The 1973 French-U.S. “Battle of Versailles” is credited with putting American fashion on the global map. And in Paris on Saturday night, American designer Tommy Hilfiger and multihyphenate Hollywood star Zendaya went for a repeat victory on the runway.
With a throwback soundtrack, dressed-up tailoring, groovy zodiac prints and disco dresses, Hilfiger and Zendaya (with an assist from Grace Jones, Beverly Johnson and Pat Cleveland) showed their spring 2019 collection in stores now, and brought their own message of inclusion to Paris, with top black models paying homage to the original fashion faceoff — and curvy models for today.
Gigi Hadid and Lewis Hamilton, who both previously collaborated with Hilfiger on see-now-buy-now collections, joined guests including Janelle Monáe, Yara Shahidi and Luka Sabbat at the show, held at the Art Deco-style Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on Avenue Montaigne.
The all-black, cross-generational cast included the likes of Veronica Webb, Halima Aden, Winnie Harlow, Marquita Pring and Dilone, while Jones brought the house down by vamping it up to her hit “Pull Up to the Bumper.”
How did we get here? A bit of history: the Battle of Versailles, as it was dubbed by WWD, pitted five French design houses (Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Christian Dior) against their American counterparts (Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein) in a pre-reality show showdown to raise money for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles. Until then, American sportswear was the poor country cousin to French couture, considered the pinnacle of fashion. But the Paris designers took the competition seriously, pulling out all the stops for their runway portion with elaborate sets and a full orchestra. Against all odds, the Americans won because they had a secret weapon: easy-to-wear, modern clothing and 11 black models as part of their cast, a rarity for the time, particularly in Paris, including Cleveland and Bethann Hardison, whose fun-loving attitudes and moves stole the show.
Fast forward to last year: When Hilfiger was looking for the next talent to follow his multi-season, multi-city collaboration with Hadid, he landed on Zendaya. But he never dreamed the Disney star-turned-“Spiderman” actress and her Hollywood stylist — and “America’s Next Top Model” judge — Law Roach would come to him with their own idea to recreate the famous Paris event that broke barriers in fashion and modeling.
Ahead of the show, WWD sat down with Hilfiger, his muse Zendaya and her stylist to talk about the event and the multiseason Tommy x Zendaya partnership. “The fall show 2019 show in October will be on another level,” Hilfiger promised. “We upped the luxury quotient even more.”
WWD: Why was the Battle of Versailles and the Seventies so inspiring to you?
Law Roach: There was this sophistication and glamour then that young girls don’t have anymore, and what Zendaya is trying to do is continue that legacy of dressing up and feeling glamorous and not sneakers and sweatpants every day.
Zendaya Coleman: Though I do that sometimes, don’t judge me!
L.R.: How the showmanship and charisma of these amazing black models changed the face of what modeling was in Europe, it gives me goosebumps hearing that people stood up and applauded. The French built these big elaborate sets, but all it took is these black models walking…
Z.C.: We’re paying homage to these women who changed our legacy…and allowed for me and so many others to be here. I remember when my Vogue cover came out, Beverly Johnson [the first African-American model to land the cover of American Vogue] tweeted me congratulations, and I said this wouldn’t be possible without you. This is about saying we appreciate and love you.
L.R.: And Tommy gave us this big machine and microphone to tell this story.
WWD: Tommy, why were they the right collaborators?
Tommy Hilfiger: After Gigi, we said wow, this has been so successful, how do we go to the next level, and we zeroed in on one woman, Zendaya.
L.R.: They didn’t know about me!
T.H.: I’m getting to you! She checked all the boxes: Disney star, TV star, movie star, music star, activist, a woman with her own mind who is a style icon in her own right. I talked to her on the phone, she was in L.A., I was in New York. I said I want your ideas and fan base. What I didn’t know is she had a secret weapon called Law. When they showed up at the Chateau Marmont with these boards, I started shaking. Because the Seventies were my era [my first store in Elmira, New York] People’s Place was all about this groove. I had always said I have to do it again someday but it had to be in an authentic way. They brought it to us on a platter.
