‘When Fashion Danced’: Designer Stephen Burrows reflects on his compelling retrospective, iconic career

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I’ll admit it. The exhibit had me at “hello.” Or maybe it was the Sylvester track “Do You Want to Funk” playing as I walked in; in either case, I knew I was in for a treat.

The show in question, “Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced,” will be on display at The Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan from now through July 28th. The man himself, now almost 70, is still alive, kicking, and creating, although this show celebrates his heyday. Before famous African-Americans in fashion such as Tracy Reese made their mark, The New York Times once rightly called Burrows “the brightest star in American fashion.”

The storied designer sat down with theGrio to discuss his iconic Technicolor designs, which embody fun and play — a look often referenced by today’s designers.

How Burrows began

His retrospective, which Burrows calls “an honor, as it is a culmination of my career, particularly the formative years,” consists of over 50 of his vibrant creations made between 1968 and 1983, the years when any party girl worth her salt sported him for a night on the town.

“Clothes should be fun and easy to move in. To me they’re like toys for adults to play with,” Burrows shares.

His earliest playthings consisted of patchwork, studded leather, and fringe, all in part inspired by nights at New York’s legendary rock mecca, Max’s Kansas City. It was just across from the tiny O Boutique where Burrows sold his work in the ’60s.

The making of a style star

However, by 1970 he had built up a following and caught the eye of Geraldine Stutz, then-president of Henri Bendel, a famous department store. The luxury emporium gave Burrows his own in-store atelier, exposing him to a wider market. And while studded leather remained a staple, slinky, fluid, body-skimming silhouettes in jersey worked their way into his design lexicon in the form of dresses that begged to be taken to the dance floor.

“The influence was the music of the time,” Burrows remembers of that period. “My friends and I went to [legendary club] Studio 54 every night except Monday. It was fun and everything was free!

“They loved designers,” he added. “I remember the opening night was jam packed. Everyone was there including Halston, Alva Chin, Elsa Perretti, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, Marissa Berenson, and many, many others,” among ’70s fashion greats.

But everyone loved Burrows’ designs. His kaleidoscopic riot of colors could put a Crayola box to shame. Fans also flocked to his fluttery “lettuce edge” tailoring technique, a happy accident resulting from an overstretched jersey hem. This would become one of his signature touches.

Taking American fashion international

In 1973, Burrows, along with Bill  Blass, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta, represented America at the “Battle of Versailles.” An epic fashion benefit held in France, it is still remembered for showcasing design legends such as Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior and Pierre Cardin — and for its multicultural collaborators. Amid this stellar company, Burrows wowed high fashion’s in crowd. Not only was he the first African-American designer to gain international fame, he also helped make American fashion relevant in Europe.

His fondest memory of the show? “Meeting Yves Saint Laurent and Josephine Baker,” Burrows says. “I was seated right next to YSL and after the show, he told me I made beautiful clothing!” Two of those dresses are in the exhibit on gorgeous display.

Following this victory, Burrows was honored with three Coty Awards for industry-wide design achievement in 1973, 1974  and 1977. In 2006, his fortieth year in the business, he received the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Board of Directors Special Tribute Award.

Reflections and future intentions

Over five decades and many changes have occurred since this New Jersey-born boy first hit the design scene in the late ’60s. “It was a time of freedom in artistic expression which transcended into dressing. I feel lucky to have designed and lived during that very creative time,” Burrows says. “I was highly influenced by my commune and friends including Pat Cleveland, Roz Rubinstein, Bobby Breslau, Charles Tracy, Norma Jean Darden and many others.”

Yet, still designing and sparking interest, Burrows remains current. “My favorite designers today are Rick Owen, Gareth Pugh — and I always love Gaultier.” Plus, there is still space for his vision. “The fashion industry has changed tremendously. It has turned digital and trendy.”

Is there anyone who he would like to throw a frock on now, to buck these trends? “Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence, and Sofia Vergara,” he states. Those girls should be so lucky.

And what’s next for the fantastic Mr. Burrows?

“Anything exciting and, of course, Spring 2014!”

So, dance yourselves over the Museum of the City of New York and catch, “Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced. “We can all use a happy dose of Burrows’ timeless chic.

Suzanne Rust is a writer, lifestyle expert, on-air talent, and a native New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter at @SuzanneRust.