Burrows, Stephen 1943–
Stephen Burrows 1943–
Stephen Burrows, called “one of the most audacious and auspicious talents in contemporary fashion” by Contemporary Fashion, was one of the first African Americans to become famous as a fashion designer, after Ann Lowe. He spent the 1970s, clothing a great portion of New York City and beyond. He made clothes that made a woman feel beautiful and considered his work “art.”
Burrows was born September 15, 1943 in Newark, New Jersey. He came to the field of fashion design honestly, starting to make clothes with his grandmother when he was very young. He enjoyed helping his grandmother sew so much, that when the time came for him to choose a profession it seemed natural to follow his textile creativity into design. In order to do that, he attended first the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and later went to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
In 1968 after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Burrows opened a boutique in New York City with a partner. Around the same time, in 1969, he obtained employment with the prestigious Henri Bendel clothing store on Fifth Avenue whose upper floors are home to the work of the fashion world’s top designers. The NY.com web site said that Henri Bendel is a place only for those women with “a strong heart and a robust bank account.” There he designed clothing that made him “the quintessential fashion expression of the 1970s in a disestablishment sensibility, young nonchalance, and unfailing insistence on looking beautiful,” said Contemporary Fashion. In 1974 he stopped work at Bendel to try his hand with a more mainstream clothing firm, but in 1977 he returned to Henri Bendel, preferring to work in an environment where he could be creative without barriers.
The mainstream company had been afraid of risks and would only purchase cheap, artificial materials. This situation frustrated Burrows because he did not want to make safe and boring clothing with imitative and mundane materials. To him clothing is an art, and the best designs, while borrowing ideas from existing compositions, are still daring and make a statement. They are also patterned out of the most comfortable and luxurious materials available, making women feel slinky and feminine while at the same time evoking a mood of playfulness. “I make colorful adult toys because I think fashion should have a sense of humor, and I want people to be happy in my clothes,” Burrows told Contemporary Fashion. Burrows
Born September 15, 1942 in Newark, NJ. Education: Attended Philadelphia Museum College of Art, 1961-62; attended fashion design, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City, 1964-66.
Career: Fashion designer, Weber Originals, New York, 1966-67; designer, Allen & Cole, c. 1967-68; co-founder, proprietor, “O” boutique, 1968; in-house designer, Henri Bendel store, New York City, 1969-73; founder-director, Burrows, Inc., New York City, 1973-82; designer, Henri Bendel, 1977-82, 1993-; designer, ready-to-wear design, 1989; designer, custom design, 1990; designer, Tony Lambert Co., 1991. Exhibition: Versailles Palace, 1973.
Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics, “Winnie” Award, 1973, 1977, and Special Award, 1974; Council of American Fashion Critics Award, 1975; Knitted Textile Association Crystal Ball Award, 1975.
Addresses: Office –550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10013.
rows was obviously not meant to be a mass market designer. His pieces were originals, one-of-a-kind items. In fact, later in his career he began insisting on making only one-of-a-kind dresses. His reasons? “Why not?” he told the Neu; York Times, “I have plenty of ideas-I don’t have to repeat myself.”
By the mid-1970s, Burrows was a Coty-Award winning designer who was also chosen, in 1973, as one of only 5 designers to represent American fashion at the world famous fashion show at Versailles. His clothing, well accepted at the show, proved to have a sexy, playful, and daring feel. He became famous for dresses that were made from clingy materials such as velour or jersey made into asymmetrical designs, using the bias cut, zigzag seams, and shirring to create startling and fun effects. He liked clothing that made a woman stand out in a crowd, and he received inspiration from just about everything found in American culture, but especially the American craze for sports and athletic events. This influence can be seen most evidently in some of his separates—skirts made out of comfortable, soft fabrics with elastic waistlines, and tops to match with large buttons and a relaxed feel that could be worn buttoned all the way up or left partly open for a flirtatious effect. He was also influenced by modern art. When he designed a dress made out of jersey with a large circular hole at the midriff, some people saw graphic modernism in his creation. “’Designers were inspired by two-dimensional art-like Stephen Burrows and Pop Art,’ Mr. Martin, exhibit curator, said to the New York Times, ’I am not saying that he was doing Jasper Johns’s targets, but that there was something about a big circle that was in the air.’”
