Fashion History Minor: American Royalty Stephen Burrows

The "Fashion History Minor" series will highlight the rich fashion tapestry of legendary creatives and designers throughout the diaspora as well as traditional design techniques that have undoubtedly contributed to the canon of visual aesthetics in their time and beyond.

Up next, American fashion designer Stephen Burrows who was the first African-American to achieve international acclaim in the 1970s.

Name: Stephen Burrows

Place of Birth: Newark, NJ

Taught sewing by his grandmother at an early age, Stephen Burrows made his creative mark in fashion through his meticulous adherence to a set of values that imbued his many collections; that of, exuberance and momentum. Over a four decade career, Burrows’ voice has not wavered and his aesthetic signatures of lettuce hemming and contrasting zigzag top stitching live on in the legions of young design talent inspired by his journey as a creative and businessman.

Stephen Burrows / Photo Courtesy The Fashion Makers.

Stephen Burrows / Photo Courtesy The Fashion Makers.

Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, he later received his formal training from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York graduating in 1966. Two years later, in a critical year in American history including the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the birth of the Black Power movement at Howard University, Burrows opened his first store O Boutique at 19th St and Park Avenue South. He later established his own boutique at Henri Bendel in New York, a historically important retailer that gave his brand pivotal support and a stamp of approval.

Example of Burrows’ famous lettuce edge hem from 1971. Photo Courtesy Tumblr.

Example of Burrows’ famous lettuce edge hem from 1971. Photo Courtesy Tumblr.

His creative dominance was the 1970s - an era in New York marked by nights at Studio54, the cult of pop art, and Andy Warhol, where personally and professionally he found success. The early seventies then took him to Paris. Legendary journalist Robin Givhan memorialized the 1973 Battle of Versailles in her 2015 book The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History where Burrows alongside four other American designers battled against the preeminent houses of French fashion. Doing so made Burrows the first African-American designer to hold court with a European audience and skyrocketed his collection of vibrant designs to international acclaim. Critically, the black models he selected for his show (including Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and Alva Chinn) became a boon for European designers to begin casting runway shows more inclusively. Saint Laurent, Givenchy, and Ungaro were among the first to include these black models on European runways, no doubt paving the way for dozens of black models today.

The decade also marked the start of the popular moniker-turned-movement “Black is Beautiful” and Burrows was a beneficiary with his singular designs that celebrated the individuality and independence of the women he dressed. He was drawn to disco and consistently incorporated fabrications, such as silk and jersey knit that reflected movement and color. These were the perfect combination for his coterie of muses including the aforementioned Cleveland, but also Iman, Diana Ross, and Grace Jones. Three-time recipient of the iconic American Coty Award, Burrows achieved what few African-American designers can claim - undeniable recognition at the height of his success. He was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame with a star on Seventh Avenue and received the CFDA Board of Director’s Special Tribute Award in 2006.

As in fashion, design ideas come around. Iterations of the oversized raffia hat that obscures the face used in Burrows’ New York Spring 2004 show can be seen in South African creative Rich Mnisi or French designer Jacquemus or Mexican brand Olmos y Flores’ most recent collections. The lettuce edge hem he pioneered was unmistakably leveraged at Marc Jacobs Spring 2010 presentation for its easy-moving style. For his joyful approach to design, Burrows has maintained a visual vocabulary perhaps not as au courant as critics would like, but nevertheless his own. For that, he is beloved for staying true to his values and impacting a generation of designers to follow their heart’s content.

Read our latest Fashion History Minor on Chris Seydou here.