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Black designers show the French a thing or deux

For those of us who missed our calling as jet setters, socialites or fashion models along comes the edifying, spritely documentary "Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution" to show us how much work it is to be spontaneously fabulous.

Nearly 40 years ago, in late November of 1973, something rather momentous happened at the Opéra Royal on the grounds of the King's old digs outside Paris. In the course of a fashion show that Women's Wear Daily dubbed "The Battle of Versailles," boldly assertive American runway models -- many of whom were what we now call African-American -- wore sporty, comfortable American designer clothes with such, well, panache that the absolute supremacy of French haute couture was dented for good.

Nobody saw it coming, but the people who were lucky enough to be there that night for the "Grand Divertissement à Versailles" (rough translation: A Consequential Evening of Captivating Entertainment You-Know-Where) knew they'd witnessed a watershed moment, one that is described in this documentary in vivid detail by a succession of talking heads who know what they're talking about.

And to think that it all came about because the humble abode from which Marie Antoinette had once uttered cavalier culinary advice for grumbling tummies, needed repairs.

First-time filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper's documentary starts with Walter Cronkite informing television viewers that the Chateau de Versailles needs fixing up, to the tune of 60 million dollars. Powerful fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert hit on the idea of five New York designers competing with five designers from Paris.

The French didn't take it seriously. Surely Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows were no match for Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro.

Tee-hee.

This was the year after Pauline Kael compared the New York Film Festival premiere of "Last Tango in Paris" to the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

Kael may have gotten slightly carried away. But "Versailles '73" makes a pretty good case for the tide-turning impact of confident American designers and their models -- some of whom were almost certainly descended from slaves. In just 35 minutes of sassy-to-sensual strutting, they obliterated the accepted wisdom that went something like this: The Best Fashion Designers Are French, therefore American Fashion Designers Can't Be the Best. So There.

Wealthy people whose last names you'd probably recognize (Is there a janitor somewhere named Rothschild? A humble school teacher named Onassis?) underwrote much of the event itself with ticket sales going toward restoring the Chateau. Continues below videos

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The film has undeniable momentum, historical value and even juicy gossip but, not unlike the final third of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, seems reluctant to wrap things up, slipping into needless repetition and paraphrase. That said, even if you don't care about fashion, per se, think of it this way. Great swathes of the population couldn't care less about Formula 1 racing, but the racing "Senna" is a gripping documentary for anybody with functioning retinas.

"Versailles '73" isn't great filmmaking but it's informative and fun. The portion of the film devoted to picking which models would get to go to Paris -- three out of the five designers had to OK each choice -- is genuinely suspenseful if somewhat overlong.

Just getting to the event proved eventful. While the models transformed their commercial flight into a party at 30,000 feet, the first class aircraft ferrying the wealthy and powerful was rerouted to Aix-en-Provence due to fog. The A-listers of yore bunked at the Plaza Athenée where they were "upstaged" by a certain Col. Gadhafi who, like so many of us when we venture to Paris, was in town buying airplanes.

Here's a pronouncement one would never expect in a million years, put forth by one of the American models: "The French were rude." Accomplished actor Jean-Louis Barrault (the lovelorn mime Baptiste in Marcel Carné's "Children of Paradise") was supposed to direct the French portion of the show at the last minute. The French -- intent on mounting a series of lavish set pieces -- monopolized rehearsal time.

The Yanks were kept waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more. They were excited but jet-lagged. It was freezing cold. There was nothing to eat. Nothing to drink. And, the ultimate indignity (cited by men and women alike): "There was no toilet paper." And don't you just hate it when set designs are in centimeters instead of yards? The dimensions of the stage hadn't properly figured in preparations.

What DID the Americans have? Oh: Liza Minnelli, who had recently won an Oscar for "Cabaret." Halston had hired Liza's godmother Kay Thompson to choreograph the U.S. portion of the evening. But disgusted by vicious behavior and unprofessional working conditions, Thompson quit before the actual show. One benefactor threw a $20,000 party for 200 guests at Maxim's the night before, in honor of Minnelli.

