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Excerpt: 'The Battle of Versailles'

"The Battle of Versailles," by Robin Givhan (Flatiron, March 2015). Credit: Flatiron

At the close of the twentieth century, there was perhaps no brand that better represented the swaggering confidence of American fashion than that of Bill Blass. In his golden decade of the 1980s and into the early '90s, Blass was a household name synonymous with American style as personified by society dames and tomboyish beauties. He was a smooth gentleman walker, chum to First Lady Nancy Reagan. And he had grown his company to a $500-million-a-year business fueled by licenses for everything from luggage to the Lincoln Continental Mark series of fancy sedans. But it wasn't always that way. Like most designers of his generation, for much of his career, Blass was nothing more than a workaday guy trying to get a little respect in an industry dominated by the French. He stood in the wings of the industry, waiting for his chance at center stage. When it came, in the late autumn of 1973, he and four of his fellow American designers grabbed it and forever altered the course of fashion history.

Blass was a handsome midwestern fellow who came of age at a time when Indiana wasn't just flyover country; it was nowhere. Fresh from the army, he arrived in New York in the late 1940s wanting to work in fashion and live a glamorous life. With a hint of a fake British accent picked up from the Hollywood films of the day, he found his first job as a sketch artist -- a kind of entry-level position once occupied by some of the now-great names in the business. But he quickly discovered that fashion, as it was practiced in New York's Garment District back then, was nothing more than a daily grind of kowtowing to the demands of grim factory bosses, rather than the boldly creative career he had envisioned. When he won his first big promotion, he went from sketching to designing, but designing meant merely producing cheap copies of Balenciaga and Christian Dior dresses for American manufacturers like Anna Miller and Co. and later Maurice Rentner.

Invention didn't happen in America; it happened in France.

From the days of the French monarchy through World War II, French designers dictated fashion with a confident strut born of fiercely protected tradition, national character, and mythology. A shift in hemlines in the Paris ateliers reverberated throughout the retail world like an encyclical from the Vatican. What ever Paris said, the wealthiest and most beautiful -- and thereby the most influential -- women all over the world took heed. Other ladies across social and economic classes then fell in line.

But by the 1960s, society had evolved and world politics had disrupted the fashion system. A handful of prescient retailers in New York and Chicago recognized an opportunity and opened their doors to a new kind of fashion: American. Homegrown designers began slowly crawling from the backrooms of manufacturers and into the light. For the first time, American designers were beginning to find their voices. And what they had to say was being published by the newly prominent trade tabloid Women's Wear Daily. The American fashion industry had sprung to life.

In 1960, Blass's name was added to the label at Maurice Rentner; he was now being publicly credited for his work. He continued to claw his way forward. He excelled at the art of socializing. Sexually ambiguous, he made himself indispensable to a group of wealthy women in constant need of going-out companions who posed no threat to their distracted husbands. By 1970, Blass had established himself as a man-about-town with important connections and an eye for jaunty style. He bought out his employer, and Maurice Rentner was renamed Bill Blass Ltd. He was crawling toward the light.

But being seen as a competent businessman and being respected as a titan of imagination, sophistication, and influence are two separate things. It wasn't until a snowy evening in 1973 that public perception of Blass shifted. On November 28, about an hour outside Paris at the historic Palace of Versailles, Blass, fifty-one, made a play for dignity. By the end of the evening, Blass and four other American designers went from being considered merely savvy industrialists to being thought of as innovative, creative, and significant. And their influence reverberates today.

Working alongside Blass that night was his old friend Oscar de la Renta, forty-one, who had built his career the same way Blass had -- catering to America's social elite, all the while nibbling at the edges of French dominance. With them stood Halston, forty-one, a tall, slender, handsome gay man who had created a famous public persona for himself and catered to celebrity clients. His eyes shielded by sunglasses, his grooming impeccable, his ego outlandishly plus-size, Halston's identity boiled down to a single moniker. Before his Versailles debut, the French had known of his fame, but he had not yet won their respect. The woman among these gentlemen designers, Anne Klein, had made a name for herself by catering to the burgeoning population of professional women; her designs had an artistic edge and a dollop of plain old fun, and the strategy had paid off handsomely. By the time her work was shown on the Versailles stage, the fifty-year-old Klein was a financially successful businesswoman who had kick-started the industry habit of vanity sizing -- that naughty practice of cutting a dress with the generous girth of a size 14, but labeling it a 10. Like all the Americans, Klein made sportswear, which the French considered practical, commercial, and banal. Her mix-and-match, industrially produced separates were the lowest of the low in fashion's hierarchy, which was topped by French haute couture. But her sportswear was also disrespected by her own colleagues as it was wholly utilitarian, in service to women, rather than in celebration of the designer. Fifth in this group of aspiring American designers was Stephen Burrows. At thirty, Burrows was a young African American whiz kid at home in the seventies party atmosphere. News of his daring use of color and rhapsodic baring of the body had made its way to Paris, and the French were curious. Burrows was both naive and self-absorbed; he was on the hunt for an adventure.

Each of these designers came to Versailles with a story to tell. Blass and de la Renta had specters of insecurity to silence. Halston was looking to prove that his star power was not parochial but international. Klein wanted to add critical success to her commercial triumphs. And Burrows wanted to dress the world.

They were a group of friends, rivals, and total strangers who had been brought together to represent the American fashion industry. They were competing egos. They were disorganized. For four months leading up to this Wednesday night, there had been tears, screaming matches, backbiting, and demands to just "shut up." They'd come with three dozen professional runway models to present their ready-to-wear to an international audience. Ten of those models were black -- an unusually high proportion that reflected 1970s politics, fashion economics, and social tensions.

The American designers were ostensibly guests of five of their French counterparts, the kings and princes of the industry: Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. Unlike the Americans, these Frenchmen were rooted in the painstaking craftsmanship of haute couture, a tradition that had dominated French fashion since the nineteenth century. Where the Americans came to Versailles trying to prove something, to show the world their scrappy, boundary- breaking creativity, the French arrived confidently prepared to impress by stature and extravagance.

The French were the star attractions; the Americans were the chorus girls. But in this case, it was the chorus girls, their stomachs knotted with fear as they prepared to take the stage, who stole the show.


From "The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled Into the Spotlight and Made History," by Robin Givhan. Copyright © 2015 by Robin Givhan. Published by Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.


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