August 29 2014

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French Castle, American Story


2013 marks the fortieth anniversary of Le Grand Divertissement è Versailles, the runway battle royal that took place in 1973 between French fashion houses (Givenchy, Dior, Ungaro, Yves Saint Laurent, and Pierre Cardin) and American designers (Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, and Bill Blass). Held as a fundraiser to restore the palace, the evening was attended by everyone from Andy Warhol to Princess Grace of Monaco, and, in addition to a bevy of couture, featured performances by the likes of Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker (above).

But aside from being, perhaps, the most epic runway spectacle to date, Versailles marked the first time African-American models took a prominent place on the European fashion stage. Last night, in honor of the anniversary, and in celebration of Women’s History Month, the Fashion Institute of Technology hosted a screening of Deborah Riley Draper’s 2012 documentary, Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution. And the historic event’s stars, like Pat Cleveland (below, right), Billie Blair, Norma Jean Darden, and Bethann Hardison, among others, turned out for the film and a lively panel discussion.

“After Versailles '73, Givenchy had his first entire cabine of black models, and in the States, we went to work in greater numbers,” said guest Mikki Taylor, the editor at large of Essence magazine and a former model. “It really changed the game.” But Draper (above, center) and the Versailles models in attendance stressed that it wasn’t just a story about race—it was a story about America. For instance, Draper noted that it’s especially poignant that Alexander Wang showed his first collection for Balenciaga during this milestone year. “I think that is a legacy of this event because Versailles showed the world that we are not people who copy French patterns. We actually bring our own sensibility, our own style, our own creativity, and we can run houses, even though we don’t come from a couture culture.” Later, the director added that she hoped those who watch her film get a sense of the American spirit that existed at Versailles. “It’s an American story…and it takes a diversity of people to create success.” Pat Cleveland concurred. “Everyone worked together to make something happen, to make something extraordinary,” she told “We all wanted to put our energy into it and be American. That’s what it was all about.”

Photo: Jerry Speier

Dept. of Culture