The audience was equally impressed with the fresh, modern clothes, tossing their programs in the air at the end and erupting in applause. American style had its official coming-out party. And the black models, with their irrepressible energy and undeniable glamour, introduced a new standard of beauty to the runway.

Today both Chinn, a certified yoga and Pilates instructor, and Cleveland still model occasionally, and Cleveland's daughter Anna, 23, is following in her mother's stilettos on the runway. "Pat chaperones her daughter backstage and shows us how they walked back then," says McKenzie. As for Burrows, he just launched a collection with Raven Denim, featuring pieces inspired by Pat and Anna, among others. "They're still my muses!" he says.

Meanwhile Hardison became an outĀ­spoken advocate for minorities in the modeling industry, founding the agency Bethann Management, where she advised the likes of Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Tyson Beckford. In 1988 she formed the Black Girls Coalition, to celebrate black models on the runway and in print, and today is an editor at large at Italian Vogue, where, in 2008, she contributed to its famous all-black issue. Hardison has also mentored countless up-and-coming models of all ethnicities through the years. "You can't be in the fashion industry and not know Bethann," says Diouf, a native of Senegal who now lives in New York. "I don't have a family here, so she's like my family."

While none of the models of either generation doubt there is still inequality in the fashion industry, all of them agree that the Battle of Versailles was a watershed moment for black models. "We had to stand up for our culture and make a difference for those who followed us," says Cleveland. She turns to the younger models and makes a sweeping gesture with her bejeweled hand. "They are beautiful, and they know it," she says. "Before, we didn't know."

Read More: See Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Bethann Hardison model this season's most elegant looks with the models for whom they paved the way

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