Rebecca Dayan, who plays Elsa Peretti in the new Halston docuseries, recently said that the free-spirited design legend “deserves her own show.” She’s not the only one to think that, judging by our social media feeds, yet there’s little precedent for such a project. The majority of recent fashion documentaries have been focused on male designers, many with self-destructive traits. Predictably, the shows often follow a dramatic rise-and-fall plotline.
Peretti’s bio doesn’t conform to that story arc. Not that hers is a tale without drama: The model-turned-designer purportedly lived on a diet of champagne, caviar, and cocaine for some time and once incincerated a sable coat in a fit of pique. But those were flare-ups. For most of her 81 years, Peretti waged an epic, if mostly invisible, battle for independence. “I fought for my life,” she once said.
What Peretti resisted was the expectation that as a woman, her life would unfold as if in a fairytale: Love, marriage, baby carriage. This rogue aristo, who jokingly promised never to design tiaras, wasn’t having any of it. Nor, as Vogue noted in 1986, did Peretti have to “dream of castles in Spain,” as she created her own fiefdom in the 17th-centruty village of Sant Martí Vell, near Barcelona, financed through her work as a model and designer.
In 1974, with the help of her best friend Halston, she brokered a deal with Tiffany’s that made her, arguably, the most successful jewellery designer—male or female—ever. When Peretti renegotiated that contract in 2012, receiving almost $50 million dollars in a one-time payment, Forbes reported that sales of Peretti’s work represented 10% of the company’s net sales between 2009 and 2011.
Like “a happy marriage” is how Peretti sometimes described her arrangement with Tiffany’s. “When, like a lot of Italian women, you don’t work, you can mold yourself to a man’s life. But I already have my life and I don’t think I can change roads,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 1974. “I think I must live for myself…and I must be a little bit selfish now to save myself.”
In Peretti’s hands, self-preservation became an act of generosity. “I make jewellery for myself—real things with a thought,” she stated. As individualistic as their maker, Peretti’s sensual designs invite touch. Inspired by found objects, bones, beans, tears, and the like, her designs elicit emotion, and are intended to be lived with and loved, not admired from a distance. “The idea,” said Peretti, “is to make beautiful things that people will really care about.”
Here, a synopsis of Peretti’s life in fashion.
The Girl in the Gilded Cage
Elsa Peretti, the second daughter of an oil magnate and an artistic mother, was born in 1940 in Florence, Italy. “She was a ‘fantastic’ little girl, polite, diligent,” reported The Miami Herald in 1973. “The kind of romantic who decided to become an architect after falling hopelessly in love with Italian columns.” Peretti was raised in Rome in a Renaissance palazzo that seems, over time, to have become something of a golden cage.
A restless teenager, Peretti told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “I was escaping from my house, at the seaside, when I was 15, just to run, at one o’clock in the morning, to watch the sea and watch the moon. I was doing all those things, all the time, all the time.” In 1961, aged 21, she finally broke out. “I am a major adult and free, and I decide to live a life,” she wrote to her father. Set adrift financially, Peretti supported herself by teaching Italian and skiing at her former finishing school. She also studied interior design in Rome and worked with an architect in Milan before moving to Spain in 1964, where she mingled with Salvador Dali, and “was an intimate,” as Vogue’s Joan Juliet Buck reported, “of la gauche divine, the divine left—intellectuals opposed to Franco.”
Lights, Camera, Action
The 5’ 9” Peretti started modelling in Spain, and decided to try her luck in New York, arriving in the city in 1968 with, she’d later tell Vanity Fair, “a black eye from my lover, who didn’t want me to go.” She faced different obstacles stateside. “When I came here,” she said in a 1975 interview, “what they liked was the blonde girl. With big blue eyes and very young. I was very tall, very dark, very skinny….and I was everything too very.”
There were others who felt differently. “Elsa’s the only woman who can arrive at a dinner party dressed in a black cashmere jumpsuit with a rope of diamonds around her neck and look terrific carrying a brown paper bag as her evening purse,” noted Vogue approvingly in 1976. By this time Peretti was a member of the best-dressed list and had long been a muse to designers, including Halston.
Yet Peretti was always lukewarm about the catwalk—despite the fact that Bill Cunningham, writing for the Chicago Tribune described the Italian as one of the few models “who flashes a warm, friendly smile on the runway.” “The private life of a model is always bad,” Peretti said in 1969. “It’s unnatural for a woman to have to look beautiful all the time.”
