When Americans Won the Famous Fashion Face-Off

Some 13 years ago, after my daughter Elizabeth had convincingly persuaded me to support her launch of Q, a style magazine with pedigreed roots, I quickly realized that I knew little or nothing  about the fashion industry. At the House of Luce, once nobly known as TIME Inc. I had run titles that covered news, sports, finance, entertainment and people. But none of them approached the fastidious—and tricky—realm of the rag trade. (Luce’s wife, Claire, told me later in life that: “Harry basically thought fashion was frivolous … until he met me.”) So I sought out the sage advice of professionals and pals throughout the fashion world who might “school me,”or at least keep me from making any stupid or costly blunders. One of the most helpful and kind souls was Tom Fallon, a well-placed fashion executive most respected for his tact and discretion—traits not always found back then on Seventh Avenue. During the mid-1960s and swinging Seventies, Fallon had worked for both Halston and Bill Blass. The working press often referred to Fallon as the “consigliere,” and I was immediately taken with his broad knowledge of, and keen sensitivity to, the industry’s more subtle nuances. Rube that I was, I queried Tom as to exactly when it happened that authentic American style had finally made the full break from its more refined European influences. He gave me a quick, but precise tutorial on the post-WWII growth of American casual attire, most clearly evidenced in our natural embrace of sportswear.  Tom reflected for a bit and then modestly told me that he had played a very small part in what he believed was the seminal event that put American designers onto an equal footing with their international counterparts, most especially the French.

Hélène de Rothschild and Princess Grace at Versailles to witness fashion’s facedown.

It happened on November 28th in 1973 during the first official Paris Fashion Week, when its now fabled opening night became known as The Battle of Versailles Fashion Show, pitting five of France’s most celebrated designers (Givenchy, Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior and Saint Laurent) against a relatively unknown band of young Americans (Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows). What began as not much more than a publicity stunt engineered by Eleanor Lambert to promote her clients, has mythically become—now 47 years later—the Woodstock of fashion shows. Tom Fallon, who was there helping to direct the American effort as Bill Blass’ assistant, calls it: “The accident that happened.” In the late Bill Cunningham’s book he squeakily hails it: “the most creative fashion show of the 20th Century.” It was fresh and it was fluid, and when Liza Minelli belted out the opening number there were ten black models sashaying behind her with an energy and style that the stiffer, more formal French models just couldn’t match. At the end of the Americans’ performance, the sophisticated and mostly French audience threw their programs on the stage in tribute to the designers and the models. Back stage, the legendary Josephine Baker, who at 77 years old had modeled that evening for Christian Dior, threw her arms around 17 year old Black American model Billie Blair and cried for her success. And Hubert de Givenchy shook Bill Blass’ hand and said in perfect English: “Tonight you have shown us a new younger way.” An American way, indeed!

Liza Minnelli takes the stage
Legendary singer Josephine Baker performs live for the finale of the French portion of 1973’s Battle of Versailles.
David Mahoney, Elsa Peretti, Halston, and Marisa Berenson celebrating at the Battle of Versailles
1973’s Fashion Battle of Versailles marked the emergence of American designers Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein (who brought along her assistant, Donna Karan), onto the world stage.
The audience at the Théâtre Gabriel de Versailles, during the Battle of Versailles in 1973. 

Images courtesy of Still from Versailles ’73: American Revolution; Jean-Luce Huré for The New York Times; Reginald Gray; Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock; Made to Measure; Flatiron Books; Gannett/The Indianapolis Star; Daniel Simon; Charles Trac