Filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper

Originally aired on February 11, 2013

The veteran ad exec-turned-filmmaker explains the story behind her award-winning documentary, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution.

Deborah Riley Draper may not be a household name—yet—but she's making her mark in the film industry with her first feature-length project, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution. The Georgia native wrote, produced and directed the award-winning fashion documentary, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and tells the story of a color barrier-breaking collective of Black models who helped change the course of fashion. A veteran ad agency account leader who managed multimillion-dollar campaigns, Draper has also launched Coffee Bluff Pictures to meet the demand for films that shed light on underrepresented audiences.


Tavis: Deborah Riley Draper is an award-winning advertising exec whose first turn as a filmmaker has produced the now-acclaimed documentary; it’s called “Versailles ’73.” The project tells the story of a pivotal moment in the world of fashion as French and American designers faced off in a high-stakes competition 40 years ago this year.

The film, being released this week through Video on Demand. Here now, some scenes from “Versailles ’73.”


Tavis: So first of all, good to have you on the program.

Deborah Riley Draper: Thank you.

Tavis: Second of all, congratulations. This is a story that I’ve heard about a number of times over the years, and again, congrats to you for finally getting this story out.

As we all know, for those of us who follow this kind of stuff, fashion week is under way as we speak in New York, so I suspect that it’s no coincidence that this documentary is being released right about now.

But I’m glad you got it done. I’m glad we can talk about it tonight, so let me just jump right in. For those who’ve never heard about “Versailles ’73,” topline for me what happened.

Draper: November 28th, 1973, five American designers and five French designers were actually called together to create a fundraiser to help restore the Chateau de Versailles, which was falling apart.

But the fundraiser actually turned into a big of a fashion smackdown, because all of the egos got on stage. The French designers had $30,000 each for budgets; the American designers didn’t have as much money. It actually turned into the birth of American runway.

What really happened was they had African American models who really changed the game. They used music, they used dance, they used effervescence and really created something the French hadn’t seen before, and that was the birthplace of American ready-to-wear fashion, on that day.

Tavis: Wow. So tell me, first of all, about what they were trying to restore, and why they thought fashion was the answer to that particular prayer to get this project restored?

Draper: Well, the chateau needed about $60 million. Leaky roofs, termites, the thing was a mess. A publicist by the name of Eleanor Lambert, who was an American, reached out to the curator in France and said, “I have an idea. Why don’t we do a fundraiser and let’s do fashion.”

She actually represented all of the Americans who were on the stage in Paris, so she took –

Tavis: No agenda here, just a good idea.

Draper: Nope, just a great idea. (Laughter) Just like, “I happen to have five clients who can actually put on a runway fashion show on the stage in Paris.”

Tavis: Right.

Draper: So she did that, and it actually was very smart, and it was an agenda, because part of her job was to promote American fashion. She was actually hired by the Department of Commerce during the course of her years as a publicist to do just that.

So she used that opportunity to showcase five American designers, one of whom was Stephen Burrows, and he was the only African American designer of the five selected – of the 10 in total.

Tavis: So how did what started out as a philanthropic gesture become – I love your phrase – a “fashion smackdown?” What was the genesis of the competition, as it were?

Draper: Well, the fundraiser started very easily – buy a ticket, come to the palace, see a show. Then the French got wind of the fact that Halston was involved, Oscar de la Renta was involved, this young upstart named Stephen Burrows.

They were like, “My gosh, we certainly aren’t going to be upstaged on our own territory by these five young, spunky upstarts.” So they started pouring things into their show.

They added Josephine Baker, they added Rudolph Nureyev, they added song, they added dance. So they had a program that was two and a half hours long, and the Americans, actually, their program ended up being 35 minutes long but was clean.

It was precise, it was modern. It had new textiles, it had new designs. It had the wrap dress that Stephen Burrows did. They actually played something that had never been heard before in the chateau – they played Al Green and Barry White. (Laughter)

That was the music that they actually put on the runway, so of course that moved the models tremendously, and the African American models just kind of led the procession in a way these people had never seen.

