The thing about fashion, food, film, or any industry where there’s a focus on the singular celebrity associated with a brand is that, no matter how much of a megalomaniac or micromanager he, she, or they is, there is absolutely not enough time in the day for that person to conceive of and create every brilliant thing or moment that pop culture begins to associate with them.
World-renowned chef Grant Achatz, of Chicago’s Alinea, discussed this in an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, telling the story of a dish he created when he was an up-and-comer at Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Keller told him the concoction, a cantaloupe and caviar gelée, was great, but “If this dish goes on the menu it becomes a French Laundry dish; are you okay with that?” (Achatz said yes.)
The best episode of Halston opens not with the titular lead, but with muse Elsa Peretti finding her voice as a jewelry designer. It’s 1974, and she’s done amazing work for the label, but she’s also starting to explore beyond her comfort zone as she embarks on her rightful path as a jewelry designer. We see her walking on the beach, stopping to pick up shells and feel their texture, and perusing flea markets for rocks and gems in the shapes of tiny vases that she can string onto necklaces.
When Halston sees her creation, he has his models wear them during a private showing in his studio — of course, adding his personal touch of a small orchid inside the vase. They’re a hit; not only do the fashionable ladies who lunch want them, but so does Halston. “Whatever you want, darling,” Elsa responds.
Through a montage set to Gigliola Cinquetti’s “Si,” we see Elsa immerse herself in the art of jewelry-making. She sketches, sculpts, and shapes as she figures out how to make a beautiful design. She learns the art of glassmaking and comes away with a slim, slightly yonic oval with an off-center top and stopper.
It’s also perfect timing because David at Norton Simon is demanding that Halston create a perfume in partnership with another of their companies, Max Factor. This feeds into Halston’s insecurities about his own legacy. Max Factor was the celebrated beautician and stylist who created iconic looks for Lucille Ball and Jean Harlow. Now, the makeup that bears his name is sold at drugstores.
But David knows how to play Halston. He tells him that if the perfume is a hit, he can have the giant atelier in a space Halston has found in Olympic Tower, again putting the designer in a position to weigh what he must sacrifice to be true to his art — and wealthy.
Halston, Joe, and Elsa take her creation to David and his crony at Norton Simon, and the businessmen are not amused. It’s not designed for mass manufacturing because the stopper doesn’t go straight down, they say. Then two straight men try to explain to one gay man that the stopper is supposed to be a phallic symbol, and the deeper she plunges it into bottle, the more sexual a woman will feel. And they do this all while barely asking the one woman in the room for her opinion. Plus, Norton Simon is upset that the bottle doesn’t brazenly say “Halston.” (It would end up being on a small tag around the base.)
Halston asks how much it’ll cost to mass-produce these bottles, and David estimates $50,000. Halston writes him a check even as David refuses. Halston says that the business side always says the talent side doesn’t pay, but he would be paying if he sacrificed his vision. “Is this conversation over, or do you want to talk some more about how I don’t know how to fuck?” he glares before stomping out, taking Joe and Elsa with him.
Halston still does have to do some work on the project. Norton Simon sets him up with a perfume designer named Adele (Vera Farmiga). There’s some push-pull as she tries to get him to explore memories of his childhood through scents, and he tries to intimidate her by making her smell his partner, Victor’s, jock strap. She’s unfazed, but strikes a primal feeling in him that he’s left buried. He cries in her workroom.
The perfume is a hit, with some women reportedly buying it just for the bottle. It’s a learning experience for everyone. Soon, Halston is hocking everything — luggage, carpet, even a partnership with Braniff Airways. “I’m not even a person anymore; I’m a brand,” he exclaims, like Netflix is asking for the line to show up on a T-shirt in an ad on an Instagram feed.
Now that Elsa’s gotten a taste of her own success — and especially since she’s told him she’s in love with him, even though she knows he cannot reciprocate those emotions — Halston knows he must find a way to keep her loyal so that she doesn’t leave him behind. He helps her get a deal with Tiffany. When that’s not enough, he also throws in a mink coat and his old apartment, since he’s just bought a minimalist, but lavish, new townhouse.
While Halston’s professional life is swelling, his personal life is suffering. Victor wants more of his time and attention — and also the attention of everyone else. Ed is still working for Halston, designing the store’s windows. Victor taunts him by turning them into a crime scene. Ed tells Halston it’s time to choose between him and Victor, and Halston doesn’t flinch in choosing the new boyfriend.
Jealous of Halston’s close working relationship with Elsa and Joe and frustrated that everyone sees him as, as he terms it, a “rent boy,” Victor throws a tantrum when the trio are designing Liza’s wedding look for her upcoming marriage to Jack Haley Jr., exerting his dominance by showing that he has control over Halston’s sexual desires. He also photobombs a lot of Liza and Jack’s wedding pictures.
Halston and Victor continue to tussle over who is in control of their relationship. When Victor begs him to go out, Halston relents but insists that he will be sleeping alone that night because it is he who makes the decisions about their exclusivity. When Victor tries to cook Halston a proper dinner and confide in him that the wants more than sex, they fight, and Victor threatens to leave, reducing Halston to a fetal position as he whimpers and begs Victor not to abandon him, his biggest fear.
Halston eventually concedes that maybe Victor is right and he should be getting out more, so he decides to meet him at the opening of a new nightclub called Studio 54. He gets quite a surprise when he arrives: Victor is having sex with some random person in the middle of the VIP area.
• In the game of “spot the color red,” it’s there on the tablecloths at Halston’s swanky new dining area in his sleek loft. They accentuate the burgers and fries that Halston sent over from nearby 21 Club as he and Liza catch up after she returns from filming Lucky Lady; he wonders if he’ll be left alone when she goes off to marry Jack. A less intense, more pinkish red is on the wall at Max Factor during a disastrous pitch meeting where Halston shows them who’s boss.