In the 1980s Burrows stepped back a bit from the fashion spotlight. Writers, in fact, penned articles in which they praised Burrows’s individuality while also mourning his recent absence from the world of fashion design. The New York Times stated, “[f]inancial success [is not] the only measure of fashion greatness. Can anyone really say that Ralph Lauren is a better designer than Stephen Burrows?” And also, it asked, “But where is Stephen Burrows?” His might not be a household name, but among the knowledgeable, Stephen Burrows will always be highly praised and appreciated for his artistic creations.
In the 1990s Burrows returned wholeheartedly into the public fashion design scene, this time with a line of dresses that were both comfortable and sensual. “The dresses are sexy,” he told the New York Times, “Women should have an escort when they wear them.” In 1993 Burrows returned to Henri Bendel to design eveningwear. In 1999, Ebony gave proof to the fact that Stephen Burrows was back, and was the same designer whom people loved and missed. “Stephen Burrows designs kneelength, chiffon cocktail dress with haltered asymmetrical neckline and circular ruffle.” Back are the sexy dresses done in soft fabrics and the asymmetrical designs. A man with a gift for designing clothes that make women feel beautiful, sexy, and noticeable, may he not disappear again. The world of fashion design needs innovative and creative thinkers like Stephen Burrows to challenge the norms, and it certainly needs his beautifying influence.
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Ebony, May, 1999; February, 2000.
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New York Times, May 1, 1990; October 7, 1997; November 4, 1997; February 15, 1998; April 3, 1998; August 29, 2000.
Born: Newark, New Jersey, 15 September 1943. Education: Philadelphia Museum College of Art, 1961-62; fashion design, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1964-66. Career: Designer, Weber Originals, New York, 1966-67; supplier to Allen & Cole, circa 1967-68; manager (with Roz Rubenstein), O Boutique, 1968-69; owner, Stephen Burrows' World Boutique, Henri Bendel store, New York, 1970-73; founder/director, Burrows, Inc., New York, 1973-76; designer, Henri Bendel, 1977-82, 1993; returned to ready-to-wear design, 1989, and to custom design, 1990; designed knitwear line for Tony Lambert Company, 1991. Exhibitions: Versailles Palace, 1973. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics special award (lingerie), 1974; "Winnie," 1977; Council of American Fashion Critics award, 1975; Knitted Textile Association Crystal Ball award, 1975.
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Morris, Bernadine, "The Look of Fashions for the Seventies—In Colors that Can Dazzle," in the New York Times, 12 August 1970.
Fulman, Ricki, "Designer Has Last Laugh on His Critics," in the New York Daily News, 4 October 1971.
Klensch, Elsa, "Burrows: I Am Growing More," in Women's Wear Daily, 6 April 1972.
Carter, M. R., "The Story of Stephen Burrows," in Mademoiselle, March 1975.
Butler, J., "Burrows is Back—With a Little Help from His Friends," in the New York Times Magazine, 5 June 1977.
Talley, Andre Leon, "Black Designers Surviving in Style," in Ebony, November 1980.
Hunter, Norman L., "The Drama of Femininity for Evening and Cocktail," in Ebony, March 1981.
Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Stephen Burrows, Sportswear Designer," in the New York Times, 3 September 1989.
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——, "The Rebirth of New York Couture," in the New York Times, 1 May 1990.
——, "The Return of an American Original," in the New York Times, 10 August 1993.
"Black Designers," in Jet, 17 May 1999.***
Phoenix and firebird of the New York fashion world, Stephen Burrows is one of the most audacious and auspicious talents in contemporary fashion. "Pure genius," said Roz Rubenstein Johnson of Burrows in a telephone interview in 2001. As Bernadine Morris said of Burrows, he is "incapable of making banal clothes." When creating custom-made clothes in the 1990s, Burrows insisted he would make only one dress of a kind. He told Morris, "Why not? I have plenty of ideas—I don't have to repeat myself."
