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Director of fashion documentary Versailles '73 on the runway show that changed history

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Forty years ago, New York fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert set out to produce a runway show called Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles in 1973, a fundraising catwalk to save the dilapidated Palace of Versailles in France. But the fashion show -- which positioned American designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows against French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro -- ultimately changed history.

In her documentary Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution, showing this week at the Sie FilmCenter, writer, director and producer Deborah Riley Draper examines just how and why this night of fashion became a mile marker for modern couture history. Compiling countless interviews by the models, designers and major players who were there, Riley Draper effectively re-creates a very visually important moment in time that had little actual footage of it survive.

Riley Draper will be at the Thursday, January 31, showing along with supermodel and America's Next Top Model judge Pat Cleveland. In advance of that appearance, Riley Draper talked with Westword about Versailles '73.

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Westword: At the time, this particular fashion show was not seen as anything special -- yet watching the film, there is no way Versailles '73 couldn't have transformed the fashion world with all of the people who were involved -- Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Yves Saint Laurent and the like.

Deborah Riley Draper: All of those people saw the show with their own eyes. The footage was lost and some of it was destroyed in a flood, so there just isn't a lot of footage left. The photos in the film are from the photographers themselves who managed to keep a lot of it. But you know, forty years ago, they didn't realize what they were doing, so they weren't prepared to document it. Now, iPhones would have been rolling, and everyone would have had it posted on Instagram before the show was even over.

With as much as fashion is a visual medium, this documentary seems to transcend the lack of footage of the actual event -- the cross-section of interviews came together to tell the story in a way that made up for photographic evidence.

I've actually heard that a lot from fashion and film critics: They said that in some weird way, they felt like they could see what was happening through the words. They felt like they were in the audience and they could almost feel it, in a spooky kind of way.

Absolutely! The setting itself -- the centuries-old Palace of Versailles in disrepair -- came through just the way the models, photographers and designers described it.

When I was talking with Rachel [Saltz, of the New York Times], who I think was the first person to review it, she said, "This is the weirdest thing -- I felt like I was there," and she had never been to Versailles. And I thought, good. That is what was supposed to happen.

Supermodel and famed America's Next Top Model judge Pat Cleveland -- who was in the film and walked in the show -- is joining you in Denver for the screening. Were you friends before the making of the documentary?

It was through the making of the film that we have actually become friends. I met her husband and her two children, and I've seen them a lot through the course of production and post-production. She's extremely supportive of the film. She's come with me to the New York screening and to Toronto Fashion Week to support the film as well.

She really felt this was an important story. A lot of people in fashion know Pat Cleveland, but they don't know how she arrived. They just know that she's famous for being the most dynamic cat walker in history. So everyone knows her, but the don't really know her story. And they kind of see her as a guest judge on America's Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. She's got a relationship as a mentor with Tyra, but they don't really know why. She is a very interesting woman. What brought you to make this film? What is your personal connection to fashion, or this story in particular?

I wanted to make the documentary because, once I learned the story of Versailles '73, I actually thought, wow. These are some of my favorite things: It's Paris; it's New York; it's groundbreaking fashion, the breaking of color barriers -- it's innovation. Anything that's remotely connected to Halston, I'm all in [laughs]. I'm fascinated by Halston as an American businessman and as a figure in our history, and the role he played in the '70s. He created looks that made women powerful in the way that they dressed -- so self-assured.

Someone referred to the story as the "Tuskegee Airmen" story of fashion; for the first time you had American designers using a collective of black models. I thought, wow, what unintended consequences this actual event brought about.

It was the first time the French had a "sponsored" event; we take that for granted now. Everything is sponsored; there's a brand connected to everything. That was new to them forty years ago, and so groundbreaking.

You also had Americans who used music and sexual movement. In America, it wouldn't have been anything, but at Versailles, they used Barry White and Al Green and disco. It was like, what is this disco thing you're doing?

The walks, the dancing and the movement of the models in this show -- it makes sense. Kind of like, how could this fashion show in this time not be set to artists like Barry White and Al Green?

It was the movement of the '70s. It's what was playing at Studio 54. The American designers brought the music they had with them, and didn't think twice about how groundbreaking it was. It's just what they were listening to at that moment.

The film is very much a bridge for this part of contemporary couture history; now, there are Fashion Weeks all over the globe that are very similar in presentation. Your film shows that at one point, American and European presentation was drastically different. When you talked to the French, someone like Laurent, they realized that the stuffiness in the '70s they had brought from the '40s and '50s was not like the youthful revolution happening in the streets. They weren't wearing the gloves and the chiffons and all the layers. They wanted to do something different with their presentation of fashion and keep up with the music. Not that the quality needed to change, but the design. From the interviews in the film, it is conveyed that the American designers chosen to be a part of this fashion show was a touchy issue. But in the end, there couldn't have been a better representation of what America brought to the runway -- like Anne Klein's sportswear and Stephen Burrows' wild maxi dresses. Burrows's work, especially, seems to me to have led the way for what we see at Fovever 21 these days. Stephen is really the god of what you see in places like Forever 21. All the places that, if you're a young fashionista and you want to hold on to your youthful spirit while wearing something that's flirty and fun -- that's Stephen. That is still Stephen. It's what he is.

Cher used to wear a lot of his wrap dresses and maxi dresses. She was a big Stephen Burrows fan; she was so tall and loved that kind of long, sexy wrap thing.

The models used by American designers in the Versailles '73 show really represented a full spectrum of women - the models weren't all white. In fact, they were a diverse array of skin tones and ethnicities. Was that intentional from the get-go? It wasn't intentional. It was kind of budget-related? In the film, you see a big list -- Lauren Hutton, Angelica Houston - certain people didn't want to do it, because it was only three hundred dollars (pay) for the whole weekend. They were thinking, I could make that in a day. I'm not wasting four days flying to Paris to make 300 bucks.

That left them with lesser-known names -- outside of the ones Halston paid personally, because he wanted them to be in the show, like Marisa Berenson and China Machado. But the other girls -- like Karen Bjornson who would go on to become a super model in the '80s. At that moment in 1973, she was happy to work for three hundred bucks for the weekend.

Pat (Cleveland) said she was more than happy to take the money -- because she hadn't become "Pat Cleveland" at that moment. Alva Chinn hadn't become the face of Valentino; it was that show that Valentino saw her when he was in the audience. That was how she got to work for him in Italy in ten straight years.

That show changed their lives -- the black models, the white models. That show had an impact on everyone.

Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution shows Thursday night, January 31, at the Sie Film Center in Denver. Tickets are $7 to $10 and include a post-showing Q&A with the director and model Pat Cleveland. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (303) 595-3456 or visit the Sie Film Center's website.

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