Stephen Gerald Burrows was born on 15 September 1943 in Newark, New Jersey. He studied at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art from 1961 to 1963 and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York from 1964 to 1966. Perhaps most influential to the future career of this original American designer was his seamstress grandmother, Beatrice Simmons, who taught him to sew when he was eight years old. At an early age he discovered and delighted in the zigzag stitch that would become a signature. As a designer, instead of hiding stitching, Burrows celebrated and exaggerated it by using contrasting thread colors. He used a close, narrow zigzag stitch to create his trademark fluted "lettuce hem." In an endless range of shapes and combinations Burrows placed bright contrasting colors of chiffon or knit fabrics in a single ensemble.
After having success selling pieces to friends, Burrows cofounded the O Boutique at Nineteenth Street and Park Avenue South in 1968. Attracting the countercultural luminaries that hung out at Max's Kansas City across the street, the shop and its proprietor gained a following, but Burrow's lack of business experience resulted in O Boutique's eventual closure. In 1970 Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, gave Burrows a space in the workroom of Bendel's Studio, the small manufacturing part of the store, and Pat Tennant, the manager of the design studio, became an important mentor to the designer. Stephen Burrows World opened in the summer of 1970 on the third floor of the store, as a packed audience watched a fashion show set to disco music. Leather garments with nail-studded embellishments, midiskirts, skin-tight sweaters, suede bags dripping with fringe, and Burrows's famous super bright jersey knits shown on ethnically diverse male and female models impressed audience and press alike.
Burrows's fluid, sexy separates are iconic of the individualist, confident woman of the 1970s. The "black is beautiful" philosophy of the 1970s was showcased through Burrows's use of African American models and his success as an African American fashion designer. More than any other designer of the 1970s, Burrows captures in his designs the vivacious energy of the disco scene. By 1973 he was at the top of the field, winning the prestigious Coty award, the highest honor in American fashion, which he was honored with again in 1974 and 1977. He was one of five American designers invited to show their clothes along with five French designers at a fashion spectacle at the Palace of Versailles in 1973. Influenced by his success and the lure of Seventh Avenue, Burrows moved out on his own that same year. With this move he lost the guidance and protection of Bendel's staff, however, and his business suffered due to poor management. Used to overseeing the details of his clothing line's production, he was unable to achieve the same quality utilizing mass-manufacturing processes.
From 1977 to 1982 Burrows relaunched a successful collection with Henri Bendel. He stepped out of the New York fashion world in 1982 when the mood in fashion was changing and the disco era was coming to a close. He relaunched a third time with Henri Bendel in 2002, when his now-retro fashions were once again in demand.
See also Fashion Designer; Jersey; Leather and Suede.
Bellafante, G. "A Fallen Star of the 70's Is Back in the Business." New York Times, 1 January 2002.
Butler, J. "Burrows Is Back-With a Little Help from His Friends." New York Times Magazine, 5 June 1977.
Morris, Bernadine. "The Look of Fashions for the Seventies- In Colours That Can Dazzle." New York Times, 12 August 1970.