There were relatively few African American designers at all in 1970 and certainly none who had achieved any kind of stature. Pauline Trigére was one of the first to begin using dark-skinned models, which set the fashion world abuzz with shock. Then came Ann Lowe and Burrows, the first African Americans to achieve stature as designers. Today, there are numerous African American designers, ranging from Bonga Bhengu and Bongiwe Walaza to Heather Jones and Patrick Robinson.
Burrows worked as a designer for Weber Originals in New York and supplied feathered vests he made to Allen & Cole in the mid-1960s before becoming the co-manager, with Rubenstein, of James Valkus' boutique in New York, called O, in 1968. When the boutique closed in 1969, Burrows was given his own boutique in the Henri Bendel department store by its president, Geraldine Stutz. Rubenstein, meanwhile, was hired to be the jewelry buyer there and eventually went on to found her own public relations company in California, with clients such as John Paul Mitchell Systems in her portfolio.
With the 1970 launch of Stephen Burrows' World Boutique within the Henri Bendel store, Burrows was catapulted into the limelight, being recognized for his remarkable color block, fluid, flirting with the nonfinito, sexy separates that typified the assertive woman of the 1970s. Spectacularly successful during that decade, Burrows has enjoyed alternating periods of triumph and quiescence in the subsequent years, with forays into sportswear in the early 1990s, custom-made clothing in the 1980s, and evening wear in 1993, again for Henri Bendel. He has come and gone and come again in the public gaze, partly for business reasons, but his design sensibility has been consistent. He sees bold color fields and tests color dissonance to achieve remarkable new harmony. His great mentor, Geraldine Stutz, erstwhile president of Bendel's, commented that he "stretches a rainbow over the body." But Burrows' rainbow has never sought a Peter Max popularity; his rainbow is extraordinary and unexpected, juxtaposing the strongest colors.
Serviceable separates have always been a large part of Burrows' look. Even his flirtatious dresses of the 1970s, often with his characteristic lettuce edging, seem to be parts when broken by color blocks and zones. As a result, his clothing always seems unaffected and young in the tradition of American sportswear. Clinging jersey, curving lines, and offsetting of easy drape by tight cling make Burrows' clothing both comfortable and very sexy. Of his 1990 collections, the designer himself said, "The dresses are sexy. Women should have an escort when they wear them."
Like Giorgio di Sant'Angelo and, to a lesser degree, Halston, Burrows was the quintessential fashion expression of the 1970s in a disestablishment sensibility, young nonchalance, and unfailing insistence on looking beautiful. Native American themes (also explored by Sant'Angelo in 1969 and 1970), bold color fields in jersey with exposed seams as edges, and the unfinished appearance of puckered lettuce edging seemed almost careless in 1969 and 1970 when invented by Burrows, but they can also be recognized as hallmarks of a truthful, youthful culture demanding no deceit in dress and a return to basics. If Burrows never yielded the sensuality of the body, he again prefigured the last quarter of the century as the body becomes the inevitable discourse of a society freed of Victorianism only at its end. His honesty in technique is an "infra-apparel" trait, betokening a strong feeling for clothing's process, not merely a superficial result. Ricki Fulman, of the New York Daily News suggested that "you've got to have a sense of humor to understand Stephen Burrows' clothes."
If the clothing offers an immediacy and vivacity, Burrows himself and the recognition received in his twenties were a comparable phenomenon. Emerging from among the Bendel's designers in 1969, Burrows was a world-class Coty award-winning talent in the early to mid-1970s and was one of the five designers selected to represent American fashion in the epochal showing at Versailles in November 1973.
