Pat Cleveland, dressed in a feathery Ralph Lauren confection, leans against a white wall and poses, one hand aloft, the other on her hip, her head tilted. Then she slides into another pose, balancing one stilettoed foot on a gilded chair, turning slightly sideways for maximum elongation, and lowering her lashes dramatically. Finally, she faces the wall, throws a look over her left shoulder and juts her hips to the right, the sequins on her dress sparkling like a couture disco ball.
Model Jaunel McKenzie, 26, looks on with admiration. "You just have to learn from women like Pat, because their experience is what brought us here. They built the business for black models, and it was so much harder for them back then."
In addition to Cleveland, the "they" McKenzie is referring to includes Bethann Hardison and Alva Chinn, who are gathered in a tony townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, along with fellow models Shelby Coleman, 20, and Kinee Diouf, 25. They are here to commemorate a legendary runway show in which the three veterans all walked—and changed the fashion world forever.
American publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gérald Van der Kemp hatched the idea for the Battle of Versailles to raise money to restore the famed palace. The event was a face-off between old-world French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy) and American relative newcomers (Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein, who brought along her then-assistant, Donna Karan). The grand event, staged November 28 in the Royal Opera of Versailles, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette held their wedding festivities, would soon take on a life of its own: Liza Minnelli was scheduled to perform on behalf of the Americans while ex-pat Josephine Baker—accompanied by burlesque dancers—would represent the French. More than 700 guests would make their way to the event, including Andy Warhol and Princess Grace.
This being fashion, there was considerable drama: The Parisian couturiers—who presented a two-hour show with elaborate sets that included a spaceship, a pumpkin-inspired coach, and a wooden Cadillac—regarded their competition as mere sportswear designers. The set designer for the United States calculated measurements in inches instead of centimeters, so the sets didn't fit into the planned space and had to be scrapped at the last minute. "In the end," Chinn says, "the parts of the show that didn't work out fueled the parts that did."
Each American designer was to submit eight women for consideration in the show—and Burrows's final picks were all black models (in the end, an unprecedented ten out of the 36 American models were black). The designer downplays his role in history: "I just picked the girls that I liked," Burrows recalls. "The girls I worked with in New York. We had no idea it would turn out the way it did."
To the beat of a thumping R&B soundtrack that included Al Green's "Love and Happiness," an array of black and white catwalkers—which included Cleveland, Hardison, Chinn, and seven other black models (Billie Blair, Jennifer Brice, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, Amina Warsuma, and the late Ramona Saunders)—sashayed down the runway with a vibrance and attitude that blew the audience away. "We could move," recalls Cleveland.
Next: How the show turned out
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 outspoken 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."