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