the idea. Plus, I don’t want to get sued, but it’s a narrative feature and it involves a famous dead rock star. It’s going to be really cool.  

Tribeca: One of my favorite parts of Ultrasuede was the discussion about Halston’s legendary dinner parties. It was all so glamorous. So if you could have a Halston dinner party, who would make the guest list? 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: That’s a very good question. I tried to have a very good mix—Clint Eastwood, Winston Churchill… is this dead or alive? 

Tribeca: It can be anyone, dead or alive. 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: Oh yeah? Oliver Reed, Keith Moon, Richard Pryor, William the Conqueror, and Shakespeare—just throw him in for a good laugh. I’d have them, plus a bunch of supermodels and a bunch of wine. Perhaps a little bit of opium or something.  

Tribeca: Halston would certainly approve. 

Whitney Sudler-Smith: He would. Definitely.

Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston will be available nationwide on VOD via Tribeca Film starting December 26. Find out where you can watch it.

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