Beg, Steal, & Burrows

 A Stephen Burrows 1970’s exhibition will be featured at the Manhattan Vintage Show
(photo by Laura Okita -click images for full-size views)

The upcoming Manhattan Vintage Show takes place on Friday, October 19 and Saturday, October 20th, at the Metropolitan Pavillion, 125 West 18th Street ( Their special exhibition will feature an archive of designs by the legendary New York City-based fashion designer Stephen Burrows culled from the extensive collection of Southpaw Vintage ( The renowned antique clothing, textiles, and accessories purveyor who boast the world’s largest Stephen Burrows collection will be one of the 80+ exhibitors this season.

Mark Bozek, Stephen Burrows, Dustin Pittman attend the New York premiere of The Times of Bill Cunningham

The celebrated fashion innovator rose to international fame in the 70’s with his vibrantly colored and color-blocked designs, fluid jerseys, lettuce hems, and uneven hemlines and it’s virtually impossible for me NOT to think of the 75-year-old design legend these days. This past Thursday I attended the premiere of “The Times of Bill Cunningham” written and directed by Mark Bozek. Stephen was in attendance along with his longtime muse and favored model, Pat Cleveland. At one point during the documentary, Mark asked the famed photographer to name his most memorable fashion moments. He quickly spoke about his first Jacques Fath, and Balenciaga shows in Paris, Andre Courreges, and the famous Battle of Versailles show in 1973 which pitted five leading American designers against their French counterparts. Bill also raved about the “brilliant, modern designs” of African-American designer Stephen Burrows and the way in which the African-American models (Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison among them) took total control of the runway and owned the night. As he put it, it was “pure raw talent pressing on the raw nerve of the time.”

When news came last month that Henri Bendel was closing all their stores including the Fifth Avenue flagship, I immediately thought of Stephen who had a successful, ongoing, longtime relationship with the store. In 1969 Burrows was introduced to Gerald Stutz, president of Henri Bendel. She was instantly smitten with his incredible way with color and ability to seemingly “stretch a rainbow over the body” as she put it. In 1970 he opened his in-store boutique, “Stephen Burrows World.”

Pat Cleveland wearing a dress by Stephen Burrows 1972
Photograph by Charles Tracy

Burrows became an instant sensation with a celebrity clientele that included Diana Ross, Cher, and Barbara Streisand. He used his fabulous space as a venue for his fashion shows, which I recall quite vividly as I was a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar at the time. 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, the epicenter of hedonism and a place which is back in the news right now with the recent release of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary, “Studio 54”. As Gina Bellafante of The New York Times observed at the time, “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.”

Stephen Burrows with some of his designs at a Tribute to the 1973 Battle of Versailles held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011

In 1973, Stephen left Henri Bendel, founded Burrows, Inc., and began working on New York’s Seventh Avenue. The first African American designer to achieve international acclaim, he 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 groundbreaking fashion show in Versailles in 1973 (this literally put the United States on the fashion map).  Stephen became the first African American designer to gain international fame.

In 1977, Burrows returned to Bendel and joined Pat Tennant, Inc., but left again in 1982. In 1993, he became affiliated once more with the store, and in 2002, reopened Stephen Burrows World. 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.” In 2010, Burrows designed a collection for Target retail stores and opened a showroom and design studio in New York City’s garment center. In 2013, he became designer and president of Stephen Burrows, LTD.

Stephen Burrows sketches

That same year, he was the subject of a retrospective mounted by the Museum of the City of New York, “Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced,” (March 22 – July 28, 2013). It was the first exhibition to focus on the designer as an American design force and featured 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 focused 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.

 Stephen Burrows colorful appliqued unisex designs from 1969 – 1971
Photo: Marilyn Kirschner

The opening night party drew a stellar crowd that included Iman, Diane Von Furstenberg, Anna Sui, Robin Givhan, Bill Cunningham, Carmen D’Alessio, Fran Lebowitz, Wes Gordon, Ansel Elgort, Rachel Roy, Bethann Hardison, and Pat Cleveland among others. Stephen’s philosophy was that “Clothes should be fun and easy to move in. For me, they’re like toys for adults to play in”. Even if you were a diehard minimalist with an intellectual bent, if you didn’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 didn’t have a pulse.

Stephen Burrows exuberant designs on display at his exhibition

What also struck me at the time was that the clothes on display could not have seemed more modern or of the moment and looking at them now, that is still the case, if not more so. Stephen had always taken his work as a colorist to new levels and was of the belief that there is “no color that doesn’t go with another color.” He was known for fearless combinations of fluorescents with earth tones, red, yellows, magentas, and greens and as such, his designs could have easily been on the recent spring 2019 runways which were notable for an exuberant use of color (clashing at times), art-inspired color blocks and collages, fluid jerseys, and novelty knits.

Sies Marjan spring 2019 ready-to-wear

There were bonafide Burrows doppelgangers at Sies Marjan (note the exaggerated lettuce leaf edging).

Prabal Gurung spring 2019 ready-to-wear

Another good example is Prabal Gurung, whose runway was bursting with color and color blocking.

Fausto Puglisi spring 2019 ready-to-wear

In Milan, Fausto Puglisi specifically named Stephen Burrows, along with Azzedine Alaïa and Christian Lacroix, as inspiration for his spring presentation.

Stephen Burrows Members of Stephen’s ‘commune’ in the first collection of Stephen Burrow’s World for Henri Bendel, Central Park

Quite frankly, I would kill (well not exactly) for some of the eye-catching pieces that were in that 2013 exhibition – including one entire group that Pat Cleveland told me, were actually made for the boys. Even though many of Stephen’s designs could not be more feminine, he believed in unisex, genderless dressing and this was undoubtedly represented. Of course, gender fluid dressing has also been one of the most pronounced themes of the spring season, and it is more than a passing trend. It is here to stay.

I personally think this is an excellent time for a Stephen Burrows revival.

– 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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