designer duels

Relive the Magical Fashion Battle of Versailles

At a time when diversity in fashion is still very much lacking, 1973’s legendary Battle of Versailles is a continual reminder of how exciting — and necessary — change can be. The clash that pitted French designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior against up-and-coming American talents like Oscar de la Renta and Halston was a crucial turning point for fashion.

For the first time, the fashion world would understand the power of American sportswear — and the African-American sheroes who modeled it — as a force against the airtight traditions of French haute couture. Royalty like Grace Kelly and stars such as Jane Birkin crowded into the weatherworn palace at Versailles to witness the showdown. And the overwhelming win that the Americans made there — launching the careers of such models as Bethann Hardison and Pat Cleveland, plus American designers Anne Klein and Stephen Burrows — set a precedent for the future of ready-to-wear and diversity on the runway.

A new documentary by M2M Films, WME and IMG’s fashion channel, captures the vibrant spectacle though exclusive new footage and commentary. Battle at Versailles premiered last week at the Paris Theatre, and includes cameos with some of the American designers and models who helped to “wreck” the French, plus commentary from visionaries like WWD’s John Fairchild and Anne Klein’s young assistant (you may have heard of Donna Karan). The documentary debuted on Apple TV and this Sunday, March 6, and you can watch the trailer above.

At the premiere, the Cut spoke with M2M executive producer Susan Hootstein about her favorite takeaways from the film.

Since there have been other film and book depictions of the Battle of Versailles before, what did you want to capture with this documentary that, you felt, was different and special?
One of the things that we felt was really important to capture was not just the event, but everything that was going on in the cultural landscape around the event. And to capture why this was a moment in American history and music, with disco coming in, and the black models in the show.

And I think the important thing to tell was, “Can we say something that hasn’t been said before?” And we have commentary with people that actually were there and were in the trenches with it. I think the film crew really did a deep-dive documentary, and they found footage and archival photos no one’s ever seen. And the fact that we were able to talk to Donna Karan and everyone else. Donna Karan’s interview was a chess game to get. And we were spoiled by the level of access that IMG affords. Like, we were so lucky to have the resources and to have someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Bethann Hardison.

Donna Karan’s interview was the last piece, right? Can you talk about the interview process for her?
A couple of things were at play there. Donna Karan was not notorious for giving interviews. And when we first started the M2M channel, we didn’t have too much to say for it. She was out of town, out of the country. And, finally, it became like, “Are we gonna be able to get her? Because it really will make this piece,” especially knowing that Anne Klein was sick at the time. And then at the last minute, like yesterday last minute, somebody from Art + Commerce who knows a producer in Paris went and interviewed her. They spit the footage back into the edit room and they re-cut with her in it and this was all last night. I think the part about Anne Klein being sick, and having Donna’s information on that, all of those add up to a reasonable story that still feels relevant and new.

Definitely. I feel like Donna Karan brings this history from the ‘70s into the modern day. You see her as a young assistant in the film and now she’s become one of the most preeminent designers in American fashion. Are there other ways that you see the film resonating in terms of modern fashion?
Yes, for sure. I think without that time, without that event, there might not have been the rise of designers like Marc Jacobs. His whole world to me is a combination of the elevated sense of sportswear and the American fashion we perceive breaking out of that time. Having that street influence from Stephen Burrows mixed with Halston …. Marc Jacobs was probably the first American designer, along with Tom Ford, that balanced it all out. I thought when I was watching this, especially in his early days, that this had Marc Jacobs written all over it.

I would like to say that it also did more for diversity than people want to say. For what that was: having 11 African-American women representing the modeling industry — forget America — among all of these snooty snobs, and right after the civil rights movement. Today, I wanna believe that we are putting our foot forward, but there could be more. Why not raise the conversation again and bring up an event so steeped in fashion?

Did you have any aha takeaways from the film?
I have a crush on [narrator] Stanley Tucci. I didn’t meet him, he was in London. But he was perfect. He was everyone’s first choice.

Relive the Magical Fashion Battle of Versailles