I gathered my team and said, ‘Don’t even show them what we were going to show them,’ which was a more casual extension of street. They brought us a brand new fresh idea that didn’t end with the clothes — it was the music, the casting, it’s the perfect marriage. We are so thankful we have this opportunity now to take this company to the next level. She crosses over to Generation Z and Millennials, we’re going to gain that audience, and our own audience will appreciate where we’re going.
WWD: Why Paris now for the brand?
T.H.: We have shown in London, Milan, L.A., Shanghai, Tokyo, but we didn’t think we were ready to show in Paris. As a result of what we have done with the clothes…with this vibe, we were ready.
WWD: What was the spark behind the inclusive casting?
Z.C.: Size-inclusivity has been important to me always — if women in my family can’t all wear it, I don’t want to make it. We had plus-size models, which Tommy has never done before.
L.R.: Ten-plus girls out here from New York. [Zendaya] pushes me to say it has to be everyone, she’s changed my idea of what should and shouldn’t be for women.
T.H.: I said, “Do what you think is best.” Obviously a couple of girls have been in our family, Winnie Harlow is one, so I said make sure they are included. But they really chose.
WWD: What do you love in the collection?
Z.C.: There’s this amazing zodiac print I’ve become obsessed with, it’s almost a neutral like black. I am into zodiac things, I’m a Virgo. Also, tailoring was important, because I wanted something with structure. Tommy had been doing more of an ath-leisure vibe, and I wanted to do something that tapped into what Tommy had done before, which is tailoring. Everything has structure but an ease and effortlessness to it. We’re also doing gowns, which Tommy has never really done before.
L.R.: It’s not in their wheelhouse, but we wanted to push it because she’s a red carpet girl and I’m a red carpet stylist so it makes sense. It’s very Halston. Saint Laurent, too. A lot of them are beaded. But the technique the Tommy team used is really light. There is also leather. Oxblood…my mom had a bag and coat in that color and I grew up seeing and smelling it. I found a pair of vintage oxblood boots as inspiration.
Z.C.: There’s a picture of Cher on our board wearing an oxblood coat.
They handed it to us. We literally have been working at the Paris office from 8 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. at night.
T.H.: I was in L.A. hanging out at the Oscars and they’ve been working!
WWD: Tommy, are there any of these looks that made you think of People’s Place and triggered memories?
T.H.: I opened in 1969, the summer of Woodstock, the Age of Aquarius, and all through the disco and glam rock time of the Seventies and early Eighties, this is what it was. The same type of jeans and washes, the same cut of jacket.
WWD: Zendaya, when did you first come to Paris?
Z.C.: The first time I came to Paris was for a photo shoot for my first Disney TV show. I didn’t have a budget for clothes, I had just started, my two parents were teachers and we moved to L.A. with a dream. We had to make it work.
L.R.: She won’t let it go…
Z.C.: I won’t let it go! He put me in some questionable looks! But we have both grown. Even then I was obsessed with fashion. My exposure to the actual fashion world, I could only go so far with fashion magazines…[Law] has given me so much. I remember going to my first fashion show, and I said that’s it? We’re doing all this for eight minutes? But it’s such a special eight minutes. So much goes into it — all these people putting their time and dedication into it. I already appreciated fashion but I appreciate it at a new level, there are so many people working their ass off. I’m here every day with them and I can see it and appreciate it because they are making the dream happen.
WWD: What’s your favorite thing about Paris?
Z.C.: It sounds corny but the romance of it. It’s a romantic, beautiful place. When you walk around, it’s almost like walking on a movie set. Especially at certain hours, it looks unreal…like a façade. But it’s real life, these streets are real, these buildings are real and have history and you can go inside them.
WWD: Have you been to Versailles?
L.R.: We tried to have the show there, we said if it’s going to be in Paris, it has to be Versailles.
Z.C.: They were like “No, honey!”
L.R.: They said, “No, it’s going to be cold outside and no one is going to come.” They shut it right down.
WWD: You know the American models when they did the original show in 1973, they had no heating, no food and no toilet paper because the French wanted to win this battle and tried to sabotage them.
T.H.: Ours are staying at the Ritz!