documenting history

meet deborah riley draper, the woman behind the film versailles 73: american runway revolution
May 01, 2014  |   column: DELIBERATE POLISH

spend just a few minutes talking to deborah riley draper about her film versailles 73: american runway revolution, and you realize that she’s not only an inspiring woman, but also an inspired one too.

you see, “documentarian” (and one with a now-burgeoning production company) is a fairly recent addition to the atlanta-based advertising executive’s resume.

it all began with an article in the newspaper in january of 2011 about a luncheon at the metropolitan museum of art. in it, draper discovered the story of a particularly groundbreaking runway competition that took place at the palace of versailles in 1973 and of the african american models that took part, who were now being honored at the luncheon. from there, through a lot of determination and dedication, came her debut film.

but it’s not just a story about a friendly runway competition between five established french designers—yves saint laurent, christian dior, hubert de givenchy, pierre cardin and emanuel ungaro—and five up-and-coming american designers—anne kein, stephen burrows, bill blass, oscar de la renta and hailstone—to raise money for restoring an aging versailles. or even just about how the event catapulted american fashion designers into the international limelight as influential trendsetters. (princess grace of monaco, andy warhol, and josephine baker were just a sliver of the glamorous guests in attendance.) it tells a third story, too: the story of the twelve african-american models—including pat cleveland, norma jean darden, alva chinn, charlene dash, bethann harrison billie blair—who emerged as the real stars of the show and changed the face of modeling as we know it today.

when we caught up with draper after seeing the film, here’s what she had to say…

this is my first film…i’m an advertising executive. i applied the storytelling aspects of advertising and branding to this first effort—i moved from thirty seconds to ninety one minutes.

why? i couldn’t resist the allure of…a story involving new york, paris, designers, models, the rothschilds, trailblazing black women and the palace of versailles. you could not make up the level of drama or invent the level of significance of this moment.

the most difficult part of the process was…finding footage of the event.  CBS covered the pre-event but was not allowed to cover the event inside the theatre. so only a few still cameras were in the room.

the most exciting part was…interviewing the models, especially the legendary china machado, who was a muse of richard avedon; 70s it girl marisa berenson and runway legend pat cleveland. the most incredible moment was when we were shooting at the palace of versailles. i was working with the chief archivist and we found a letter addressed to marie-helene de rothschild signed by givenchy, cardin, ungaro, saint laurent and marc bohan for dior asking her to chair the event! of course, that made the film.

what’s next? as a filmmaker, i am dedicated to telling interesting stories about the possibilities of the human spirit against the background of the complexities of politics, culture, race and gender. i am working on another fashion documentary, a sport documentary and writing a screenplay about a crazy dinner party.

60_Versailles 73

photos courtesy of coffee bluff pictures

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