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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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