Maxim's current curator points out that the term "jet society" wasn't used at the time. "We preferred 'the café society,' which was the real name of this elegant and fashionable world." [Say "café society" to somebody under 25 as a verbal Rorschach test and they'd probably answer "Starbucks."]

On November 28, 1973, snow began to fall in Versailles. One hundred and fifty footmen in 18th century livery holding candelabras lit the way. There were human luminaries to match.

"Social heavyweights on both sides of the Atlantic," simply had to be there, says one veteran of the show. Andy Warhol wouldn't have missed it for the world. "Princess Grace had her f****ing crown," comments one bemused male interviewee. Well, yeah. -- if you don't wear your bejewelled tiara to a fund raiser at Versailles, where ARE you going to wear it?

The French designers went first and a summary of their presentation is positioned 45 minutes into the film. Alas, it comes to us mostly via still photographs, although there are moving images of Josephine Baker singing, clad in a clingy number that belongs in the Clingy Number Hall of Fame. Nureyev danced a pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty.' While there was plenty of beauty in the two-and-a-half hour long French presentation, something was sound asleep and needed to be awakened.

After an intermission, it was the Americans' turn. They had next to nothing in the way of props, staging or good lighting (the French electricians left when they considered their work done) -- but they had themselves. So, beautiful women in beautiful clothes essentially had to wing it. And wing it they did, to stunning effect. The audience went bonkers. Princess Grace tossed her program into the air and soon the expensively printed programs were raining down like bespoke confetti.

Liza got the ball rolling by belting out "Bonjour, Paris!" -- which Thompson had sung on location along with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in 1957's "Funny Face."

In 2008 when the American artist Jeff Koons was invited to install his imposing pop sculptures in the Chateau and on the grounds, there was considerable hue and cry that the likes of Koons did not "belong" in the lavish setting of the Palace of Versailles. But way back in 1973, the hardly more appropriate suggestive warbling of Barry White sprang forth from a tape -- that was the only music the Americans had -- and gutsy showmanship sprang forth.

The five Yanks had designed sporty garments one didn't have to be a fashion model to wear, but great bones and great bodies certainly didn't hurt. The evening was a triumph. Black women models transformed the runway for decades to come. "We were their arsenal. We were what no one else had," proclaims Pat Cleveland, who graced the stage that historic night.

Model Marisa Berenson (who acted in Visconti's "Death in Venice" in 1971, played opposite Minnelli in 1972's "Cabaret" and played Lady Lyndon in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" in 1975) cites American "pizazz." One aspect of the French presentation -- the Crazy Horse cabaret dancers in furs with nothing underneath -- sounds lively enough, but apparently they were no match for the American models with their clothes on. Even French-style nudity looked stiff by energetic American standards.

While it doesn't dazzle as kinetic filmmaking the way "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel" or "The September Issue" do, "Versailles '73" has a fascinating point to make: After one fashion show 40 years ago, American clothing designers took their rightful place on the international map. Until that night, American fashion editors took their cues from Europe. But the French agreed that the upstarts from the New World had "won."

If "Versailles '73" whets your appetite, be advised that dueling Yves Saint Laurent biopics are gearing up in France. As with the two Truman Capote films, both ventures boast tantalizing casts and talented directors. Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent" stars Gaspard Ulliel as the title designer and Jeremie Renier as his romantic and business partner, Pierre Bergé. Actor-turned-director Jalil Lespert's "Yves Saint Laurent" stars Pierre Niney and Guillaume Gallienne in the same configuration.

While YSL and his colleagues still had years of haute couture collections ahead, that November night in Versailles "became a platform for ready-to-wear," says an interviewee. Shot on location in and around Paris, 20 years after the evening depicted in "Versailles '73," Robert Altman's film was called "Ready to Wear" in the U.S. because studio marketeers were worried that audiences wouldn't know or care what "Pret-à-Porter" might mean.

Let 'em eat cake.

¶ Lisa Nesselson was the longtime Paris-based film critic for the trade newspaper Variety, and is our French Correspondent. She says she is no competition for high fashion. Chaz and I always sit near her at Cannes screenings, and protest. She has an inimitable sense of personal style.

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