It wasn’t the first time Americans stormed France, but the battle was of a different nature.
Forty years ago last November, legendary American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp conceived a fundraiser to restore the Palace of Versailles. The duo pitted France’s top haute couture designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungar) against five American ready-to-wear designers (Bill Blass, Halston, Stephen Burrows, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta) who ultimately claimed victory.
But the “The Battle of Versailles,” as it came to be known, is written in history as more than just the night in 1973 that the fashion world turned its eyes to America.
“So many things that night at Versailles were against the norm — the use of disco, the use of black models, the use of jersey,” said Deborah Riley Draper, who released her documentary “Versailles ‘73: American Runway Revolution” last year.
Out of all the models who walked the stage that evening — where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, in front of a who’s who audience of royalty and icons including Princess Grace of Monaco and Andy Warhol — 11 were African-American.
“Through a series of events — availability, budgeting, who could fit the clothes — it created this collective of black models that had never been represented in the U.S. or anywhere else before,” said Draper, a first-time filmmaker and advertising executive at BDDO.
On Thursday, she will visit Indianapolis for a screening, followed by at Q&A session at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The event, presented by the museum’s Fashion Arts Society, will include a swanky early-
1970s-attire cocktail party and a chance to mingle with the film’s writer and director.
Here, Draper talks about what inspired her to pursue the film, why America is ready for another fashion revolution and the Hoosier who changed the face of fashion internationally.
What gave you the idea to make a documentary about this one night in Versailles 40 years ago?
I would have never thought my first film would be this one. I stumbled across the story three years ago on NPR, and it just grabbed me — I couldn’t shake it. I talked to my husband and said this would make a great documentary, and about 20 months later it was screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
That must have been surreal as a first-time filmmaker.
I didn’t know until after the screening that they schedule the films so tightly together so everyone is rushing from one to the next. So I’m standing at the door, close to tears because no one had showed up. But three minutes before it began, people started coming out of nowhere, one of whom was Joëlle Diderich from Women’s Wear Daily Paris. That was the first piece of big press; she saw it and wrote a four-page spread.
Two of the five U.S. designers, Halston and Bill Blass, were originally from Indiana. What do you think that says about the “American Dream”?
The designers as well as Eleanor Lambert — who was from Crawfordsville — single-handedly changed fashion. She started the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), organized the Battle of Versailles, took over the International Best Dressed list and was hired by the White House to represent fashion industry and take shows around the world to create opportunity for our apparel industry to grow. This little Indiana farm girl exploded on the international scene.
Why do you think this was an important story to tell?
These people were legends of their time. They shared such great wisdom about life. They were these scrappy resourceful American designers who didn’t have a name, they weren’t respected like they are now, heading to the birthplace of couture to show their wares against the lions of fashions. They had been waiting 40 years to tell this on film.
You were able to assemble an impressive cast for the film, including many of the original Versailles ’73 models and designers. Were there any surprises?
Grace Mirabella (editor of Vogue at the time) I love, love, love. She was an amazing editor and powerful woman who was ahead of her time. Stephen Burrows is so talented — and I was surprised to find so shy and such great friends with Halston, who was not shy. We tried to interview Oscar de la Renta, but he was sick on the day of the interview.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “I think American fashion is ready for another revolution.” How so?
Every industry has to have a shake-up, and I don’t think we’ve seen a revolution in a while with clothing. So many companies are owned by the same conglomerate, you get a lot of the same, just varying in fabric and price. People don’t want to be the same; we should look differently. It’s starting to happen through social media, pop-up designers. Before, you needed a lot of backing and advertising, but now you can put stuff on eBay, Etsy or an online store and sell one at a time.
What’s next for you?
I’m preparing to do two more documentaries simultaneously because I’m crazy. One is another fashion documentary; the other is around the 1936 Olympics.