In The Spotlight: Versailles ’73

Here at CCBFF, we’re passionate about films and the inspirational minds behind them.  As declared in our mission statement, one of our many goals is to support and exhibit visual creations which portray the African American experience and the history of African lineage around the world . With this vision in mind – and the support of some wonderful sponsors – we have brought this festival to fruition, and we are excited to share our filmmakers’ stories with you!

In our first spotlight, we’re diving into the story behind the critically acclaimed Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution and its brilliant director Deborah Riley Draper.



So, Where To Begin?


” They came to restore the Chateau de Versailles but changed the course of fashion history.”

For starters, let’s take a look at a few of the awards Deborah has won for her work:

CNN Best Documentary at 2012 Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival

2012 Black Hollywood Film Festival Official Selection and Best Documentary

2012 BronzeLen Film Festival Official Selection 

2013 Winter Film Awards Independent Film Festival, Best Documentary

Not bad, not bad.

Especially for a first-time director. Ms. Draper’s success is no doubt rooted in her passion for the incredible stories that she worked so hard for to find.

“When people ask why did I make Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, I say how could I not tell the story of the most glamorous fashion show ever staged,” Deborah says. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrated the black models of Versailles in January 2011 with a luncheon. I saw the press coverage. My fascination with fashion, history, Paris, New York and the cafe society collided at that moment in a fabulous way.

“I had to find out how 5 American designers and a few dozen models, especially the African American models in the ‘70s, ended up in the Chateau de Versailles causing such a frenzy with their music, clothes and presentation that some of the richest people in the world started yelling, clapping, stomping and tossing their programs in the air.”

Draper knew that photos and footage were limited if not totally scarce, so she knew that her interviews would be more than just potential cuts for her film reel. Through her interviews with such industry luminaries as Stephen Burrows, Harold Koda, Alvin Chinn, and Pat Cleveland, Draper was led to other models, historians, and other sources for footage and photos. In her meeting with photographer Charles Tracy, she came across the first and only color stills from behind the scenes of the event all those years ago. Her

I had chills when I sat down to interview Gerald Van der Kemp’s [1] predecessor Beatrix Saule in the King’s quarters of the Palace,” Deborah recounts. “But, nothing compared to the feeling I experienced when I walked through the Hall of Mirrors and it looked and felt exactly as Pat Cleveland and Dennis Christopher described in their interviews. Then, I walked down the long hallway like Charlene Dash, passing Simone Levitt’s plaque for her million dollar donation to the Theatre Royal what Marisa Berenson described “as jewel of theatre in pale blue and gold” and I could actually hear and see everything from the fight between the designers and the models in the corner hungry, tired and thirsty to the roaring applause the Americans received.”


Deborah Riley Draper Director, Writer, and Producer

Her trip to the legendary not only uncovered “never-before-seen documents that stitched together the story from the French side,” but also some “long-forgotten footage and photos from the chilly night in November 1973,” precious documentation of the proceedings that rounded out her vision for the documentary. With unique accounts, footage, and stories in hand, Deborah and her small team pieced together the narrative of that thrilling night in Paris and have presented it to the world as the inspirational story best described by fashion historian Barbara Summers:

“Revolutions are often ascribed, a defining moment. A time and place where people can actually see change happening. For black models, the defining moment of change took place at Versailles, on a day to remember— November 28, 1973.”

Congratulations on all of your success, Deborah! Your work leaves us in awe of a revolution that happened behind closed doors.

A big thanks to Deborah for sharing her notes from behind-the-scenes!

[1] – Gerald Van der Kemp was “the French art expert who masterminded the restoration of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles and saved the ”Mona Lisa” from destruction by the Nazis.” He died on December 28, 2001 in Paris at 89 years of age. For more, read:

[2] To learn more about Barbara Summers and her work, visit her Amazon Author page here: