August 31, 2012
Fashion Smack-Down at Versailles!
Local filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper debuts her fashion documentary “Versailles ‘73” in Atlanta this week with Cameron Silver
By Nancy Staab
Post-Cannes, first-time Atlanta filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper arrives on the cinema scene with a stylish splash with her fascinating documentary chronicling the famed 1973 runway duel between the very tippy-top designers of France and the aspiring masters of American ready-to-wear—not to mention a fierce posse of African-American models
When in the fall of 1973 the French design world deigned to invite the American ready-to-wear designer to their shores for a fashion exposition, the brainchild of fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert (arbiter of Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed List), few expected the Americans to steal the show. The French may have felt they had the upper hand with their couture team consisting of Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior’s Marc Bohan, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro; but the New World upstarts (Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, and Stephen Burrows) had a few stylistic tricks up their sleeves. With the gilded Palace of Versailles as the stage, a passel of glamorous African-American models upturning all the conventions, and the glitterati of the world watching, the historic and groundbreaking “Le Grand Divertissement a Versailles” was, in Draper’s words, “the ultimate Fashion Night Out.”
More than just a frivolous fashion spectacle, the event validated both America’s collection of talented read-to-wear designers and its glamazon African-American models fighting for their space on the runways and magazine covers in early 1970’s culture. Indeed, the event represented a who’s who of global jet-setters—Princess Grace of Moncao, Christina Onassis, Marisa Berenson, Liza Minellis, Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill, Rudolph Nureyev, Josephine Baker, and Jane Birkin. WWD billed it as “The Battle of Versailles” and funds from the benefit went towards the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.
However, very few photos or film footage remain of this historic event. Enter: Atlanta advertising exec and first-time filmmaker/executive director Deborah Draper Riley, 44, who stumbled upon her subject matter after reading about an honorary dinner for the models at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Intrigued by the story, she conducted research that led her from the archives of the Palace of Versailles to the Fashion Institute of Technology, and this spring debuted her feature-length documentary, re-creating the glitzy event largely via interviews of first-hand participants, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film’s star wattage includes most of the 11 African-American models involved: Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, Billie Blair, Jennifer Brice, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, China Machado, Ramona Saunders and Amina Warsuma. There’s also a star turn by Decades owner/vintage fashion expert Cameron Silver as the film’s narrator. Needless to say, the fashion and media world has fervently embraced Draper’s documentary with buzz in WWD, Huffington Post and Hollywood Reporter.
Draper stated to Huffington Post, “I wanted to do something different—something positive. I wanted to tell a story about black women that wasn’t like ‘The Housewives of Atlanta.’” Cameron Silver puts it a little more bluntly in a quote to Hollywood Reporter on May 10, “This is an important film, not only because it’s the story of American designers getting international attention for the first time and kicking ass over the French. But it also has important political overtones, because this show actually broke the color barrier on the runways.”
This week Draper’s film bows in Atlanta with a private screening Tuesday night, before hitting the road for a NYC screening during Mercedes-BenzFashion Week. The film also screened at Soho House in Hollywood this summer
Independent Filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper will screen her fashion documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution” via an exclusive, invite-only reception at the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 4, co-hosted by Essence magazine editor Mikki Taylor, Decades owner Cameron Silver and Judy Mauldin.
Preview the Versailles ’73 Trailer here: http://www.versailles73movie.com/trailer.html
LUXECRUSH INTERVIEW WITH DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER
How did you first discover this subject, the Versailles 1973 fashion showdown, and what made you decide to produce a film about it?
I happened across a story about the January 2011 Luncheon at The Met honoring African American models who had participated in the iconic 1973 Versailles event. I was fascinated and began Googling and the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn.
There are lots of levels to this story: the fashion angle, the American vs. France angle, the race angle. What was so compelling to you or groundbreaking about this story?
I love every angle but it took a very diverse group of Americans to pull off this fashion coup and some of the players are the usual suspects but some are not. This was a pivotal point in the lives of all who were there.
How did you go from being a first-time feature filmmaker to presenting your documentary at Cannes Film Festival?
Well, I wanted to introduce the film in France—So, I chose the marche du film at the Cannes Film Festival. My film was not an official selection but was a part of the documentary corner and had a debut market screening. Bucket list item-check. I did not let the idea of a first-time filmmaker stop me from too many things.
Tell me about your research for this story, including your opportunity to research the archives at Versailles Palace.
I am a researcher at heart and I am up for the challenge to call anyone, anywhere to get the story. I reached out to the Palace ask for help and they were so friendly and helpful, actually. I researched the subject at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology] and Bryn Mawr Special Collections departments, as well as Google.
How did you go about re-creating this landmark and impossibly glamorous event when there are so few photos or video footage?
I let the cast tell the story. I think sometimes talking heads are underrated. LOL
Can you paint a brief picture of the glamour of this night and who attended?
It was the first and ultimate Fashion Night Out. 650 millionaires dripping in jewels, Rolls-Royces. Socialites, politicians—Lee Radziwill, Andy Warhol, Princess Grace, Josephine Baker, Bloomingdales, Guinnesses, and of course de Rothschilds.
Are you a fashion lover in general and was there a particular piece from the 1973 show that you adore?
I love fashion and am a bit of a vintage designer.
Tell me about the iconic African American models. Where are they now and were you granted access to all of them for the film?
I had access to almost all. They are entrepreneurs, mothers, grandmothers, magazine editors and a few are still on the runway.
How did you luck into Decades owner/vintage king Cameron Silver as your narrator?
Just plain lucky and a smart co-producer who knew Cameron.
What has the reception to your film been like so far with the media etc.?
People love the story, the time period and the personalities.
Tell me about your film production company Coffee Bluff Pictures.
Coffee Bluff Road is in Savannah. My family has lived on that road for over 100 years. I hope to represent my family with great stories about people who have great moments, great struggles, but who live life.
Any other films in the pipeline or something you might like to direct in the future?
Right now I want everyone to focus on helping get this film into theatres. It is showing at the IFC Center in NYC on September 7-13. But, I do have a few scripts that I would like to direct. Anyone out there want to talk three-picture deal?
Independent Filmmaker Deborah Riley Draperwill screen her fashion documentary “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution” via an exclusive, invite-only reception at the Mandarin Oriental Atlanta on Tuesday, Sept. 4, co-hosted by Essence magazine editor Mikki Taylor, Decades owner Cameron Silver and Judy Mauldin. For more information about the film visit www.versailles73movie.com or www.coffeebluffpictures.com
PREVIEW THE VERSAILLES 73 TRAILER HERE: http://www.versailles73movie.com/trailer.html