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Halston’s eponymous perfume, launched in 1975, is as integral to the late designer’s legacy as his drapey dresses—although, sadly, the version of the fragrance that is on the market today differs drastically from the original. What did the disco-era eau smell like? According to Netflix’s Halston, pheromones, cigarettes, and orchids. The third episode of the series traces the development of the blockbuster scent, including Halston’s struggle to convince corporate executives to use Elsa Peretti’s now-iconic glass teardrop flacon, and his meetings with a perfumer, played by Vera Farmiga, to decode and bottle his unique emotional cocktail of repression and desire. We see him offering Peretti his apartment as payment and bringing the jock strap of his lover to Farmiga, who, in a wonderfully shocking moment, affixes it to her face for a deep inhale.
Delicious fun, all of it. But true? Not entirely.
Creating a signature perfume was Halston’s first major brand extension after being acquired by Norton Simon Inc in 1973. Peretti’s groundbreaking bottle was originally inspired by a bud-vase pendant she found in a flea market, and Halston was so enamored of it that he fought tooth and nail—and even paid $50,000 of his own money—to produce it, overriding Max Factor executives overseeing the perfume’s production who hated it and called it “the blob.” The bottle was also revolutionary in that it featured no branding, simply a ribbon bearing the designer’s name. Halston allegedly actually gave Peretti the choice of $25,000 or a sable coat as compensation (not his apartment). She chose the coat, and it later burned in her final blow-out argument with him.
The fragrance was a wild success straight out of the gate. Within two years, it had racked up $85 million in sales and become the second top-selling perfume in history after Chanel No. 5. Halston skips the fun of the launch parties, of which there were two: one at Halston’s 62ndstreet apartment in Manhattan, the other in San Francisco’s I. Magnin department store, where the sales counters on the ground floor were removed to make way for a custom dance floor, yards of pink chiffon draping, and several hundred tables at which a five-course dinner and only Dom Perignon 1962 were served.
The fanfare, the designer’s clout, and the collectable bottle all contributed to the perfume’s enthusiastic reception—but in the end, none of it would have mattered if the juice hadn’t also smelled divine. In the show, Halston meets repeatedly with a perfumer, Adele, from International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) to plumb the depths of his psyche and see what scents lurked there. In reality the perfumer was a man—legendary French nose Bernard Chant, who also created Aramis, Clinique’s Aromatics Elixir, and Estée Lauder’s Cinnabar—though Halston did devote himself to sourcing precisely the most striking composition. “It had to be original,” he said, “and not derivative of X which is derivative of Y.” He allegedly spent two months smelling different perfumes and notes before he even began to home in on what he wanted.
The original Halston was a floral chypre, meaning that its notes were arranged around a backbone of oakmoss (which is prohibited in modern fragrances) and patchouli. According to reviewers, it was green and distinctively minty at first whiff, then bright and fruity with melon and marigolds. At its base, it smelled of hedonism and excess; leather banquettes at Studio 54, cigarette smoke, warm skin. It was seductive, smooth, and utterly unique in that it had both freshness and sensuality, as well as an unexpected masculine twist. In Halston, Farmiga’s perfumer asks the designer to bring in items with scents that have personal resonance for him—hence, he presents her with the jock strap, a Lady of the Night orchid, and a box of cigarettes. She asks him to recall smells and emotions from his life, and tells him that top notes represent the present, heart notes represent the soul, and base notes are “all about the past.” And it’s in this description, and process, that the show strikes upon precisely what makes perfume so special and so personal. He talks about spring grass, daffodils, and his father’s shaving cream, conjuring up moments from his childhood that make him openly weep. Perfume becomes a pathway revealing Halston's true character—his vulnerabilities, his regrets, his yearnings—and brings him greater understanding of himself.
You can pick up a bottle of reformulated Halston perfume, now in a plastic-capped bottle, for $30 at your local drugstore. Smelling the elusive original, which cost the equivalent of about $300 an ounce in the 1970s, is something that perfume aficionados dream about. And in a way, considering that Halston himself has become a symbol of the impermanence of success, celebrity, and even life, that’s exactly how it should be.
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