*Nearly four decades ago when African American models Billie Blair, Jennifer Brice, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Bethann Hardison, Barbara Jackson, Jennifer Brice, Amina Warsuma, and the dearly departed Ramona Saunders boarded a plane from New York to Paris, they had no idea they would be part of a new world fashion order.
They were headed to appear on the runway at a show at the Palace of Versailles for a fundraiser orchestrated by American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp to raise money to restore the aging structure and provide exposure for American fashion.
However, fierce competition between the lions of haute couture and what the French considered easy prey, a group of American designers eager to become household names on the European fashion scene, turned into ready-to-wear’s iconic coming out party.
These amazing women walked the catwalk and received roaring applause and unexpected adoration. They helped innovative American designers pull off a fashion coup that would be the talk of the town for decades.
In Versailles ‘73: An American Runway Revolution, filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper tells the trailblazing, trendsetting, industry-altering tale of how a group of African American models made history, changed attitudes, and helped secure American fashion’s place on the world stage.
Through in-depth accounts with designers, models, and journalists who witnessed the groundbreaking event and told in a tone brimming with pride, passion, and patriotism, Versailles ‘73: An American Runway Revolution, shines a light on what happened that glorious night in Paris when five American fashion designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston faced off with five French couturiers Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro at The Palace of Versailles in 1973.
The American designers shocked the world by deploying a diverse array of models. In particular, the bold, beautiful and Black faces of color that enlivened the event and the clothing. The plight of these embryonic glamazons may have gone unnoticed or unknown to you if not for the diligence of filmmaker Draper in bringing their plight to fashionistas of all colors and generations. The girls served as true role models for others to follow.
Draper has daringly put together a beautifully-crafted documentary recalling the events of these fearless women who captured the attention of the fashion elite in 1973. The film shows how the American designers and Black models wowed and won over the crowd, gained newfound respect and recognition, and turned the tide for U.S. fashion for years to come.
Now Coffee Bluff Pictures has completed principal photography on Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution,” a documentary about the legendary1973 fashion show fittingly nicknamed the “Battle of Versailles,” directed and produced by Draper.
Not many moments in life change the course of history; break the mold; shatter the status quo and usher in a paradigm shift. But on a chilly night in November 1973, such a moment took place. For the second time in history, the Americans stormed France in an epic battle. This battle, however, would pit the French haute couture establishment against innovative American ready-to-wear designers in a runway rumble for industry dominance. The Americans won!
On the stage where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, in front of a who’s who audience of royalty, jet-set millionaires, and icons including Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol, Christina Onassis, and Josephine Baker, the Americans claimed victory.
The French designers presented their collections in a two-hour series of elaborate vignettes. Each side had its stars: Josephine Baker performed for the French, followed by the Americans who opened with Liza Minnelli singing “Bonjour Paris” surrounded by a multicultural rainbow of 36 models on a sparse stage.
But it was the American designers who dropped a bomb. Their secret weapon — great clothes and a group of explosive Black models that sashayed down the royal runway to R&B music. They turned heads and simply stole the show. The extraordinary evening left an unforgettable imprint on the fashion industry and forever changed the role of Black models in America and abroad.
The American designers had outdone these top designers in their own backyard. “The Americans had all the success which they deserved with their perfect organization and for their admirable fashion defile,” recalls Hubert de Givenchy.
In an era known for protesting and sit-ins, this legendary event made a statement all its own – a fashion statement, one that created a cross-stitch of change across fashion, commerce, and publishing.
In the audience that exhilarating night was fashion icon, the late C.Z. Guest who had this to say about its significance, ”Not since Eisenhower liberated Paris have the Americans had such a triumph in France.”
Coffee Bluff ‘s production crew was granted unprecedented access to the Palace of Versailles, and spent months researching and revisiting the chateau that played host to a fashion revolution. The film includes exclusive photos and footage from this historic event.
Draper, 44, admitted that she didn’t know about these women until she came across their story on television. Initially embarrassed that she didn’t know the story, she decided that it would make an amazing documentary.
