One of the greatest moments from the 2010 documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston is when Liza Minnelli tells director Whitney Sudler-Smith that Halston always used to say that "you gotta fuck ’em up" in order to keep an audience on their feet. The legendary singer goes on to advise Sudler-Smith that when it comes to making the rest of the film, "fuck the gossip" and find the solid stuff. Watching Minnelli sit back and curse like a sailor as she reminisced about her dear friend Roy Halston Frowick set the tone for this unconventional doc on the iconic designer that defined disco fashion in the ’70s.
While the doc was heavily focused on the life and times of the late iconic designer, there was one other character in the film that we couldn’t help but be distracted by, besides the straight-shooting Minnelli: the director. Sudler-Smith brings a sense of offbeat hilarity to the information-heavy doc by pushing interviewee Andre Leon Talley’s buttons, rolling up to historical sites in tricked-out cars, and wearing an array of ridiculous wigs. Here, the filmmaker talks us through his Ultrasuede journey and just why he wanted to "bring a little Borat into things."
What was the process of finding individuals to interview for this project?
The process was very tricky: you called and emailed friends of friends, contacted agents, managers, publicists, and hoped for the best. For example, a friend of Dennis Basso, the furrier, is very close to Liza Minnelli, so he asked her to do it. Once we got Liza and people heard that this was a legitimate production, it got a bit easier. Andre Leon Talley, a close friend, was also instrumental. Besides [Halston’s one-time muse] Elsa Peretti, there were a few others we would have liked to speak with who declined to participate.
If you had the chance, what would you ask Peretti?
I’d ask her about the whole creative process of being Halston’s muse. When did it come about and how exactly did she inspire him? Of course, we tried everything to get her to sit down for an interview, but unfortunately it never happened.
What would you have asked Halston if he were alive today?
I want to know if he knew just how much he touched everyone and if he understood how much that he achieved. I really don’t think he knew towards the end.
The designer with a few "Halstonettes." Photo by Roxanne Lowit.
When did your obsession with Halston begin?
I think the fact that Halston was so revolutionary was what first got me interested. We started shooting this about four years ago. Halston was the first superstar American designer and his story is compelling in that it’s this Shakespearean rise and fall with an incredible historical backdrop.
What designers today are heavily influenced by Halston’s aesthetic?
You can see his minimalist influence in many designers’ work today, like in Michael Kors’ sleek furs and trouser suits, Derek Lam’s columns, and Marc Jacobs’ entire 2010 spring line.
If you had 30 minutes left in the documentary, what would you have added?
We had over 160 hours of footage that included tons of fantastic interviews and comments we couldn’t fit in. Everything out of artist Chris Makos’ mouth was genius—he really deserves a whole movie to himself.
What’s the story behind your various wigs in the film?
As the film is a bit of a surrealist pastiche and unconventional, I wanted to mix it up and 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 and silly hair. I wanted to bring a little Borat into things.
Photos: Courtesy of Whitney Sudler-Smith