Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution chronicles the events leading to America making history in the world of fashion, which began as a charity event to raise funds for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles before turning into a presumed rivalry between five renowned designers from Paris, (Couturiers) and five leading designers from New York.
Organized with the help of Palace of Versailles curator, Gerald Van der Kemp, and visionary fashion publicist, Eleanor Lambert – who long anticipated the world seeing America’s value to fashion and her ability to compete with French haute couture – the event took place on the night of November 28, 1973 at the Chateau de Versailles to a packed audience of French royalty, socialites, financiers, and performances by Josephine Baker and Liza Minnelli.
Yet, before history ensued, the Americans encountered obstacles, setbacks, and rehearsal dramas, leaving them with little prep time and no choice but to rely on the models to present their designs and carry the show oppose to elaborate staging.
Facing off with the best couturiers in the world – Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro, the event, (also known as Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles), was publicized as the “Battle of Versailles,” vs. top American contenders – Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston.
Redefining the catwalk, marked by haute couture’s rigid presentations at the time, the Americans electrified the runway in revealing Halston ensembles, to a sinuous collection of colorful jersey dresses by African American designer, Stephen Burrows.
Adding more diversity to the American voice was Anne Klein’s female perspective and the original design aesthetics of de la Renta, Givenchy, and Blass, accompanied by select African American models putting “the strut” on the runway.
It was Bethann Hardison’s defiant stomp; Pat Cleveland’s famous twirl; Billie Blair’s magical allure – along with other noted models of various ethnicities, including trailblazer, China Machado – that led the transformation in fashion while breaking cultural barriers.
Interviewing the filmmaker of Versailles ’73, Deborah Riley Draper shares an informative discussion on a charity event, turned fashion revolution and the sociocultural connections between society and fashion.
Interiors of Man: With Yves Saint Laurent being the first couturier to launch a pret-a-porter collection informed by street culture, how much of an influence do you think his admiration for Burrows’ design aesthetic had on the future of American ready-to-wear?
Deborah Riley Draper: YSL’s pret-a-porter collection’s first store debuted in 1966 and a few other French designers debuted ready-to-wear collections the same year. The inspiration was more about looks from the art and culture scenes of the early 20th century. In 1973, Stephen Burrows brought down the house at the famed fashion gala, Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles. Stephen’s uses of black models, disco music and jersey fabrics that danced and moved wowed the audience, including Yves Saint Laurent. Yves had always created new and different styles for the women compared to the other designers of the time in France. And, Stephen further liberated Yves’ approach to dressing women. The influence could be seen in Yves’ decades-long muse Mounia, black model who became one of the top stars of the runway in the 80s.
IOM: Had all the American players conformed to a protocol of some sort, particularly the black models who brought their fierce strut to the runway under the sounds of Barry White, et al., I imagine the Americans would not have enthralled the French, nor would the revolution had ignited for lack of character.
DRD: The Americans did not have a specific protocol. Each designer selected their own music. As the squabbling between the American designers ensued and rehearsal time at Versailles became practically non-existent, the models stepped up and brought their essence to the clothes and the runway. The convergence of black models, fabulous clothes that were stylish and sexy, and disco music was indeed revolutionary. Necessity is the mother of invention and with no rehearsals or props, Stephen Burrows brought his love of music and dance to his segment.
IOM: The film unveils the conditions that shaped the revolution: support from Fashion Publicist, Eleanor Lambert who envisioned and orchestrated the event; American designers bringing an accessible style to fashion; the couturiers understanding that times were changing; and black models bringing their own voice to the runway.
DRD: 1973 was only five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the seventies ushered in more opportunities for black designers and models and a strong sense of pride. The 70s were a period of great change in American society and popular culture. And, New York in the 70s saw an emergence of music, gay discos, young, fresh designers who were artsy and creative and who mixed and mingled from uptown to downtown and from the upper Eastside to the Village. Fashion was no longer just for the ladies who lunched. Fashion has and always will reflect the politics of the street and the people. Fashion led the way of hippie culture and painted a cool canvas for hip hop from the 80s to now.
IOM: Versailles also alludes to the influence that the models had on Givenchy’s future presentations from then on – evident with Erykah Badu as the new face for Givenchy’s spring 2014 campaign.
DRD: Yes, I spoke with Mr. Hubert de Givenchy, and his greatest memory of the event was of the black models who dazzled the stage with their movement and beauty. Mr. Givenchy maintained a cabine of black models for years after the Versailles event. The presence of the black models had a tremendous impression on Givenchy. And, Erykah Badu's photos for the Givency shoot were brilliant, beautiful and perfect.
IOM: Some people may view fashion as a shallow aesthetic, but with creativity, its allure is the tool that can draw attention to such vital issues as, hunger, poverty, education, and on.
DRD: Fashion, politics and advocacy for issues are inextricably linked. The timeline of fashion trends and statements align very clearly with what is happening in any culture. From the turtlenecks for beatniks to black jackets and Black Panthers to the sapeur style in the Congo amidst war and poverty to the first all-vegan fashion show in 2013, fashion speaks volumes about what is on the minds and Facebook pages of pop culture. The fact that the hoodie was an exhibit and point of discussion in the Trayvon Martin case sheds light on how fashion impacts culture both positively and negatively.
IOM: Versailles was a great production on a historical moment that many are unaware of. Do you have plans for other historical documentaries pertaining to arts & culture?
DRD: Yes, I am currently researching the fashion model Donyale Luna, the 1936 Olympics and the 1925 La Revue Negre as subjects for my next documentaries.
IOM: Looking forward.
Fascinating and enlightening, Versailles ’73 is a remarkable documentary on a significant achievement in American fashion. As with most revolutions, it required a collective effort to exact change, thus the runway revolution was a mutual victory involving black and white models, American designers, [and] progressive couturiers who understood the relational dynamics between fashion and a liberated society with an added appreciation for the presence black models brought to the runway.