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).
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.
For Black History Month it is usually the norm to celebrate those with the biggest names like Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. But there are others who created milestones in Black history that deserve to be celebrated. One such trailblazer is fashion designer Ann Lowe.
In 1953, Lowe designed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. The iconic dress was constructed out of 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. As the story goes, just ten days before the wedding ceremony a water line broke in Lowe’s New York City studio and ruined the former First Lady’s gown along with all of her bridesmaids dresses. But that didn’t stop Lowe, she worked tirelessly to recreate all eleven designs in time for the Rhode Island nuptials! Yet the only mention Lowe received by name was a blurb in the Washington Post where fashion editor Nine Hyde simply wrote “… the dress was designed by a Negro, Ann Lowe.”
Born into a wealthy family, Alakija studied fashion design in England back in the ’80s and soon after founded the Nigerian clothing label Supreme Stitches. Her one-of-a-kind creations were worn by the who’s who of African society, quickly making her the premier fashion designer in the West African country. In fact, she has been called one of the “pioneers of Nigerian fashion” and stays connected to the industry through the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FDAN). The well-heeled businesswoman and philanthropist made the switch to oil in 1993 and the rest is history. Ventures Africa reports that Alakija owns at least $100 million in real estate and a $46 million private jet.