On a chilly evening in Paris in November 1973 fashion history was made. Initially conceived as a fundraiser orchestrated by American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert and Palace of Versailles curator Gerald Van der Kemp, to raise money to restore the Palace of Versailles, American designers and African-American models emerged triumphant in a battle royale against their French counterparts. Deborah Riley Draper directed the documentary Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution exploring this pivotal moment in fashion history and spoke to me and Emily Sandberg about the process, politics and legacy of this historical event.
What challenges did you face when making Versailles ’73: An American Runway Revolution and where did you gather support to help you walk through the challenges?
The biggest challenge was finding attendees from an event that took place 40 years ago.
What about this event in fashion’s history resonated with you and inspired you to document it?
I was so inspired by Eleanor Lambert’s big idea and her courage and tenacity to make it happen. I was obsessed and in love with the black models who brought not only beauty but style and passion to a runway in a château filled with 650 of the most influential people of the period. And, I wanted this story told, known and used to inspire young women of all races to reach for the stars.
Fashion and politics are two worlds that rarely cross paths. What did you learn about the politics of fashion during the process of making this film?
I think fashion and politics cross a lot. Fashion is always fueled by patrons and benefactors who are connected to power and …politics. In this case, the highest levels of French government were involved in approving this event and the U.S. Ambassador was an honorary host committee person. Also, I think American politics have always impacted fashion. WWII impacted the hemline due to fabric shortages. Women went to work and wore more pants. The U.S. Commerce department hired Eleanor Lambert to promote fashion around the world to increase exports. The youth revolution expressed itself through fashion–hairstyles (Afros, dreads), clothing ( no bras, power suits) are all tied to politics or at the very least political inclinations.
How do you think the financial landscape in fashion has changed for women of color in fashion since this period in history?
I think the number of women of color behind the scenes has increased tremendously. I think the concept of beauty presented by the media or in front of the camera is more difficult to assess but I think the 70’s were certainly a time of free thinkers and collaborators. There are several women of color who are the face of cosmetics with big contracts. Everyone is awarded more money now if they can get a contract.
The opportunities for non-white models has broadened increasingly since the seventies. There are voices still that cry there isn’t enough diversity on the runway, in editorials and fronting campaigns. What do you think about the media’s representation of non-white women? Is it adequate?
There is always room for more inclusion. People of color over-index in media consumption but the representation in media does not reflect that.
You wrote, produced and directed this film which is unheard of for first time filmmakers. What did you have to sacrifice to maintain creative control?
My time and money. My husband was my only investor.
Was there anything that surprised you to learn during the research and development of this film?
Two things. The number of icons who were involved in this event–Josephine Baker, Andy Warhol, Rudolph Nureyev, Liza Minelli. And, that so many African Americans were involved in the event and brought such diverse experiences and backgrounds to the show, including some very prestigious alma maters.
You were an advertising executive before you began this documentary. Was there a part of you that felt you were leaving the real world to join the circus?
I am so fortunate to have an advertising career as many of the same skills you use on a commercial production can be easily transferred to film production.
What message would you like the audience to take away from your film?
Versailles ’73 is a powerful moment in American history, where people of different races and backgrounds came together to represent America and dazzle the world with great clothes, bold, beautiful black and white models and position the U.S. as a global style and trend leader.
What projects do you have in development that you’d like to share?
A couple more documentaries in fashion, a WWII documentary and two feature films. This will be a busy year.
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