Stephen Burrows, 1st Internationally Successful Black Fashion Designer, Earns Retrospective in NY

Stephen Burrows’s collection for Henri Bendel in Central Park in 1970. (Charles Tracy)

Every decade or so, Mr. Burrows has a moment, whenever his disco-era look of rainbow jersey dresses and lettuce-edge hems has an unexpected revival in fashion. This season, there was more than a hint of his influence on the runways of Diane von Furstenberg (color blocking meets glam-rock wrap dress) and Marc by Marc Jacobs (berry colors and groovy prints that suggest the ’40s by way of the ’70s).

Stephen Burrows
Stephen Burrows

People are also talking about Mr. Burrows because he played a pivotal role as one of the American designers who participated in the 1973 fashion spectacular at Versailles, an event recently revisited in a documentary by Deborah Riley Draper and the subject of a book planned by Robin Givhan. That show broke color barriers in fashion in a way that has not been replicated since.

As of March 22nd, in recognition of Mr. Burrows, who is 69, as the first internationally successful African-American designer, the Museum of the City of New York began the first large-scale exhibition of his early work. More than 50 of his designs, including a chromatically colored jersey jumpsuit that Carrie Donovan plucked from his boutique inside Henri Bendel in 1970 for Cher to wear in a Vogue photo shoot, are on display, along with videos, photos and one of his Coty Awards. Mr. Burrows was the first African-American designer to receive one.

“This is a humbling moment for me,” Mr. Burrows said. He worked with the exhibition curator, Phyllis Magidson, to identify archival pieces, though not many examples of his early collections still exist. It is not hard to imagine them. Just picture Pat Cleveland, gliding across a nightclub in a trail of fringe.  “I had so many things stolen, and all of my friends used to come to the studio to borrow my clothes,” Mr. Burrows said. “So they wore out.”

Over the last decade, Mr. Burrows has tried to revive his label, at first with the help of Henri Bendel, but his company has struggled to find a viable path. In October, John Robert Miller, his longtime business partner, died, and without funds, Mr. Burrows had to delay his collection.  The exhibition, he noted, could remind people he’s still here and available for a comeback.

article by Eric Wilson via nytimes.com

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