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Versailles '73: The Fashion Show That's About To Be Everywhere

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All stills from Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution
All stills from Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution

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There's a new documentary about it. Robin Givhan is writing a book about it. But most people—even serious fashion nerds—may never have heard of Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles.

Also known simply as Versailles '73, it was a fashion show that started as a fundraiser for the Palace of Versailles and turned into a full-on battle between French and American designers. The French team included Yves Saint Laurent, Dior's Marc Bohan, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro. The American side had Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and Stephen Burrows—along with twelve African American models.

The Americans won the night and—without exaggerating—changed the way the world thought about American fashion forever. At a screening of the film Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution at FIT last night, we spoke director Deborah Riley Draper about why this forgotten moment was so pivotal.

Why did you decide this was an important film to make?
It's so important because you can look at the crowd and see the buzziness of the room. Five American designers and five French designers on the stage where Marie Antoinette got married. Andy Warhol in the room, Princess Grace in the room, the Duchess, the Duke, the President of Yugoslavia, and then 12 African American models representing the United States in a way that's never been done before. They're like the Tuskegee Airmen of the runway. In that moment America stood its ground with the French and basically won the night. It established us in the forefront of fashion. Up until that point everyone wanted something French. They had the French fashion industry for three, four hundred years. And we were the young upstarts! We really didn't even have an industry until after World War II.

If Versailles '73 was such a breakout moment for black models, why do you think there are so few on the runway now?
Fashion is fickle. This is what [Versailles '73 model] Norma Jean Darden explained to me. In the '70s and the '80s, the African American woman was in Vogue. YSL's muse was Mounia, who was obviously African American. And then economies changed, tastes changed. There was a sameness in the models. In the '70s, everyone was different. Bethann [Hardison] didn't look like Norma Jean [Darden] who didn't look like Pat [Cleveland] who didn't look like Alva [Chinn] who didn't look like anybody.

So what happened?
There was a shift in thinking: "Let's make them look the same so we can let the clothes stand out." In that sameness, you lose a lot of flavor. The '70s was about experimentation, it was about self-expression, it was about freedom. It was about breaking the status quo, not just in fashion but in everything. Then, in the '80s and '90s things changed and people became a little bit more closed in terms of not wanting to be different or stand out. Once we become comfortable again with diversity—and not just race, but diversity of thought, which we are going to have to in this country—I think you'll see that again and I think you'll see a rainbow of girls on the runway. I think people are going to begin to demand it, because this country is changing, and it's changing fast, and everyone's gotta keep up or they'll be left out!

Did you work with any of the current generation of African American models—Joan Smalls and Chanel Iman come to mind—on making the film?
I didn't. You know, we see those models a lot. And there is a whole generation of designers and models who have never seen the [models] in this film. They're the revolutionaries, they're the one who paved the way not just for black models but the whole industry, because they changed the way people walked. They changed the way models brought flare to the game. So I thought it was important for them to tell the story. Because they were there.

On the topic of Americans holding their own with the French, do you have an opinion on Alex Wang's appointment at Balenciaga?
Well I think that's just it! Because Versailles '73 instilled the confidence in the world that we could bring our A games, so now an American designer has the opportunity to do anything on this globe relative to fashion. So I think it's fantastic.

What do you think about the state of American fashion today?
I think American fashion is ready for another revolution. I think technology is gonna help us really go back to being innovative. If you look at the '70s, these guys were making things that had never been made before. We reached a point in the early '90s and 2000s where we saw a lot of sameness, and I think technology is actually going to push us forward so we'll see diversity again.

Download or order a copy of Versailles '73 here.
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