Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Speaking of the 70's: Ultrasuede!

The 70's are mostly remembered for fashion excesses like loud polyester prints and clunky men's platform shoes with goldfish swimming in the heels. But the prevailing style in the early to mid-70's was a sleek, elegant minimalist chic, and this was because of Halston. In 1968 he opened a studio in NYC designing simple, elegant garments that suited the lifestyle of the new, independent American woman. He created luxurious casual cashmere dresses, chic pantsuits and long bias cut hammered satin or jersey dresses that fluidly draped the body with a celebrity following that included Liza Minnelli, Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Bianca Jagger.

They all make an appearance along with the New York City glitz of Studio 54, Andre Leon Talley, Diane Von Furstenberg and the disco cocktail of sex, coke, quaaludes and Long Island Ice Tea in the documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, a recent DVD release.

Matt and I just watched this documentary and as much as I enjoyed getting a peek into the disco-beat glamourous world of Halston, I was equally frustrated by the intrusiveness of producer, writer and director Whitney Sudler-Smith. His interest in Halston seems to be only part of the reason he made the film. The bigger part seems to be his attempt to live a 70's fantasy of driving a roaring Firebird Trans Am ( a la Smokey and the Bandit) with a confederate flag license plate frame, wearing foppish suits, shiny over-sized aviator glasses and weirdly changing his hairstyle, color and facial hair from scene to scene. So be warned. But the film is worth watching to hear the participants tell their side of the story, to appreciate what a movie star handsome and suave man Halston was and to learn about his style, vision and talent.

Roy Halston, born in 1932, was originally a milliner and began designing for celebrities early on in his career. While designing at Bergdorf Goodman, he created the pillbox hat Jackie Kennedy wore at John Kennedy's presidential inauguration. By the early 70's he had his own studio and was creating designs with casual practical elegance. One of his biggest successes was the shirtwaist dress made of the then new fabric Ultrasuede, a washable imitation suede. It's still probably one of the biggest selling dresses of all time.

Halston made dramatic entrances everywhere with his entourage of Halstonettes, a name coined by Talley who said "They moved en masse like the courts of Europe". The Halstonettes included Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjorson and Angelica Huston. 

Sudler-Smith visits Lipscomb University, a Christian school with daily bible classes in Nashville where the Halston archives are kept. I was disturbed to see that the archives was basically a storage closet filled with cardboard boxes of drawings, scrapbooks, portfolios, binders and photos. Not organized or displayed at all! I called the fashion department there and was told that they do have some of the clothing but they are housed off-campus in a climate controlled environment. Halston's drawings, photographs and memorabilia ended up in this oddest of places when cosmetics company Borghese bought Halston and the owner, Georgette Mosbacher, gave everything to Lipscomb U because the school is near where her mother lived.  Oh! What I would give to have a week in that closet sorting through those boxes!

It's enthralling to hear pals speak of Halston with affection and admiration. Liza Minnelli considered him her best friend. Designer Ralph Rucci worked as Halston's assistant and he expounds on Halston's uncanny ability to throw satin on the floor, slice into it with scissors, visualize three-dimensionally and create a dress with no seams. Rucci says, "This man has a body of work that is undeniably untouchable." Photographer Chris Makos is a great showman to watch. And Pat Cleveland speaks of her time with Halston with love and dignity.

But as quickly as Halston rose, his power began to diminish with unwise business deals and drug addiction. In 1973 Halston sold his name to Norton Simon Industries. They put the Halston name on everything from luggage to carpeting. Norton Simon worked out a deal with J.C. Penney which was a failure. The masses weren't interested and his rich customers didn't like the association. Tragically, in 1990 he died of AIDS at the age of 57 in a San Francisco hospital.


  1. A sad ending for a designer that made a mark in fashion with a simple, basic dress that is timeless.

  2. I saw that movie and totally agree with your complaints about the director. It was positively weird the way he kept changing his look!!!! Still, a really interesting glimpse of a nearly forgotten fashion era and figure.