They were so taken they threw their programs up in the air and yelled “Bravo,” and that was the night America was crowned as a fashion leader in ready-to-wear.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me go back now to these African American models we’ve referenced a couple of times, because for me, part of the beauty of the story is that they got a chance to be exposed in this way and appreciated at the level that they were appreciated.

Where do these Black folk come from? I know the Burrows connection, but I’m just trying to figure out how they found their way onto the stage and in the creation of this moment that led to this accolade.

Draper: The American budget wasn’t very high. They had a lot of –

Tavis: That answers the question. Thank you very much. (Laughter) We ain’t got no money. Bring in the Negros.

Draper: They had a lot of auditions, and as they began to audition the best people for the job, the people who fit the clothes the best and the people who they could actually afford to take to Paris, it happened that of the 36 models, 12 of them were African American, and that’s how they were able to get there.

So they did the fundamental go-sees and the auditions and everything, but it ended up happening because of budget, because of timing, because of a lot of people who were not available, that these 12 women got on the plane with the American designers and represented our country.

Tavis: How did the best of our soul music – because you got gorgeous Black women doing their thing, and you got some soul music behind them. Anything is liable to be set off. (Laughter) So I can see why the French got so turned out by this fashion show from the American side, but how did the best of our music at that time get on stage?

Draper: Stephen Burrows.

Stephen Burrows and Halston actually, they had a lot of the Studio 54 connection going on, so they actually recommended this music. They had a different plan initially, and a lot of comedy of errors took place, so they kind of were left with the actual music that they brought in their suitcases, and that’s how that music found its way on the stage.

Tavis: It’s amazing how these things happen that aren’t even planned. They just –

Draper: It just happened that way, and it was one thing after another. They didn’t have any electricity for their rehearsals, they didn’t have toilet paper in the bathrooms, they didn’t have food. There were all kinds of problems.

They felt like the French were sabotaging them, so that night, when it was time to go on stage, Bethann Hardison says they took everything that was in them and they put it out there on the stage, and they were able to do it in a way that was beautiful and defiant all in the same breath.

Tavis: When providence meets preparation, something is going to happen.

Draper: Absolutely, and that’s what happened. These women are credited with changing the runway. They’re credited with revolutionizing it. But the story kind of was buried for 40 years, and when I discovered it I was inspired, because these women, as well as all of the models and all of the designers, really changed the business.

They changed politics, they changed economics, and they made a statement about race.

Tavis: Right. Where had these models come from and what were they doing back here in the States that made them the expert fashion models that they were?

Draper: Well, Norma Jean Darden, who’s an entrepreneur and restaurateur, at that moment she had just graduated top of her class from Sarah Lawrence, and she had a theater degree.

She went to a go-see, because she wanted to do a little theater, a little modeling. They all came from song, dance. Norma Jean was at University of Massachusetts, so they had various backgrounds, various perspectives.

They were smart, talented, beautiful; a lot of them spoke French, Italian, and German already. So they were very powerful in their presence and very powerful as they hit the stage and in their interviews.

Tavis: Tell me more about Mr. Burrows.

Draper: Ah, Stephen.

Tavis: Yeah.

Draper: One of the early African Americans at FIT. He created the lettuce stitch, he created the wrap dress, which popular culture actually attributes to other designers, but it was Stephen who brought that to bear, and he brought it that night in 1973.

Tavis: Now I’m no fashion person, but isn’t that what Diane von Furstenberg dug all the time, that kind of wrap thing?

Draper: Absolutely. Stephen’s grandmother, Southern grandmother, taught him the stitch and that wrap, and he brought that with him to FIT, actually, and that was his initial claim to fame. Then it became mass-produced by everyone else.

Tavis: How was he regarded after the show?

Draper: Well, Yves St. Laurent regarded him as the best African American designer. They say that in the film. That is what the man himself said. Because Stephen was different. He was innovative, he used different fabrics, different techniques, different stitching, so he really stood out.

Plus he was incredibly young and he was Black, so they had actually never seen that come from an African American, from a design standpoint, to have such leadership and such creativity, and he became very famous. He’s the first African American man to receive international acclaim in the design business.