Still, it was modeling that provided her the means to buy her first house in Spain, and which presented an opening for her talents. Peretti’s first design, a silver bud vase on a chain, debuted in a Giorgio di Sant’Angelo show in 1969. Peretti soon started creating pieces for Halston, and had the unique experience of wearing her own designs on his runway. Peretti’s famous Diamonds by the Yard appeared in a Halston show even before they were available for sale.
When Peretti made her first appearance in Vogue, in 1970, she was described as a “transplanted Italian with charm, fascination—and talent to burn.” That talent was recognized with a 1971 Coty Award, given in recognition of her “extension of jewellery into the realm of fashion sculpture.”
Bedlam at Tiffany’s
The designer’s banner year of 1974 kicked off in February when Halston introduced Peretti to Tiffany’s top brass, who, as lore has it, hired her in 15 minutes. One executive remembers that “Elsa sat there, silent and mysterious in her black cape, while Halston did all the talking.” She was smart to listen to the man she called “my best friend, my security.” According to Vanity Fair, it was by following Halston’s advice that Peretti was able to keep ownership of her name and designs.
When Tiffany launched the Elsa Peretti collection in September, the crowds were reportedly three deep. “What had been a cult-size ardor exploded into a national passion—suddenly everybody is collecting Peretti,” Vogue noted. “From New York to California, wherever there’s a Tiffany’s, there are lines . . . and they’re not just-looking-thank-you.” Even the unflappable Andy Warhol was impressed. “I never saw so many people before,” he said of the launch.
Scents and Sexuality
In creating a biomorphic, tear-shaped bottle for Halston’s debut fragrance, Peretti literally refused to be boxed in by the square containers that were the norm at the time. Taboo in quite another way is the sitting she did, in a black leotard and bunny ears, with Helmut Newton. “Helmut and I were having an affair,” Peretti recalled in a 2014 Vanity Fair interview. “One morning, he said, ‘I want to do a picture of you.’ I didn’t know what to wear. I went to my closet and came out wearing this costume I’d worn to a party with Halston. Helmut was flabbergasted. He took me on the terrace and took the photo. It was 11am.” “Very few women, apart from my wife, I go into eulogies over,” the photographer later told Vogue. “But I do for Elsa. She is very intelligent, very beautiful, and she’s also very funny.”
Like many of the Studio 54 crowd, Peretti often danced on the lip of the proverbial volcano. She found refuge in the rusticity of the 17th-century Spanish village of Sant Martí Vell, where she had first bought property, with money earned modeling, in 1968. “My home is a little primitive but as comfortable as an old sweater,” said Peretti who, early on, relied on fire for heat, and used an improvised shower.
Though born to privilege, Peretti made her own way in the world; her vision was democratic and what we would today call sustainable. She designed when she was inspired to, not against a calendar, and she insisted on quality. Taking inspiration from the natural world and found objects heightened the timeless quality of Peretti’s designs, which many people found to have beauty both as accessories and as pure design objects.
As sophisticated as Peretti’s work is, it was always meant to be accessible. “I design for the working girl,” Peretti told People in 1974. “What I want is not to become a status symbol, but to give beauty at a price.” One of the ways she did that was by working with sterling silver, which Tiffany had edited out of its jewellery offerings in the 1930s. Peretti’s use of silver broadened the definition of what fine jewellery could be, and created a whole new class of customer, women buying jewellery for themselves. As Tiffany’s president (and scion) bluntly put it, “You don’t need a rich sugar daddy to afford Elsa’s jewellery.”
New modes in fashion, and living, meant that many women didn’t need—or want—“important jewels” or formal statement pieces. “The goal is ultimate casualness,” observed a reporter from The Miami Herald to whom Peretti declared, “I like to be able to take my sweater off without having to take off my jewellery. I like to be able to take a shower in my jewellery.” (The designer avoided snag-prone pronged settings for her innovative Diamonds by the Yard.)
“An array of precious stones in elaborate settings is simply out of place with the prevailing shirt-and-skirt or sweater-and-pants way of dressing,” critic Bernadine Morris observed in 1974. What women are trying to achieve, in addition to comfort, with their mingling of separates, is a certain amount of individuality.” It should also be noted that, in a time of recession, flashiness was gauche. Status came not to be defined solely by means, but also as a matter of taste and discernment.
The Good Earth
Peretti was a bridge-builder, able to repair a rift with Halston, and with her dear father, for whom she named her charitable foundation. Later, her own name was added, making it the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation. “For me to be a good designer is the simplest thing in the world. But to be a good human being, that is going to be hard,” she once said. “I’d like to try though.” She did more than that: Her lasting legacy is that of a warm, and open, heart.
This story was originally published on Vogue.