To some, the fashion runway might seem an unlikely setting for revolution.
But in the fall of 1973, an important transformation took place on the catwalks of Versailles that changed the world forever.
Genius publicist Eleanor Lambert had conceived a charity challenge between up-and-coming American fashion designers and the reigning royalty of French haute couture, staged in Louis XVI's sumptuous garden palace. New Yorkers Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta were up against the likes of iconic fashion houses Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior on the European designers' home turf.
It was not expected to go well. The set was bare, the models were rebelling and the infighting began almost immediately.
"The situation, we thought, was kind of hopeless," Burrows reminisced in Women's Wear Daily recently. "But it turned out to be such a knockout."
Sending out Liza Minnelli to open the show with a song, the American designers and their models unexpectedly blew the minds all those present. The evening was indeed a coup de grace for American design, effectively decentralizing the Paris fashion scene and putting New York solidly on the map.
It was also a turning point for African-American models, who up until Versailles had been scarce on the European runways. The next year, the first black supermodel, Beverly Johnson, graced the cover of Vogue.
This paradigm shift of couture and culture is the subject of a new documentary, Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution, showing at 2 p.m. Monday, April 15 at the SCAD Museum of Art.
The screening kicks off the first day of SCAD Style, a dizzying week of workshops, screening and lectures with eminent dignitaries from the fashion, interior design and furniture design domains. Taking place Monday, April 15 through Friday, April 19, all events are free and open to the public. The full schedule is available at scadstyle.com.
After the screening of Versailles '73, director Deborah Riley Draper will lead a panel with Burrows — now a fashion icon himself — and former model Pat Cleveland, who remembers that fateful night. They will be joined by Decades stylist and Bravo TV star Cameron Silver, who has likely seen some of those original designs from Versailles pass through his vintage Los Angeles shop.
SCAD Style celebrates fashion and design while nailing down its practical applications, and the week's offerings are meant to be as educational as they are entertaining. It also showcases SCAD's ability to attract star power, notably the conversation with New York Fashion Week founder Fern Mallis and indefatigable cartwheeling designer Betsey Johnson on Wednesday, April 17 (see our interview with Betsey on page 29.)
Other industry giants include German industrial designer Luigi Colani, whose influences can be seen in cars to household appliances to his famous elephant piggy bank, and Domenico De Sole, the CEO who slingshot Tom Ford into the international business spotlight and brought Gucci back from the brink of bankruptcy. Filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland will also be in town to show and discuss Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, her homage to her mother and iconic Vogue editor.
It's a VIP list that might belong at Bryant Park or a swanky Manhattan party, yet once again SCAD has managed to bring the guest list down south.
"It's actually not that difficult to get these people to agree to come to Savannah because everyone is interested in what SCAD is doing," says Carmella Spinelli, SCAD chair of fashion.
"Scheduling, however, is not that easy," she adds with a laugh. "These are very busy people."
Spinelli will host a conversation on Monday morning with Richard Lambertson, the director of design for Tiffany and Co. whose chic eye has expanded the jewelry company's reach to the realm of leather accessories.
In addition to the world of couture, SCAD Style spotlights the stars of other design industries as well. Architectural design fans will recognize the work of Asif Khan, the brain behind the Coca Cola Beatbox in London's Olympic Park, and the looming modern urban buildings of L.A.-based Neil Denari.
In the realm of interiors, design writer Zahid Sahar will plumb the mind of contemporary furniture designer Dakota Jackson, and American Style author Nathan Turner will discuss the classic elements of American elegance.
Fashion media is also brought to the table with appearances by Gina Sanders, the CEO of Fairchild Fashion Media, and representatives from Garden & Gun magazine. Visual Life author Charlotte Moss will sign copies of her book on Wednesday afternoon. The glorious sketches of Antonio Lopez, currently on display at the SCAD Museum of Art, are the subject of a gallery talk at the museum on Thursday evening.
The week is a design festival that synergizes the relevant forces at work in contemporary culture. The themes of a rapidly changing society and the embrace of technology while maintaining purity and grace (what Spinelli calls the "artisanal element") are the new challenges, radiating throughout the disciplines. With influences coming from every corner of the globe, it appears the new generation of designers has more to work with than ever.
Could we be on the edge of another explosion of cultural influences like the one occurred in fashion after the Versailles show in 1973?
Spinelli believes so.
"I think there is a shift happening now," she says. "Design is not happen in a vacuum, and all these elements affect each other.
"An important designer grasps the zeitgeist to make an important statement."