Inept, amateurish and largely risible, the fashion documentary “Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston” is generally an embarrassing effort. But not because its subject isn’t worth documenting (quite the opposite actually), but because its creator is a dilettante buffoon; a clownish self-involved figure who inexplicably positions himself as the focus of the film, and yet has no business making movies of any kind.
Helmed by Whitney Sudler-Smith (who should never be described as a director or filmmaker as that insults far too many people), ‘In Search Of’ is a very apt sub-title for this ill-conceived documentary as Sudler-Smith literally stumbles around New York going from person to person in order to figure out who his subject actually is, laughably armed with only a tiny modicum of basic knowledge (more than one interviewee scolds his ignorance too; why any filmmaker choose to include that is beyond me).
Ostensibly about the rise and fall of legendary ‘70s haute couture fashion designer, Halston — essentially the first American superstar clothing designer to be taken seriously by the snooty European fashion press and fellow designers — Sudler-Smith makes baffling choices right from the start, most of which center on not giving his thesis subject proper context and spending a lot of time navel-gazing.
The man who gave birth to the ultrasuede synthetic — a practical polyester fiber that feels like natural suede –Halston rose to prominence during the disco era with his minimalist, “casual chic” style and became America’s premier designer by dressing the famous likes of Liza Minnelli (who became a close friend), Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Hutton, Anjelica Huston, Gene Tierney, Lauren Bacall, Babe Paley and more. But cursory information like this — that’s the kind of introductory information most people would choose to present off the top of their film — is instead circuitously arrived at in between various interviews, many of which are flat and uninspired and therefore pointlessly included.
Opening with shots of Sudler-Smith driving around in his Trans-Am (no, really, and this trope continues throughout), the doc begins with the director wondering aloud who Halston was, and delivering glib, unironic statements like, “The ‘70s had everything. Sex. Drugs. Disco. And great fashion.” As Sudler-Smith remembers how glamorous and exotic the designer seemed to him as a child, he then has the gall to shoot himself going to his wealthy mother’s mansion and asking her why she thinks her son was drawn to this subject (WTF?). Throughout, Sudler-Smith — an irritating charisma vacuum of a personality, incapable of possessing chemistry with an interview subject — is also shown in a parade of new outfit after new outfit, sporting a litany of new hairstyles, facial hair choices and other affectations as if to suggest, “Yes, I’m very fashionable too and I change my look almost constantly.” Why any of these unintentional comedic moments are relevant to the story of Halston is inexplicable and utterly astounding, serving to only distract the viewer from the subject as much as possible.
Sudler-Smith spends so much time documenting Sudler-Smith trying to ineptly document this story that one immediately begins to wonder if it’s all some sort of strange joke (one scene where he is bizarrely shown playing a guitar with a giant Chanel logo on it before an interview is just confoundingly absurd). But sadly it’s not. Sudler-Smith is a clueless and charmless narcissist stupid enough to position himself as the star of the documentary, and yet his demeanor carries no confidence. His brand of awkwardness inflames both the viewer and many of the people being interviewed in the film. The conundrum that is Sudler-Smith remains a major distraction from start to finish.
It’s as if the film is supposed to be a mockumentary and Sudler-Smith is playing the character of an vain yet bumbling, talentless director who wants to make a doc about a fashion icon, but essentially sabotages it at every turn by making himself, a foolish half-wit, the star of the picture. (In fact, this would be a tremendously funny idea; Christopher Guest, I sincerely hope you are listening).
And so it goes on like this for 90 minutes. Sudler-Smith attempts to interview the likes of famous friends, colleagues and fashionistas like Liza Minelli, fellow designers, Diane von Fürstenberg, Ralph Rucci, Stephen Burrows, Naeem Khan, Angelica Huston, Nile Rodgers and each time you’re left incredulous as the camera always has to capture (and linger unnecessarily on) the director’s (dammit) reactions and the questions posed are almost always asinine (“What’s the most outrageous thing you ever saw Halston do?” he asks several people). So little is gleaned from these poorly conducted interviews — Sudler-Smith sabotages each simply by talking — that even the most dull and meaningless interview is included, seemingly because the director just doesn’t know better. An interview with fashion industry pillar André Leon Talley consists of the former Vogue Editor-At-Large belittling Sudler-Smith, and asking him to keep his mouth shut and not interrupt. Perhaps he thinks this is comical, but it just once again reinforces what a numbskull he is. When his cell phone goes off during the interview (no joke), playing the “I Wish I Was in Dixie” song, Talley (who is black) is even more disgusted with this cretin.
While Sudler-Smith’s opening voice-over does address the subject of the 1970s as a fascinating topic, one is never fully prepared for just how often he veers off course (this is a documentary about a fashion designer, isn’t it?) Apparently good filmmaking choices in the doc include wondering aloud how to fully understand the 1970s and then going to musician Billy Joel’s house — who admittedly knows nothing about fashion or Halston, other than once name-dropping him in a lyric — to discuss the decade (I’m not making this up). Seemingly obsessed with Studio 54 (and his main subject only peripherally), Sudler-Smith definitely places an inordinate amount of time discussing the subject with people who frequented the legendary New York discotheque. It’s unclear how asking, “Was Studio 54 overrated?” to various subjects, including friends of Andy Warhol, illuminates anything about Halston, a designer who sometimes frequented the establishment, but he asks it nonetheless.
Another comical choice is documenting Liza Minnelli’s advice, telling Sudler-Smith go beyond the drugs, the sex and the superficial, and Sulder-Smith then going towards those subjects like a moth to the burning white light. Eventually, we sort of glean information about Halston in drips and drabs. He was gay, he had an outrageous Colombian boyfriend, he achieved early acclaim for designing Jacki O’s famous pillbox hat, he had a huge modern apartment in the middle of New York, and his fall from grace is about as cliched a fall from grace can be in the 1970s. But barely do we ever learn anything insightful or personal about Halston. One of the few human details we get is that Halston was anything but down to earth as a person and that he loved everything to be as glamorous as possible.
It’s no surprise then that when we learn the most about Halston — in the last twenty minutes of the doc — it’s because it’s the first ten minute stretch where Sudler-Smith has finally shut up and not really appeared on camera. The designer’s biggest mistake was a decision perhaps clouded by his drug-addled state. The designer did the unthinkable: licensed his haute couture line to the pedestrian fashion store JC Penny. The move scandalized the fashion industry as an unfortunate faux pas and his decision to push through regardless was rewarded with the fashion line tanking with the American public, essentially runing his career. Years later after falling out of fashion, Halston would die of AIDS related causes.
Preoccupied with excess and extravagance, Sudler-Smith seems to miss the point entirely of his documentary, seemingly equating the famous fashion designer with those two facile sentiments and nothing deeper.
“What originally drew me to Halston was the glamour, the girls, the haze of cigarette smoke at Studio 54,” Studler-Smith says with a straight-face while contemplatively gazing out at New York’s skyline, moments before peeling out in his Trans AM for the film’s final shot (again, not kidding). “But what I found was something else. An artist. A visionary. A friend loved by many. And above all, a true American original. The ‘70s really did belong to Halston.”
Wow, what a revelation. “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston,” is an unfortunate, lazy and shallow documentary that only acts as a huge disservice to the man that it allegedly tries to celebrate. [F]
“Ultrasuede: In Search Of Halston” in on VOD now and is currently in limited release in New York.