Tavis: So you said that when the show goes down, the French were hating on the Americans, they end up putting on a two and a half hour show. The American show is 35 minutes, but it’s clean and everybody gets it and they love it and they throw their programs up in the air in celebration. How was this story covered, or not, in the French media? Because obviously, this is a huge deal.

Draper: Right.

Tavis: But how did the French cover this in the media?

Draper: The French covered it. They were very honest. They actually said the Americans came to Paris and stole the show.

Tavis: Symptoms.

Draper: In American media, you didn’t see the story very much. When you saw the story you actually saw who the guests were inside the palace, so you saw pictures of Andy Warhol, you saw pictures of Princess Grace and the ambassadors and the presidents.

But in the French media they actually talked about the beautiful Black models who turned like dancers and stomped like soldiers across the stage. So they actually reference them. In fact, Givenchy, for years after this show, adopted an all-Black (unintelligible).

So when you would go to his house, you’d see all Black models, for 10 straight years. That’s how the show impacted him.

Tavis: Why this story – and I’m not naïve in the asking of this question, particularly given the answer you’ve just offered now – but how could a story like this in the fashion world, which puts everything in our face. By definition that’s what they do – they put stuff in our face and convince us of X, Y, and Z and why we should have A, B, and C. How did this story stay buried for so long?

Draper: I’m not sure, but the minute I discovered this story I wanted to tell it, because I thought it was very important.

Tavis: Right.

Draper: Because the impact that these women and these designers have on what you wear today, what I wear, what we see in stores, is incredible. They left an indelible print, not just on American fashion but global fashion as well.

I think this story rises to the top in certain parts, but it never comes entirely full circle, with the models playing the big role that they played in it.

Tavis: What does this – and I don’t want to make you overtly political, but let me just put you on the spot anyway, since you did the film. What does this story, “Versailles ’73,” say to us, how does it indict us? You tell me what the message here is for the fashion industry today.

I started this conversation by noting that fashion week is going on in New York even as we speak. Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I watch and read a little bit of everything and I still don’t see the number of African American models on the cover of magazines.

I still don’t see them to the extent they ought to be in advertising campaigns. But you know the story better than I do. What’s the unfinished business? It’s a long way of asking a simple question. What’s the unfinished business in this industry, given what we now know from “Versailles ’73” 40 years ago?

Draper: I think the unfinished business, I think the business that these women and designers started is to show people that all races can be beautiful. All people wear clothes. So when you’re selling your wares, you need to actually use the people who can make your clothes look the best, regardless of color.

That there shouldn’t be a specific footprint for what a model should look like, that you can achieve success by using a variety of people, having a diverse perspective, and having a diverse POV in the models, the designers, the clothes, the textiles, the music, the whole show.

Tavis: Yeah. So even if I want to be as open-minded as I can be and properly situate this story in the time that it takes place, ’73, this is 2013. So this is now the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever.

Draper: Right.

Tavis: As I said, this is still, this documentary now, still an indictment of some sorts on the industry today. How do you think this is going to be received, this documentary, by the industry?

Draper: I think the industry will love it. They have loved it, they’ve watched it. I think it awakens something inside of everyone when they watch it, because what we really realize is as Americans, there’s not a triumph or a success in this country that hasn’t happened because of African Americans.

Whatever the turning point, the paradigm shift, the flashpoint, we were a part of that, and I think this story will help remind people that we can’t continue to tell stories that don’t include African Americans, because whatever the story is, we’re a part of it.

Hopefully, the fashion industry will realize that as they’re casting, as they are putting together shows, and be reminded of the great success that happened 40 years ago, and not forget about it and not say, “We’re multicultural, so we don’t need to think about it.”

Because sometimes when people say “multicultural,” they figure that’s good enough.

Tavis: Yeah. Her name is Deborah Riley Draper. The project is called “Versailles ’73.” It is a seminal moment in fashion history 40 years ago. I think you’ll want to check this out. It’s Video on Demand. Deborah, good to have you on, and congratulations for bringing this story to the fore.

Draper: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Tavis: Glad to have you here. That’s our show for tonight. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.


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Last modified: March 4, 2013 at 1:56 pm