Beg, Steal, or Burrows

Say “New York 1970’s” and some people might immediately conjure up thoughts of rampant crime, The Son of Sam, and THE Blackout of 1977. But things weren’t all so dour and I always prefer to dwell on the positive side of life: The New York Yankees World Series Wins (1977 and 1978), the pulsating energy of Studio 54, the excitement of landing my first jobs in fashion (Seventeen Magazine followed by Harper’s Bazaar), the thrill of shopping or just browsing at Henri Bendel (a store that has never been replicated in New York as far as I’m concerned), AND, the joyous youthful exuberance that defined Stephen Burrows (the man and his designs). Unsurprisingly, aside from the Yankees, all the aforementioned are intrinsically related.

Members of Stephen’s ‘commune’ in the first collection
of Stephen Burrow’s World for Henri Bendel
Not soon after catching the eye of the legendary Geraldine Stutz,  Stephen opened his boutique, “Stephen Burrows World”, in 1970 at Henri Bendel.  He became an instant sensation, using his fabulous space as a venue for his fashion shows, which I recall quite vividly. His design trademarks were the “lettuce hems”, exaggerated red stitching, vibrant colors and use of color blocks. His unapologetic-ally groovy, sexy, body conscious dresses, made mainly of slinky stretch jersey, wool, or chiffon, allowed for freedom of movement and seemed to be tailor made for dancing the night away. This could not have been more in step with the disco days (he and his entourage were fixtures at Studio 54). As Gina Bellafante of The New York Times observed, “The most distinctive element of Mr. Burrows clothes is that they looked as if they left the house around midnight to wind up the next afternoon.”

Color block coat dress 1971 & studded leather coat 1968
The first African American designer to achieve international acclaim, Stephen was the recipient of three Coty Awards (1973, 1974, 1977) and was chosen as one of only five American designers to show his creations at the prestigious and ground breaking fashion show in Versailles in 1973 (this literally put the United States on the fashion map). The industry honored him with a star on the Seventh Avenue Fashion Walk of Fame and in 2006 the Council of Fashion Designers of America bestowed him with “The Board of Directors Special Tribute.”

When Fashion Danced” – Pat Cleveland wearing a dress by Stephen Burrows
1972 Photograph by Charles Tracy
He is now the subject of a retrospective which has been mounted by the Museum of the City of New York, ‘Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced’, (March 22 – July 28, 2013). It is the first exhibition to focus on Burrows as an American design force, and features original sketches, photographs, video, and over 50 garments, ranging from his first fashion collection to slip dresses that twirled on the floor of Studio 54. “The exhibition focuses on a pivotal period in the designer’s career—the years between 1968 and 1983—when Burrows’ style epitomized the glamour of New York’s nighttime social scene”. The book, Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced, written by Glenn O’Brien,  published by Rizzoli, will be out in April.

Colorful appliqued designs from 1969-1971
To celebrate the opening, there was a press preview on Thursday morning, followed by a well attended, high octane cocktail reception on Thursday evening, during which time the museum was transformed – if not into Studio 54 exactly – back into another time and era. Even the steps leading up to the building were covered in a colorfully patterned carpeting. Disco era music filled the halls, and suspended from the ceilings, were colorful bags custom designed by Stephen himself (they were actually departing gifts for guests).

Pat Cleveland in Stephen Burrows
For me, it truly felt as though I had turned back the clock and revisited the era that represented my coming of (fashion) age. In addition to seeing the ‘man of the hour’ Stephen, and Pat Cleveland, his longtime friend, muse, and model, (both of whom continue to retain their youthful spirit and their youthful appearance), one of the first people I saw was the legendary Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Ray Crespin (who hired me to be her assistant). Alo there was Jade Hobson, who was fashion director of Vogue in the Grace Mirabella era; designer DDDomick (Dominick Avellino) whom I covered as a market editor; longtime fashion rep Jeffrey Schwager, Bethann Hardison, and Stan Herman. Other notables in attendance: Iman, Diane Von Furstenberg, Catherine Malandrino, James La Force, Anna Sui, Fran Lebowitz, and Carmen D’Alessio, the pr maven who claims she created Studio 54.

Guest in yellow shag rug worn as a dress
Suffice it to say that some of the guests (designers, stylists, members of the press, publicists, friends, etc.), a number of whom wore Stephen Burrows (if they were lucky enough to have it), or in vintage pieces, perfectly captured the mood and the energetic vibe of the colorful, freewheeling, 70’s during the heyday of Studio 54 in their creative choice of dress (one young man wore a belted coat made out of what appeared to be a yellow shag rug, and he was seen dancing with Pat Cleveland). But while the evening and the exhibition felt like going back in time, the clothes on display could not have seemed more modern or of the moment  (especially when you consider recent runways and take note of  the exuberant use of color, art inspired color blocks and collages). Quite frankly, I would kill (well not exactly) for some of the amazing coats and knits in the collection – including one entire group that Pat Cleveland told me, were actually made for the boys (even though many of his designs could not be more feminine, Stephen believed in unisex dressing and this was certainly represented).

Let me put it this way, even if you are a die hard minimalist with an intellectual bent in terms of fashion, if you don’t leave this exhibit with an urge to wear something exuberantly colorful, or, at the very least, it didn’t put a smile on your face, you don’t have a pulse.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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