“I wanted to do something different — something positive. I wanted to tell a story about black women that wasn’t like ‘The Housewives of Atlanta,’” Draper divulged in an interview. “The story is about more than just clothes. It’s about economics, race and politics as well. And the fashion aspect simply encompasses all of those things.”
In addition to Draper, Versailles ‘73: An American Runway Revolution is produced by Caralene Robinson and Michael A. Draper. The director of cinematography is Jonathan Hall, and the editor is Ryan Kerrison.
Coffee Bluff Pictures is currently seeking a U.S. distributor to release the film in theatres nationwide. The filmmakers are also submitting the documentary for domestic and international film festival consideration. For more information about Versailles ‘73: An American Runway Revolution, visit www.coffeebluffpictures.com.
Coffee Bluff Pictures is an Atlanta-based independent film venture created to develop, produce and distribute compelling stories celebrating the African American experience. The company has several projects in various stages of development. Coffee Bluff is 100% female and minority-owned.
Ironically, on Monday, January 24, 2011 from noon to 2:30 pm, I attended a special luncheon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York City, hosted by Harold Koda, curator of the Met’s celebrated Costume Institute, and Donna Williams, chief audience development officer. Williams was one of the people interviewed by the film producers for the documentary.
The luncheon commemorated the diverse and multicultural group of models who captivated the audience when they took to the fashion runway at the Palace of Versailles, France in 1973, wearing the collections of the budding American designers.
The women and designers who tasted victory that night reunited for the first time in decades at the luncheon that was co-hosted by two of the designers who watched history being made — de la Renta and Burrows. As I sat there surrounded by all of this model beauty, I remember saying to myself that it would be great for someone to bring this model story to the masses. I guess Draper must have been ease dropping..
During the reception, there were hugs among models and designers, and hugs, air kisses and warm embraces among the models themselves. Model Blair shed tears as she held de la Renta in a prolonged embrace. The two had not seen each other in years. “She was the star of my show,” exclaimed de la Renta!
The models said at the time that they didn’t realize they were breaking racial barriers, but now believe that night changed the face and color of U.S. fashion forever. “It was divine,” model Cleveland said. “I was part of a beautiful group. It was like planting our flag, the flag of American fashion.”
The legendary models were on hand and listened as keynote speakers and event co-hosts de la Renta and Burrows lauded their courageous behavior that forever altered the way fashion is presented on a global stage and placing their iconic stamp on the fashion world! Donna Karan also spoke about the event that altered perceptions of American fashion’s presentation on the world stage, nearly 40 years ago.
“I could not think of a more deserving group of women and dear friends who helped us define a new era in fashion as we began our careers all those years ago, nor a more defining organization to deliver this recognition,” remarked Burrows.
It was a fashion battle between French and American style in the five exceptional American designers faced houses of celebrated French couturiers, drawing tremendous accolades for the Americans that resonated throughout the world and became a defining moment in American fashion history.
But the Americans had a secret weapon; a vibrant group of African American models. It started off all wrong for the Americans. Their sets were designed in inches, not centimeters, so they didn’t fit. Still, with only a bare stage and a thumping beat, the U.S. models launched down the runway and into fashion history. For many in the audience, the show was a first.
Throughout the half-hour celebration of American ingenuity and minimalism, the audience erupted in mounting cheers, stomping and tossing their programs in the air at pivotal moments. When all the models appeared for the finale dressed in black, the audience rose to its feet at the American triumph. American fashion gained the respect it craved and the world of fashion and modeling was transformed. The fashion divas made history.
When it was all over, the models discussed the formation of a union to upgrade their working conditions and improve their pay. The actual reality was that these fabulous performers received less than twenty-five dollars per day for spending money and three hundred dollars in salary for the show.
After having demonstrated a level of exuberant showmanship that set the international standard for runway presentation and editorial layouts for years to come, later that year, American Vogue featured an African American model on its cover for the first time; and the success of the Versailles models paved the way for the diverse supermodels that followed.
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.