PARIS — To mark the 50th anniversary of the event that WWD dubbed the “Battle of Versailles,” director Deborah Riley Draper plans a special screening during Paris Fashion Week in tandem with a design competition backed by two of the participating houses.
The 1973 gala went down in history as the night that put American fashion, and African American models, on the map. It was the subject of Riley Draper’s 2012 documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution” and she plans to adapt it into a feature film once the writers’ strike is lifted.
To mark the anniversary, her production company Coffee Bluff Pictures has teamed with French fashion house Ungaro and the With Love Halston Foundation to sponsor a competition for students at the Istituto Marangoni fashion school in Paris designed to foster creativity and inclusion.
“Young people need to be inspired, and they need to know their history,” Riley Draper said. “We have to expose our young minds to all the places that they can play and all the places that they can innovate and be creative, and make sure that that canvas is available to them.”
Participants will present their creations on Sept. 27, and the winners will be revealed at the Ungaro headquarters on Sept. 29 in the presence of the brand’s creative director Kobi Halperin.
Ungaro and the Halston foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Halston’s niece Lesley Frowick and fashion executive Steve Gold, are both awarding scholarships while the overall winner will receive the Versailles ’73 Prize, which comes with a cash award.
There will also be a special prize in honor of the late photographer Charles Tracy, who captured the Nov. 28, 1973 evening when five U.S. designers faced off against France’s top couturiers at the Palace of Versailles in front of an audience including Princess Grace of Monaco, Christina Onassis and Andy Warhol.
Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles — the brainchild of fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, creator of the Best Dressed List — pitted Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows against Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro.
On the evening of Sept. 29, a 50th anniversary director’s cut of the documentary will be screened at the Grand Rex cinema in the French capital, followed by a talk with Riley Draper and members of the cast. A second screening is due to take place in New York City on Nov. 28, the exact date of the anniversary.
Riley Draper was a vice president at advertising agency BBDO when she made the documentary, and she’s gone on to direct films including “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” and the miniseries “The Legacy of Black Wall Street.”
“This story literally launched my film career and I am forever grateful for that,” she said.
“This event is legendary in terms of who was in the audience, who literally presented the clothes, and it was at this time in the world in the ‘70s that was right after a lot of movements — the Civil Rights Movement, protest around Vietnam — and there was a level of freedom and creativity and transformation that was all happening,” she recalled.
“Black models brought in a new energy, a new way of walking. The American designers brought in new clothes,” she added. “I think it inspires us all that we can contribute to something new, different and exciting that is transformative, and that you don’t have to be a star in that moment.”
One of the subjects of her documentary, Bethann Hardison, has gone on to become a filmmaker herself with the release this fall of “Invisible Beauty,” a documentary tracing her journey as a pioneering Black model, modeling agent and activist.
“There was a defiance about her then: her haircut, the fact that she threw down her train,” Riley Draper said. “It’s taken 50 years for her to come into her own and be recognized for all of the work that she’s done in the past five decades.”
She noted that several studies indicate that diverse companies perform better.
“When you look at 1973, that was actually diversity and inclusion and access in fashion in ways that may have not occurred before or after,” she said. “You see so much of what is going to be the future and of course, they didn’t realize it then, but those trends are still holding.”
Riley Draper is completing a four-part docuseries, “James Brown: Say It Loud,” for A&E Network, and is looking forward to starting work on the “Versailles ‘73” feature film.
“The story will be centered around a Black female protagonist who is selected to go to Paris and will experience all that we know of this story, but we’ll get more of the backstory of what New York was like in the ‘70s,” she said. “It’s just a hilarious coming-of-age story steeped in real themes of race, gender, culture and class.”