To say that Stephen Burrows has had QUITE the career is an understatement and his list of accomplishments is impressive to say the least. The trailblazing 61 year old was the first African American to attain international star status as a fashion designer after bursting on the scene in the late 60’s, selling to the O Boutique, a known Warhol hangout which was located across the street from Max's Kansas City. He quickly became known for his revolutionary techniques, joyful designs (which quite frankly, looked like nobody else’s), his inventive use of color (which had never been seen on runways before), his use of body hugging matte jersey and floaty chiffon, and of course, his signature ‘lettuce hems’ and red stitched edging.
Burrows catapulted to fame in 1970 after being introduced to the legendary Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, THE hip and exciting shopping Mecca on 57th street, and was offered his very own store within the store, aptly named “Stephen Burrows World”. What a colorful and upbeat world it was.
In 1973, Stephen was invited (along with Geoffrey Beene, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein), to show his collection with those of French couturiers, on the runway at Versailles. That same year, he received the American Fashion Critics' Annual Coty Award (nabbing it again in 1974 and 1977). In 1982, Bendel was sold, marking the end of an era. But it was hardly the end of the story.
The Newark, New Jersey-born designer ‘disappeared’ for awhile but resurfaced in 2003 at the newly refurbished Henri Bendel, now ensconced on 5th avenue and 55th street, where he was once again backed by the retailer and given his own Stephens Burrows World within the store. At the same time, he began showing his collections in a more high profile manner- in conjunction with New York Fashion Week, receiving praise and recognition from retailers and members of the press. He has even broadened his scope by selling his wares on HSN. The future looks as bright as his designs.
His lifetime achievements will be given formal recognition at the upcoming CFDA Awards on June 5th, when he will receive a Special Tribute by the Board of the Directors, and last evening, the colorful and exuberant world of Stephen Burrows was celebrated at the amphitheatre at FIT (where coincidentally, the award winning designer graduated in 1966). The CFDA sponsored preview screening of a documentary, aptly named “Stephen Burrows World”, by Jenny Granville and Melissa Forteou, chronicled his life and work from the beginning up until the present time, and was followed with a reception.
In the audience were such as Pat Cleveland, Alva Chin, Karen Bjornson (the famed models who marked an era and who were favorites of the designer), Anna Sui, Bethann Hardison, Ruth Finley, Patrick McDonald, Phillip Bloch, and Stan Herman, who officiated and kicked off the proceedings with a little speech he had written for the event. Stan talked of Stephen’s low keyed and humble nature, the way he has always downplayed his enormous talent, and called him a “survivor” (“It ain’t over yet, Stephen”, he chided).
The 60 minute film focused on Stephen’s pure love of design, his rule breaking and revolutionary techniques, his flaunting of tradition and challenging traditional dressmaking mores (“why do stripes HAVE to match?” he questioned the workroom at one point), and the ongoing search for financial backers, all played against 4 recurring themes: the 70’s, Studio 54, summers on Fire Island, the AIDS epidemic, which claimed many of the designers’ friends and collaborators.
There were interviews with Michael Kors and Anna Sui (the latter admitted that in the 70’s, she would go to Bendel to ogle Stephen’s designs, dreaming of someday being able to afford them), Joan Kaner (who was a buyer at Bendel in the 70’s and spoke of Stephen’s unique style saying “everything he did was so original”), FIT’s Valerie Steele (who alluded to his “joy in life”), and the Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton (who referred to him as the “Kandinsky of fashion” because of his amazing use and sense of color). There were also clips showing Andre Leon Talley in Stephen’s workroom, previewing the collection and offering his opinion.
In the course of the film, there were several things I found out that I didn’t know: 1- that the lettuce edge that has become his signature was initially a ‘mistake’; 2 - that he learned how to sew from his elegant grandmother (who sewed all her own clothes); 3- one reason he ‘disappeared’ for awhile was that his father and brother were both dying of cancer at the same time, and he went home to help his mother care for them; 4- he was quite the little ‘fashionista’ (though he now prefers a uniform of hoodies, baseball caps, and sneakers, a picture of him as a little boy impeccably dressed in a chic duffle coat proved his penchant for style early on); it’s not the business side but the creative side of designing that spurs him on (“I like designing and fabric is my medium” and as he put it, “I hated 7th avenue” (well I guess that one wasn’t a surprise).
All I know is that at the end of the film, I had the sudden urge to forego all the tan and black that has been so pervasive in fashion as of late (and seen on the backs of most fashion insiders) and instead, put together the most vibrant, ‘out there’, and unorthodox colors. Hurray for Stephen!