Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ultrasuede (Whitney Sulder Smith, 2010) @WSUDLERSMITH

Ok, second fashion movie for you all, but this time it takes the form of 1970s decadence. Well, that's not exactly fair...

So, if you are around my age, you certainly heard of Halston in your youth, but to be honest the only thing I "knew" about the man came from a Saturday Night Live skit making fun of his empire's demise. Fortunately, Whitney Sulder Smith's Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston takes this approach to showing us who Halston was, and explaining why and how he was important. For that reason, I almost don't want to describe the story. I hate the obsession with spoilers on the internet these days, but for many of us this is a new story, and unfolds nicely.

Whitney Sulder Smith (unclear if Sulder is a middle name or double last name, so I will use both) takes a journey to meet people who knew Halston, many of which you may recognize if you watch any of the numerous fashion/modeling reality shows on television. Some are people from the general sphere of his influence, particularly where Studio 54 is related, and then most famously Billy Joel and Liza Minnelli.

In many ways it is less about fashion and more about empire (if I am not mistaken, there is a short clip from Caligula, another misunderstood historical figure). Halston bursts onto the scene and is propelled to unheard of heights, only to fall tragically. Sulder Smith uses the 93 minutes nicely. There is a lot left uncovered (which is only natural), but as an overall "who is this man, and why should I care" it does a wonderful job. The story ends sadly, but the film does not end ponderously. I came away from it quite upbeat, despite Halston's fall from grace and tragic, though all-too common for the time cause of death.

The film is currently on Netflix, and I think you'll be as surprised as I by how interesting it is.

Now, the history buff in me wants to offer up some essay questions for items that would be too weighty to make for good narrative in Ultrasuede. Feel free to discuss or ignore as is your want.

1. Citizen Halston: Halston makes a trip to China with the intent (according to the AP) of helping China's textile industry know what the West wants. China was not the emerging market it is today, so was the trip an attempt to fight the Cold War with culture?

2. The JC Penny Bargain: Halston had discussed in interviews that the decision to join JC Penny in 1984 was to help better dress all of America. His lifestyle was very expensive, and he was likely bleeding money at this point. However, one shirt price discussed in the documentary was $50, roughly $115 today. The deal was a loss for both, but initially who was more desperate, Halston or Penny's?

3. Halston and the Future: The designs of Halston were rather minimalist, and led to grander designs by those who followed. Were these designers deliberately breaking with the now failed Emperor, or simply taking the natural track of difference to make their name? Also, how did Halston's demise and the move toward haute couture effect American style for the following decades, particularly with regard to trendiness? Additional credit for Tim Gunn citations.

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