Bethann Hardison, Alva Chin, Pat Cleveland, and Karen Bjornson were just a few of the top models who walked the runway as part of the Stephen Burrows segment at The Battle of Versailles in Paris. Fashion history was made that night and Robin Givhan’s recently released book The Battle of Versailles has shined the spotlight back on that legendary event, which took place in the fall of 1973. Burrows the youngest, and only African American showcasing his collection, is a key character in the story. By all accounts, his presentation – a burst of color, movement and music — energized the room and set the stage for the American designers to rule the undeclared competition. It’s no coincidence that Givhan devoted a chapter to Burrows who she describes as “in modern terms, Alexander Wang, Hedi Slimane and Nicolas Ghesquière all rolled into one.” There is so much to talk about when you talk to Stephen Burrows: his creation of the lettuce edge, his CFDA Award, his SCAD exhibit “An American Master if Inventive Design,” his signature sunglasses, the list is endless. In this interview, we chose to focus on that fabulous night in Paris, his vivid memories and vibrant voice.
Recently, we’ve heard a lot about The Battle of Versailles fashion show and you were there! Do tell.
It was my first trip to Europe. I am surprised by the attention the event is getting from the fashion media now. When it did happen, in 1973, it was not championed by the international fashion press as a fashion event, but as a society event because of all the socialites attending. It was actually a charity event for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.
Have you read Robin Givhan’s book The Battle of Versailles?
I have not read it thru as yet, as I hate to read, but I loved the Charles Tracy and Bill Cunningham images. I have only read my chapter so far which I enjoyed very much! Thank God for fashion photographers Charles Tracy and Bill Cunningham capturing that epic fashion moment, the brainchild of American visionary, Eleanor Lambert. Ms. Lambert was determined to put American fashion on the world fashion map along with London, Milan and Paris, and she did!
How did the American designers feel about going to Paris at that time?
We, American designers, were all thrilled to be at The Battle of Versailles representing American fashion.
Were the designers nervous or excited or both about the show?
We were both excited and nervous about our show. Nervous because the set decoration that was planned did not work out in the end, so we had too scrap it and go with a bare stage. Excited and hopeful that what we presented would live up to the occasion, which, as it turned out, was fabulous!
What was your theme for the fashion show?
My theme was a train that gets longer and longer till it reached back to the end of the stage on my main muse, Pat Cleveland’s finale catwalk. The music mixed by my house DJ, Don Findley, Who is He and What is He To You by Creative Source played throughout my segment. Charles Tracy, who was also my house photographer, and I designed the staging.
How did you select the models?
The models I selected for my segment were my top 10 girls that I loved at that moment. They all made the ‘model pool’ for the event. Each model had to be accepted by three of the event designers to be accepted to the ‘model pool’. As it happened all the models on my list were accepted into the pool. I was thrilled! I got all my girls in — VOOZETTE!
Were you surprised by the audience’s response?
So surprised by the audience response to the American’s presentation. They were yelling, stomping on the floor and throwing their programs into the air. They really were freaked out! It is to put it mildly to say that we Americans were so proud of ourselves that night.
The dinner following the show sounds so glamorous. Please tell us about it.
The after-show dinner was in sweepingly large rooms (somewhere in the Palace of Versailles). I do not remember exactly where but it was said to be in the bedrooms of the King and Queen. The dinner with guests included all the Euro-society set that was there and international celebrities, from Princess Grace of Monaco, the Duchess of Windsor and Helene de Rothschild, to Liza Minnelli and Andy Warhol. I also met Gloria Guinness and Countess Jacqueline de Ribes (two icons of mine). I do not remember the exact menu, but the dinner was fabulous and lasted ‘til the wee-hours of the next morning.
You have stayed friends with many of the models at the show including your longtime muse Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison. How would you describe your special bond?
Pat has been my muse since the day I met her, in 1970, at Henri Bendel and we are close to this day and beyond. She is a constant positive person always seeing the glass full. The same is with Bethann who I meet through designer Willie Smith in 1972 and who then became my house model on Seventh Avenue in 1973. We remain inspired by each other to this day.
Best Battle of Versailles memory?
My favorite moments of the event were meeting Josephine Baker and Yves St. Laurent (and he told me “you make beautiful clothes”). I will never forget that moment in my entire life.