Monday, March 4, 2013

Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution

USA  France  (91 mi)  2012  d:  Deborah Riley Draper                         Official site

While this is a film that clearly describes a moment in history when the American fashion industry went toe to toe with the French, and surprisingly it was the Americans that came out on top, something altogether unthinkable until that most surprising moment.  Since the date was 40 years ago, there’s been plenty of time for fashion minds to ruminate over the subject, and the conclusion is this was one of those miracle moments, like the American amateur hockey team beating a veteran Soviet professional team for the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics in 1980.  These are such career defining moments that the world is never the same afterwards.  The American fashion industry, up to that point in time, always emulated the French, considered the top of the line in world fashion, where even American fashion critics themselves set the tone for this view, always deferring to the French, who universally were considered the model for high fashion.  But in 1973, a unique event was planned to raise money for the crumbling Palace of Versailles which was in dire need of renovation, when American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp suggested a fundraiser, organizing a fashion face-off inside the luxurious opulence of the palace itself, Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles, inviting an audience of American celebrities and European royalty, where there were 650 millionaires in the room, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Christina Onassis, Andy Warhol, and all the titled dukes and princesses.  But what upped the ante was a planned showdown between the high fashion industries of New York and Paris going head to head, pitting 5 designers from each continent displaying their latest fashion designs on the runway.  From France, the crème of couture, five legendary Parisian designers:  Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro, while New York was represented by 5 American sportswear designers:  Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta and Halston.  The only surprise in the mix was Stephen Burrows, a black designer who was not exactly an international name.      

What’s unique about this film is the delicious language used to describe the event itself, including an eloquent narration by vintage retailer and Bravo Reality TV star Cameron Silver, where people in the fashion industry express themselves with such vividly distinctive language, spoken with perfect diction, revealing a colorful flair for description, where just hearing them describe the event is an experience in itself.  Using an array of participants in the show, designer Stephen Burrows, fashion photographers, many of the performing models, including the now legendary (but unheard of then) Pat Cleveland, Marisa Berenson, Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison and China Machado, former U.S. Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella, socialite Simone Leavitt, and several fashion historians, they recount their recollections of the event, starting with the cool reception the Americans received upon arrival.  Since the French arranged the rehearsal time on the palace stage, they scheduled themselves first and rather routinely ran over their allotted time each day, leaving the Americans to stand around the rather drafty palace doing nothing, where there was no food, no heat, and even no toilet paper in the rest rooms.  As they were chaperoned by bus to and from the hotel, they were stuck there until the French were good and ready, so by the time the Americans got to practice in the evening, many of the French electricians went home, claiming union rules.  This less than equitable arrangement made many furious, creating a certain amount of infighting among the American designers, convinced they were being sabotaged, where the choreographer hired exclusively for the American models abruptly quit and went home.  Despite these setbacks, the show must go on.  What is indisputable is how magnificent the evening was, where literally hundreds of hand-lit lamps, each one held aloft, created an unforgettably stunning entrance to the palace, and once inside, no one had ever seen such a glamorous setting, before or since.      
When the French took the stage first, they had magnificently designed sets, creating a luxurious and intoxicating environment for their models to display their wares, including Jane Birkin in white underwear, with the nude dancers from the infamous Crazy Horse Saloon wearing glamorous furs, and nothing underneath, occasionally flashing for the audience.  For sheer star power entertainment, Rudolf Nureyev performed while a 67-year old Josephine Baker in a skin-tight sequin designed catsuit brought the house down.  The Americans countered with Liza Minnelli singing “Bonjours Paris.” which set an upbeat tone for what followed, which was a minimalist review with no stage design or props, just 12 fabulously designed black models strutting their stuff on the runway, where the audience went crazy, throwing their programs in the air and cheering excitably, as in that era black models were a rarity both in France and in America.  The women projected strength with a fiercely positive attitude that just filled the air with a force to be reckoned with, something fashion houses had never seen.  With names like Pat Cleveland (soon to become a famous Halston model), Alva Chinn (the face of Valentino for a decade, who spotted her that night), Bethann Hardison, Billie Blair, Norma Jean Darden, Barbara Jackson, Jennifer Brice, Charlene Dash, China Machado, Romana Saunders and Amina Warsuma, they strutted and twirled and sashayed their way into international prominence, putting American designers on the map, where New York didn't really become a fashion capital until the mid-1970’s.  They literally stole the show in a breathtaking 35-minutes compared to the languorous-paced French spectacle, requiring lengthy set changes between each of the 5 designers, a program that lingered on for two and a half hours.  The Americans were such an instant success, the models were invited upstairs for a luxurious dinner in the Hall of Mirrors, where they playfully paraded in front of the mirrors drinking the world’s finest champagne.  Not only did they make a statement about fashion, where the American designs could be worn by everyday ordinary people, as opposed to the French which were created exclusively for millionaires, they made a statement about race as well.  This was a turning point for black models, something historical, where the following year Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue and Givenchy hired an all-black modeling review.  Harold Korda, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Curator summed it up this way, “When you have a black woman sashaying and then throwing her train, it becomes something that is different than the more polite expression of standard fashion runway style of that period.”  Interestingly, when all is said and done, little was mentioned about the amount of money raised for the event, which after all was a fund raiser, as the talk would forever be about the event itself.

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