Why Versailles ’73 Was An American Runway Revolution

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A still from the film “Versailles ‘73: American Runway Revolution”
A still from the film “Versailles ‘73: American Runway Revolution”

Photo Credit: Deborah Riley Draper

The fashion world is in awe of Beyoncé’s 100% control of the cover of Vogue’s September issue. She agreed to do the cover only if the magazine hired its first black photographer to shoot her—and so she joins a select group of visionaries who put the black fashion community on the map. Recently, a group of these pioneers from the seventies—designers Stephen Burrows and Kevan Hall and the first black supermodel Pat Cleveland—gathered at SFMOMA for a special event. It was an exclusive evening where the movie Versailles ’73 American Runway Revolution was featured and followed by a lively Q&A where the players discussed their triumphs at a fashion show in France that put American designers and black supermodels on the map.

PR guru and man-about-town Mark Rhodes had the crazy idea of inviting Burrows, Hall, and Cleveland, to SFMOMA for the showing of Versailles ‘73 American Runway Revolution. The feature-length documentary is about the most notorious fashion show in history—a battle between the French and Americans. This event shifted the paradigm of the industry and what fashion shows and models looked like. The Americans wore fun, sporty designs and the piece de resistance was the stunning black models who moved, danced, and sashayed down the stage energizing the esteemed audience with their soul.

Stephen Burrows, Pat Cleveland, and Kevan Hall at the event
Stephen Burrows, Pat Cleveland, and Kevan Hall at the event

Photo Credit: Pamela Gentile

The show took place on November 28, 1973, at the Chateau de Versailles. French haute couture establishment including Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emmanuel Ungaro competed against American designers Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston. The guests of the fashion show included royalty, millionaires, and icons like Andy Warhol, Princess Grace of Monaco, Christina Onassis, and Josephine Baker. While the French were still obsessed with haute couture, the Americans catapulted ready-to-wear to global stardom. 

After the screening of the movie, generously sponsored and hosted by Jarrod Baumann of Zeterre Landscape Architecture, the celebrities of the show—Cleveland, Burrows, and Hall—held a dynamic conversation.

Pat Cleavland in the film
Cleveland in the film

Photo Credit: Deborah Riley Draper

PAT CLEVELAND

While most women her age would be happy settling down, Cleveland is jet-setting her way through life with the zeal and joy of a teenager. She was one of the star models at Versailles, and it was her rhythmic moves on the stage that got the audience’s attention. Tall with dramatic features and wings created by Burrows, she looked like an angel gliding across the stage.

Looking at Cleveland now, it is hard to believe that this epic event happened over 45 years ago. When asked what keeps her active, young, and vivacious, she shared her philosophy on clean living. “I don’t drink anymore. Gosh, at fashion shows there was so much champagne the floors were covered—it was overflowing everywhere!” Now she is a vegan and only eats one meal a day. She meditates, watches positive-thought videos on YouTube, and only focuses on the good in people and happy thoughts. “It is how I keep above the line emotionally. There is so much misery in the world, and I only want to reflect on what is good. My purpose is to be a muse, to bring people happiness and joy. To get them out of their daily rut and focus on something wonderful and fleeting.”

Cleveland walks Son Jung Wan’s runway during New York Fashion Week in 2016
Cleveland walks Son Jung Wan’s runway during New York Fashion Week in 2016

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The advice she has for others is to nourish yourself. “I nourish myself as often as I can. I have different hobbies that bring me joy. I sew, I paint, and I love traveling. I care for my body.” Cleveland has started a line of vegan resort wear. After her trip to San Francisco, she was off to Tulum, Mexico for the Vegan Festival where she would showcase her clothing. “My designs are made of cotton, bamboo, and coconut. No animal products like silk or wool are used.”

As for her thoughts on Versailles ’73, she recognizes and appreciates that it was an event that shifted the ideology of black fashion. “When I was in the United States, I was told that my skin was too dark and I would fail as a model. So, I moved to Europe and modeled there for years. This event gave us black models credibility, and it was much easier for us to get work back in the United States . . . But I still loved Europe more!” She says with a cheeky grin.

