The Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973 was one of the greatest publicity stunts ever associated with the American fashion scene. In an attempt to both raise funds to restore Louis XIV’s former abode and bring attention to American designers, Halston, as well as Anne Klein (played by Elena McGhee), Stephen Burrows (Micah Peoples), Bill Blass (Peter Gregus), and Oscar de la Renta (Juan Carlos Diaz) packed up their best work and their favorite models and headed to Europe to “compete” in an unofficial showdown against Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Marc Bohan, and Hubert de Givenchy. The black-tie event was a media bonanza that was the brainchild of the castle’s curator, Gerald Van der Kemp, and
Emily Gilmore influential American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (played here by Kelly Bishop).
Halston the designer would say he only got involved because his company was popping and there was no way to keep up with demand for orders, but they also needed more revenue to hire the people to make the clothing that everyone wanted to buy. Eleanor convinces (well, really, blackmails) him to play nice with his fellow American designers and head to gay Paris.
“You’re going to come to Versailles and you’re going to blow those snobby French motherfuckers off the stage,” Eleanor demands. “They don’t respect you and they don’t respect me. Well, that’s going to change.”
But Halston the miniseries made another argument for his reluctance: He was scared. It’s easy to reach some form of notoriety and cash in because you claim no one will back you financially and that no one understands your brilliance. It’s a lot harder to try to reach even further and risk melting like Icarus as you’re cast aside when all your fancy new friends find out you’re a fraud.
Eleanor also arranges one more life-changing event for Halston: a meeting with Norton Simon chief operating officer David Mahoney (portrayed by Bill Pullman), who wants to buy the company. Halston’s hesitant about letting his beloved label fall under some corporate umbrella, but David promises him that he’ll support him as he becomes America’s version of Balenciaga.
All of this is making Halston very uncomfortable. He may roll his eyes at the four other American designers on the ticket, but the truth is that, behind those dark sunglasses, he’s intimidated by them. They all have clout and confidence. He was trying, and failing, to make the Skimp happen. He’s stressed and repressing it all.
It’s even hard for him to ask Liza Minnelli, one of his dearest friends, to come with him on this trip and perform. (Of course she’ll do it; she’ll even ask her godmother Kay Thompson to choreograph something — fitting, as Thompson played a fashion editor in the musical Funny Face).
And so Halston begins to find other coping mechanisms for his anxiety. He picks up men at hookup spots and begins to experiment with drugs. But most importantly, he meets Victor Hugo (portrayed by Gian Franco Rodriguez). Brash and aggressive, Victor is the antithesis to the controlled demeanor that the workaholic Halston wants to project to the world. Naturally, the fashion designer finds him immediately addictive — almost as addictive as the cocaine Victor has in constant supply.
Immediately upon arriving in Paris, Halston’s worst fears are realized. He sees the other American designers immediately, and there’s a frenzy for paparazzi photos. He learns that, even though it was his idea to bring Liza, she has to open the whole American portion of the presentation — not just his. And he’s not closing the show like he thought, but has to go next to last so that Oscar de la Renta can take all the final victory lap. Plus, he gets the worst workroom, some of his clothing hasn’t arrived, he’s short a handful of designs, and illustrator Joe Eula has to design a new backdrop ASAP because — stupid metric system — they sent him the measurements in meters and he designed it in feet.
It’s all too much, and Halston heads to his car to freak out in private. Liza’s sent out to calm him down, and he briefly opens up that he feels like he’s 4 years old again and his domineering father is threatening him. Liza tells him to check his PTSD and “march that tight fabulous ass back in there.”
He does, but not before taking David and Norton Simon up on the offer while also making David swear Halston the person must never be made to feel like he was “unappreciated, underfunded, unprotected, unsafe.” David gives him his word, but it’s clear neither of them are remembering that this is a business venture and not a friendship.
Back in the Versailles workrooms, Joe makes magic by using a broom and some black paint to create what looks like a giant etching of the Eiffel Tower. And, as the leaky ceiling drops water in a bucket to signal each precious second ticking by, Halston and Elsa work to create her a shining purple-sequenced monokini of an evening gown that’s only appropriate to wear in public because it’s accessorized by a black-feathered Moulin Rouge-like fan.
As the curtain goes up for the American showcase, Halston is nervous in his box seat even though he’d seen the audience dozing off earlier. It’s getting late, and the French brought out a spaceship and Josephine Baker, for goodness’ sakes. But then Liza and two dancers wake things up with a rendition of “Bonjour, Paris” and things swing upward. The audience laughs and smiles and Halston’s flowy, metalliclike gowns sparkle under the lights. He gets a standing ovation as the audience throw their programs in the air, and the spotlight swerves to shine on his own dumbstruck face. Halston blows a kiss to Liza and the models on the stage from his box seats and sits back to take it all in.
The scene ends with a callback to Halston’s first fashion show, the Bergdorf Goodman bomb after which he sat silently in the room and recalculated his career options. Here, he’s alone again in the empty theater, but with a smile on his face. Halston’s just signed a lucrative deal and has gotten the approval of Parisian society.
He’s made it. Right? Joe has his doubts, which he confides to Halston on the plane home. But Halston reminds him, “Just think what I can do.” As the designer himself pauses to ponder that, Joe slips away. Halston’s left alone staring out an airplane window, a fresh crop of his beloved orchids sitting on the seat next to him.
• In this episode, Liza puffs up her buddy Halston by saying he designed her costumes for the movie Cabaret and that he wouldn’t take credit for his work. This may be confusing to fans of FX’s 2019 miniseries Fosse/Verdon. That biopic claimed that Gwen Verdon is the one who brought in the infamous black halter top and shorts. Either way, Charlotte Flemming is officially credited as the costume designer for the Oscar-winning film.
• The show Halston and Liza are watching at his house is Liza With a Z, the Fosse-directed concert. Halston did do the costumes for that, in particular a red halter micromini.
• Speaking of the color red, there’s more of it and its symbolism of fame in this episode. Liza wears a red scarf while she practices her dance routine at Versailles. It’s casually slung around her shoulder because she’s comfortable in her position in life. De la Renta’s working on a red dress when Halston finds him. He confident he’s the most important, and most famous, designer because he gets to close the show.
• The second episode has introduced an important, memorable member of Halston’s entourage: Pat Ast. The entertainer and model was a muse of both Halston’s and Andy Warhol’s and was a B-movie icon. She’s portrayed here by Shawna Hamic.
• It’s surprising that a show about a man who sold sex and clothing has next to no nudity. I know these decisions are complex, and I don’t particularly want to see Rebecca Dayan topless during the fitting scene, but cable and streaming have made us so accustomed to nudity that not having it is almost distracting.
• This is probably not director Daniel Minahan’s intent, but the meeting of the five U.S. designers at the airport just reminds me of that showdown scene in Anchorman.