American contemporary fashion celebrates fifty years. It was November 28, 1973, when five American and as many French designers competed in Paris in the most daring fashion show in history, known as the Battle of Versailles. Eleanor Lambert – creator of New York Fashion Week, the CFDA fashion chamber and the modern Met Gala – came up with the idea of a charity event for the renovation of the Palace of Versailles. She convinced the curator of the palace and his friend Gerald Van der Kemp to put together a gala to which he would invite an exceptional paying public – aristocracy, upper middle class and beau monde – offering in exchange a fashion show; American designers and Parisian couturiers would show their creations at the Théatre Gabriel in Versailles, inaugurated in 1770 for the celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette. The triumph of “Made in USA” fashion that night marked the rise of prêt-à-porter – mass-produced garments – over haute couture, at the time the flagship of France.
The origins and stories of the stars and stripes fashion come to us through supermodel Alva Chinn, legendary figure of that cosmos. From Mademoiselle Magazine to Bazaar and American Vogue, her career has been one of a muse, studded with success and fortunate friendships – from Oscar de la Renta to Halston, from Andy Warhol to Gianni Versace. African American, born in Boston just over seventy years ago, Chinn with her amber eyes and a young face, preserves intact her poise and an athletic body. Grandmother of Maximus, she dreams of acting, while teaching yoga and being a mature model, as she prefers to call herself.
Alva Chinn was one of Roy Halston’s muses, nicknamed “The Halstonettes”. The designer who revolutionized women’s fashion in the United States with the first ready-to-wear boutique on Madison Avenue and the still imitated caftan dress. “What a wonderful job, a gift with the fortune of being paid to have fun” Alva says, over a pizza margherita and a glass of Aglianico wine.
How did you get started?
It was the early Seventies; I had abandoned my studies one step away from graduation and my boyfriend had left me. One morning, while I was crying and telling a friend, the waitress at the café where we were sitting handed me a business card. “Those tears ruin your face” she told me, “this agent is looking for beautiful girls, call him”. I didn’t know what an agent was and saw myself as rather awkward. I phoned out of a desire to escape, and I was hired. A few weeks later I arrived in New York.
How did it go?
I met the right people, then the opportunity presented itself, thanks to word of mouth: if you were good, they recommended you. This was the case with Oscar de la Renta, whom I met during a photo shoot. Ebony magazine was not allowed to take clothes out of the showrooms, so we went to de la Renta’s on Seventh Avenue. Oscar came on set unexpectedly and when he saw me, he said, “Wow, you look like you are home.” I loved him immediately; for me home means heart. Later, he introduced me to Stephen Burrows for whom I did my first fashion show ever. Both being my admirers, they introduced me to Halston.
As Halston’s fame and popularity grew, so did those he worked with.
The master. Halston was exceptionally talented with the flaw of perfectionism, a utopia. What an immense pain to have lost him so soon.
You were also close to Andy Warhol.
I shared a shyness with him. I remember we spent hours observing people without commenting or judging, always in silence. We were in perfect harmony.
In the seventies the United States was dealing with the Vietnam War, the oil embargo, and New York City was at risk of bankruptcy. What about fashion?
It was in a process of becoming but I think the average person was not aware of it. There was no interest, I don’t remember widespread trends or affection for designers. It was a world unknown to me before I became a model. I only knew Stephen Burrows who did something different: he managed to attract young people and a diversified audience. As a black woman I knew that he created for us; I felt included because he was like me. How I longed for his colorful clothes!
Let’s talk about the Battle of Versailles, an event where you played a central role.
It was a brilliant idea, just like Eleanor Lambert – a kind-hearted woman who helped many talented people, giving fame and recognition to American fashion. The Battle of Versailles show was perhaps her flagship event, the occasion where our designers made their presence felt by the rest of the world.
You arrived in Paris with forty colleagues, as well as the singer Liza Minelli and designers Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta and Halston, there to challenge the French Hubert de Givenchy, Emmanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Bohan from Maison Dior.
None of us thought of that evening as a competition, much less as a battle. I was only interested in going to Paris, I was over the moon. The designer Anne Klein even paid for us to stay the whole weekend: three unforgettable days. It was a last gesture of affection as three months later she passed away.
What really happened at Versailles?
We were unaware of everything, we felt a bit like kids in a world of adults. Yves Saint Laurent had just opened a ready-to-wear boutique in Paris, so we didn’t bring anything new. For the press we won for the show because it expressed lightness and freedom, even if chaotic behind the scenes. We made the clothes come alive, animated by individual energy rather than acting as walking hangers. We emphasized fashion as a kind of entertainment by taking the catwalks out of the living rooms where the ladies had tea while the models walked around. We gave the impression that we were free to choose our own style.
What do you remember particularly about that event?
After the catwalk, I went into the audience. At the sight of Pierre Cardin’s show, I gasped, I thought it was out of this world. But who was I to call him a genius? Then, in 2019, I saw the retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion). Reading about those creations reminded me how right my initial perception was: nothing so creative had ever been seen. It was a moving memory.
The Battle of Versailles, seen through different lenses, also provided an international stage for the “Black Is Beautiful” movement from the sixties, as 10 of the 40 models and one of the five designers of the USA “team” – Stephen Burrows – were African American.
The first black model didn’t walk the catwalk in the nineties. A certain revisionism erased an important reality, including me, Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, and many others. Charlene Dash, for example, worked for both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and it was not obvious because if you were chosen by a publication, you became exclusive. Let’s not forget Beverly Johnson: in 1974 she was the first African American model on the cover of Vogue.
Then what happened?
After Versailles the requests came in left and right, from Paris to Milan where ready-to-wear was most relevant. How I loved going to museums and galleries there! Yet, my first fashion show in Europe was in Rome, Valentino haute couture, January 1974.
I met Valentino through Oscar de la Renta in New York. As a mannequin I had to walk among the ladies with a numbered paddle in the sleeve of my coat. It was so uncomfortable that I threw it into the audience and continued as if on a catwalk: I did it my way. I believe that this moment opened my path to Italy. Two days later Bazaar Italia wanted me for a shoot that they titled “Alva nel Gazebo” and Milan became a frequent destination.
Gianni Versace hired you exclusively.
He’s one of my favorites. The kindness and care for those he met made Gianni different. He was unique. I now remember my experience with the Fendi sisters, who were rude and rigid like soldiers. You would hear them shout: “blondes on the left, brunettes on the right, the black ones here” and so on. Awful!
You have recently returned to work for the same agency you started with, now under new ownership and a different name – Maggie Inc. Aside from that, what has changed in your industry?
In my day, modeling meant learning a trade. We were asked to make the clothes shine, encouraged to feel the clothes as ours. There was a connection with the audience, looking them in the eyes, which I still do. That was before colleagues were asked to look straight into the camera and pout. Today I sense a complete lack of individuality and I have the impression that professionals are valued less than those who think that it is enough to take a selfie to become models. It seems an injustice.
What do you dream of?
Cinema. I enrolled in acting school but ran away from Los Angeles – too many unseemly proposals. Now I have in mind writing a comedy about seniority, where I am the lead.
What do you love to wear?
Jeans, of all styles: dressed down or up!