Versailles ’73: A Conversation with Deborah Riley Draper

Spend the night in Versailles, American style! On Nov. 7 (Chatham 14 Theaters, 87th & the Dan Ryan) and Nov. 8 (Lawndale 10 Theaters, Roosevelt & Homan), Black World Cinema presents Versailles ’73: An American Revolution. This documentary presents the journey of American fashion designers and models that changed the face of the fashion industry full circle. Leading the pack were African-American designer Stephen Burrows and 12 African-American models including Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and Alvia Chinn. The Chicago Defender spoke exclusively with the filmmaker, Deborah Riley Draper, about the film and night that changed the fashion world completely….

Chicago Defender: What is Versailles ’73: An American Revolution?

Deborah Riley Draper: At the time, the actual palace of Versailles was falling apart. An American fashion publicist, Eleanor Lambert, knew the curator of the palace, Gerald Van der Kemp. Lambert represented a lot of designers and suggested to put on a fashion show fundraiser to help restore the palace. The show would feature both French and American designers – something that had never been done before. Up until that point, France was looked to as the fashion capital of the world. It then became a battle of Versailles. But when the sets for the Americans weren’t sufficient, they ended up relying solely on music and the models that walked the stage. The African-American models set the runway on fire! They made the French audience members lose their minds… so much so that the French threw their programs in the air and shouted ‘Bravo!’ So, Versailles ’73 chronicles that journey. It was also the first time ever in the history of fashion you had that many Black women on a runway together in a show for Americans or Europeans.

CD: How did you approach producing and directing the film?

DRD: I became fascinated with the idea of these African-American women being in the same place where Marie Antoinette married Louis XIV. So, I wanted to know how they got there. From the shooting and producing perspective, I wanted to make sure that I reached out to the models and designers who were there and are still living. I wanted to let the people who were there tell the story in their own words. I conducted interviews, and gathered footage and photos to let the audience transform from being in 2012 to being a fly on the wall in 1973.

CD: What impact did the African American models have on the show?

DRD: A lot of these women had been in the Ebony Fashion Fair, so they could model! But they could also add drama, theater, and dance. So when they moved, it was a production and a performance all in and of itself. It wasn’t just walk, turn around, and come back. You’re talking about educated models with degrees who knew what they were doing….really smart girls who knew how to wear clothes and bring theater to a bare stage with just music and themselves. That’s talent!


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