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The Museum of the City of New York opens Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced
Atmosphere at the preview of the Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images/AFP.

NEW YORK, NY.- When an energetic young designer named Stephen Burrows entered New York’s volatile fashion scene in the late 1960s, neither he nor the design community could have predicted his meteoric rise as one of America’s most celebrated creative forces. The first African-American designer to attain international stature, Burrows helped define the look of the disco club scene, ushering in a new, liberated version of American fashion. Opened at the Museum of the City of New York on March 22, Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced is the first exhibition to focus on Burrows as an American design force, featuring original sketches, photographs, video, and over 50 garments, ranging from his first fashion collection to slip dresses that twirled on the floor of Studio 54. The exhibition focuses on a pivotal period in the designer’s career—the years between 1968 and 1983—when Burrows’s style epitomized the glamour of New York’s nighttime social scene.

Known for his signature “lettuce” edge, red zig-zag stitching, his use of fringe and metallic fabrics, bold color blocking, and slinky, body-defining silhouettes, Burrows created danceable designs that were firmly rooted in the glamorous, over-the-top nightlife of the era. Among his celebrity clients were such style icons as Lauren Bacall, Cher, Farrah Fawcett, Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Ethel Scull, and Barbra Streisand.

Burrows’s career was distinguished by a succession of “firsts” – he was the first American designer given a free standing boutique called Stephen Burrows’ World at the trendy retailer Henri Bendel; he was among the five American designers (with Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, and Oscar de la Renta) invited to show in Paris in 1973 at the legendary “Battle of Versailles,” which for the first time pitted American designers against the French; he was included among the “Best Six” International Designers in Tokyo in 1977; and he became, in 1973, the first African-American recipient of the prestigious Coty Award (his first of three). Stephen Burrows’s designs reflected a fresh fashion sensibility that helped to solidify America’s identity as a pioneering force rather than a follower of Europe’s fashion lead. The Museum’s exhibition connects these milestones with Burrows’s influential mark on fashion in the 1970s and beyond, and examines his work within the context of the changing New York of the era.

Exhibition highlights of Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced:

• Early patchwork, fringe, and leather designs from the Stephen Burrows collection at “O” Boutique. These garments are on display for the first time and remain in remarkably pristine condition.

• Two designs worn on the runway at the Palace of Versailles in 1973. Both dresses feature the bold color blocking and form-fitting silhouettes that became a sensation as the models swayed and danced down the runway.

• Burrows’s masterful sketches illustrating the movement and freedom of his clothing. Including his original design concept for the gown modeled by Norma Jean Darden on the runway in Versailles.

• A 1972 chrome-yellow wrap dress, one of Burrows’s first examples of “lettuce” edging—the lightweight finishing technique that became his design signature lending a lighthearted effect to his clothing.

• A chromatically colored jersey jumpsuit worn by Cher in a 1970 photo shoot at Henri Bendel

• One of Burrows’s three Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards

Stephen Burrows, a New Jersey native, entered the New York fashion scene in 1966 as it was in the midst of a transformation. At the beginning of the decade, the city’s fashion industry still largely followed the directional edicts issued by the French haute couture and the American design hierarchy, but over the course of the 1960s, the emerging counterculture broke all of high fashion’s rules, embracing handcrafting, hand-dyeing, surface embellishment, and explosive color combinations. As a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology and as a young designer, Stephen Burrows embraced the sensuality and free-spiritedness of the time, creating colorful garments that playfully wrapped the body, accentuating the movements of the wearers – many of whom were his circle of friends caught up in the freewheeling club scene of the East Village and Fire Island in the late 1960s.

What began downtown as a visionary, small-scale design enterprise building a cult following at “O” Boutique (across from the legendary Max’s Kansas City) rapidly leaped into full-blown commercial production as Burrows’s clothing caught the attention of a broader fashion public. In 1970, Geraldine Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel on West 57th Street (who was on the lookout for hip new designers to invigorate uptown fashion), made Stephen Burrows Bendel’s designer-in-residence, providing him with his own atelier in the store. There, his debut collections featured vivid jersey color blocks and tightly fitted, studded leathers that directly reflected his East Village sensibility. Although he proceeded to simplify his approach to feature linear, monochromatic design, more explicitly sensual women’s wear, and lighter fabrics (notably chiffon-weight, matte Jasco jersey embellished with his signature lettuce edge), his work always maintained the spirit that had characterized it from the beginning.

From creating eclectic looks for his friends in the 1960s—unisex, anysex clothing of leather and suede, studs and fringe patched and whip-stitched into pants and vests—to his full-length, slimming jersey works on the floor of Studio 54, Burrows’s distinctive style has steadfastly followed his overriding design philosophy: that “clothes be colorful, alive, fresh, sexy, feminine, and most of all, fun to wear. They must move as the body moves, be danceable, comfortable and have a great fit, and they should give the feeling of an engineered sensuality." Even when forms took new directions, the colors, freedom and danceability of the 1960s never left Stephen Burrows’s work.

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