Burrows at the event
Burrows at the event

Photo Credit: Pamela Gentile

STEPHEN BURROWS

Known for his sexy dresses, Burrows was the iconic black designer who accelerated the success of black fashion and culture in the 70s. Stars including Barbra Streisand, Cher, the Supremes, Bette Midler, Jerry Hall, Brooke Shields, and Farrah Fawcett donned Burrows’ creations with panache.

Burrows was raised by his mother and grandmother in New Jersey but would spend weekends with his father in New York. Most of those weekends in New York were spent with his paternal grandmother who was a sample hand for Hattie Carnegie. She would bring home used fabric samples and sew herself Sunday dresses. By age eight, Burrows was hooked on fashion. He was fascinated by her sewing machine’s zigzag stitch and used it in all his designs.

Stephen Burrows and a model at a boutique in 1973
Stephen Burrows and a model at a boutique in 1973

Photo Credit: Deborah Riley Draper

When it came to a career, his mother didn’t want him to end up being an unemployed artist. “My mother was not into me being an artist. So, I was going to be an art teacher at the Philadelphia College of Art. In my second year, I had to decide on my profession. But then I saw the mannequins and wanted to become a fashion designer. I transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York,” Burrows shares. “I dressed my grandmother on my mother’s side. She would wear whatever I made, and it was a lot of fun!”

Burrows no longer designs clothing under his label, instead, he makes opera costumes. Currently, he is working on Curlew River – A Parable for Church Performance, which is an English musical drama with music by Benjamin Britten. It will be performed in churches across the country in 2019.

Hall
Hall at the SFMOMA screening

Photo Credit: Pamela Gentile

KEVAN HALL

Hall was born in Detroit during the fabulous height of the 70s revolution. He was raised in a prosperous middle-class family at a time when blacks were getting recognized for their talent and success. “It was a phenomenal time to be in Detroit. I recall seeing the Motown acts and their success and how great they looked—what we come to know now as stylists that branded the Supremes and Diana Ross with sequins, gowns, and feathers. My mom was a style icon and loved fashion. Dad was a great provider and had a successful business and mom worked in a hospital as a supervisor,” Hall shares. His family lived in a community where the African culture was celebrated. On Sundays, his family would dress to the nines and showcase their wardrobe at church. “We would lay out what we’re going to wear on Saturday and make sure we were impeccably dressed. Those aisles in the church were my first runways in fashion!” Hall laughs.

Which inspiring females have worn his clothes? “I have dressed Michelle Obama a lot, and when I finally got to meet her, it was like we knew each other for a long time,” Hall says. Other favorites include Gayle King and Vanessa Williams.

Vanessa Williams in a Kevan Hall gown at the 2007 Emmy Awards
Vanessa Williams in a Kevan Hall gown at the 2007 Emmy Awards

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“Vanessa is not one of those girls who needs a tightly fitted gown; she understands simplicity and sophisticated sensibility. I have had a great time creating amazing moments on the red carpet for Vanessa. I was thrilled to hear that Vanessa was nominated for an Emmy [Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series] for Ugly Betty. I called to congratulate her and say, ‘I have the dress for you, but it will take some courage to wear.’ It was my pistachio green tulle gown embroidered with crystals and tiny ostrich feathers that ombré to larger feathers at the hem. When she stepped on the carpet, the press and photographers went wild! She was the first to wear feathers on the red carpet, and it is my all time favorite look on her!”

Regarding the film, Hall believes that it’s time to restart these conversations about inclusion and diversity. “Along the lines of opening a dialog with each other, women need to be comfortable in their skin, not try to imitate or mimic, be observant, consider who they truly are, and be comfortable and embrace whatever size and shape. Make an effort! Find something well made. Don’t just go for fast fashion. Find a piece that makes you look and feel beautiful. Wear it with confidence!”

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