28 Days of Black Fashion Design: Stephen Burrows

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Known for his signature lettuce hems, unorthodox use of color, exaggerated stitching and use of stretch fabrics, Stephen Burrows is a master draper whose sexy, fluid dresses remain timeless pieces that celebrate the female form.

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Pat Cleveland and Stephen Burrows, 1972.

A native of Newark, New Jersey Burrows began sewing and making clothes at a young age. He made his first pair of pants from a leather trench coat that belonged to his grandmother. He would go on to attend an arts high school, Philadelphia Museum College of Art, and then graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

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Stephen Burrows’s collection for Henri Bendel in Central Park in 1970. Photo: Charles Tracy 

After graduating, he worked for Weber Originals but shortly after, left and co-founded O Boutique. The next year, he would start a ready-to-wear line with a colleague, selling to the upscale department store, Bonwit Teller. In 1969, he was introduced to Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel department store, a relationship that would see Burrows work in and out of Bendel’s for years to come.

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Jersey dresses with studded leather tops, 1970.
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Pat Cleveland in red two-piece matte jersey skirt with wrap top and matching red stockings and shoes. Selected by Diana Vreeland. San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1972. Photograph: Charles Tracy

Stutz hired him and offered him his own boutique, Stephen Burrows World. His jersey knits and leather garments captured the disco vibe of the era, and he was an instant hit, capturing the attention of celebrity clientele like Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Cher. In fact, Farah Fawcett called Stephen in 1978 to wear his gold, two piece chainmaille gown to the Oscars. It continues to be one of the most memorable looks in Oscars history.

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Farrah Fawcett and Marcello Mastroianni at the 50th annual Academy Awards in 1978. Photo: Getty Images

After leaving Bendel’s in 1973, he established his own company on 7th Avenue. That year, he also participated in a show that would make fashion history. He became one of five American designers to showcase at the Battle of Versailles in Paris, France, and the first African American designer to gain international fame. He would also introduce the world to Pat Cleveland and Bethann Harrison who would all go onto even greater careers in modeling. Journalist Enid Nemy who’d been covering the event for the New York Times said, “Burrows made such an impact. It was, ‘Wow!’ There was none of that old regime, … He was the breakout star because of everything about it: the models, the clothes. They were clothes that I liked a lot and wanted to wear.” (2016, A.G. Nauta Couture)

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Pat Cleveland being fitted by Stephen Burrows.
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Models Bethann Hardison (left) and Ramona Saunders (right) in Stephen Burrows gowns at the Battle of Versailles fashion show.
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Models Bethann Hardison & Daniela Morera with Stephen Burrows at Versailles.
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(left to right) Bethann Hardison, Stephen Burrows, and Pat Cleveland in Savannah, Georgia. Photo: Colin Douglas Gray

Burrows continued to design collections, entering and exiting Bendel’s. He made a return to NYFW in the early 2000’s, and more recently, in 2010, he became one of the many designers who have collaborated with Target stores, lending his creativity to a capsule collection for the discount store. He has even collaborated with Mattel, designing 3 Barbie dolls.

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Burrows with pieces from his Target collaboration. Photo: Fred R. Conrad, NYTimes.
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Burrows’ Barbie designs for Mattel.

Burrows has been acknowledged with multiple awards for his work including the Council of Fashion Designers of American Fashion Critics Award; the Coty Award (the first African American to win and a total of 3 during his career); lifetime achievement awards from both the Savannah College of Art and Design and Pratt Institute; and was admitted into the Fashion Walk of Fame.

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An illustration by Mr. Burrows of lettuce-edge dresses for the Coty Awards, 1973

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“Clothes should be fun and easy to move in. They’re like toys for adults to play with”—Stephen Burrows


“Battle of Versailles, the Most Glamorous Night in Fashion History (Book & Documentary).” Battle of Versailles, the Most Glamorous Night in Fashion History (Book & Documentary) |. A.G. Nauta Couture, 18 June 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

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