Although Burrows may have offered fresh ideas in palette and color combination, he was also sustaining a sportswear idea. Even his laced cords and snaps have affinity with Claire McCardell's germinal work. Many designers after Burrows have looked to African American, African, and Latin styles for inspiration and especially to the sexy zest he found there for his designs. Elsa Klensch argued that the name "Stephen Burrows' World" was more than a store sign. "It is his own world—a philosophy, a lifestyle, an environment," one composed of astute street observation, a lively sense of contemporary living and its impatience with rules and convention, and of a nonverbal self-communication through clothing. As much as Halston and Sant'Angelo, Burrows was the avatar of new styles accorded to a cultural transfiguration in the 1970s. Perhaps he so personified the early 1970s that his later erratic career was inevitable: we have sacrificed our fullest appreciation of him to another sexy lady he dressed, Clio.
Burrows did design work for Tony Lambert Company in 1991 and Bendel in 1993, but with the departure of Stutz from Bendel's (she went on to work for Gump's in San Francisco), his visibility faded. His designer clothing, however, is considered collectible and can still be found for sale at such places as Keni Valenti Retro-Couture in New York. He currently resides in New York, and as Rubenstein said, "Whenever he has a pencil in his hand, he is always drawing," so there may be more innovations forthcoming from this fashion mogul.
updated by Daryl F.Mallett
Stephen Gerald Burrows was born on 15 September 1943 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art from 1961 to 1963 and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York from 1964 to 1966. Perhaps most influential to the future career of this original American designer was his seamstress grandmother, Beatrice Simmons, who taught him to sew when he was eight years old. At an early age he discovered and delighted in the zigzag stitch that would become a signature. As a designer, instead of hiding stitching, Burrows celebrated and exaggerated it by using contrasting thread colors. He used a close, narrow zigzag stitch to create his trademark fluted "lettuce hem." In an endless range of shapes and combinations Burrows placed bright contrasting colors of chiffon or knit fabrics in a single ensemble.
After having success selling pieces to friends, Burrows cofounded the O Boutique at Nineteenth Street and Park Avenue South in 1968. Attracting the countercultural luminaries that hung out at Max's Kansas City across the street, the shop and its proprietor gained a following, but Burrow's lack of business experience resulted in O Boutique's eventual closure. In 1970 Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, gave Burrows a space in the workroom of Bendel's Studio, the small manufacturing part of the store, and Pat Tennant, the manager of the design studio, became an important mentor to the designer. Stephen Burrows World opened in the summer of 1970 on the third floor of the store, as a packed audience watched a fashion show set to disco music. Leather garments with nail-studded embellishments, midiskirts, skin-tight sweaters, suede bags dripping with fringe, and Burrows's famous super bright jersey knits shown on ethnically diverse male and female models impressed audience and press alike.
Burrows's fluid, sexy separates are iconic of the individualist, confident woman of the 1970s. The "black is beautiful" philosophy of the 1970s was showcased through Burrows's use of African American models and his success as an African American fashion designer. More than any other designer of the 1970s, Burrows captures in his designs the vivacious energy of the disco scene. By 1973 he was at the top of the field, winning the prestigious Coty award, the highest honor in American fashion, which he was honored with again in 1974 and 1977. He was one of five American designers invited to show their clothes along with five French designers at a fashion spectacle at the Palace of Versailles in 1973. Influenced by his success and the lure of Seventh Avenue, Burrows moved out on his own that same year. With this move he lost the guidance and protection of Bendel's staff, however, and his business suffered due to poor management. Used to overseeing the details of his clothing line's production, he was unable to achieve the same quality utilizing mass-manufacturing processes.
From 1977 to 1982 Burrows relaunched a successful collection with Henri Bendel. He stepped out of the New York fashion world in 1982 when the mood in fashion was changing and the disco era was coming to a close. He relaunched a third time with Henri Bendel in 2002, when his now-retro fashions were once again in demand.
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Butler, J. "Burrows Is Back—With a Little Help from His Friends." New York Times Magazine, 5 June 1977.
Morris, Bernadine. "The Look of Fashions for the Seventies— In Colours That Can Dazzle." New York Times, 12 August 1970.