Fashion designer Stephen Burrows’ influence can be seen in the work of many younger designers such as Marc Jacobs, who have spoken openly about how much they admire his signature clothes of the seventies, matte jersey dresses with fluid lines and the fluttering ‘lettuced’ hems and edges for which he became famous. He later said the ‘lettucing’ was a mistake but he liked the way it looked and stuck with it. His clothes are collected by museums, including the Costume Institute at the Met, as well private collectors. As with most designers, he had a heyday and then his star faded somewhat, until Bendels, seeing the resurgence of his look in early 2001, asked him to design a collection again. From there he has found backing and he now has his own business once more. He’s shy but has a sly sense of humor and, like a lot of shy people, strong opinions once you scratch the surface. (Ed. note: the following interview with Stephen Burrows was conducted before the last Presidential election.)
Let’s talk a little bit about your life. One of the things in all these stories that we read about you is that they keep referring to these ‘twenty years of obscurity’ or ‘twenty years out of the limelight’ and I wanted to know how you would describe those twenty years.
Well I was doing private customers, I was doing an off-Broadway show and at the same time I was looking for people to get into business with, [something] which I couldn’t find (people I was comfortable with) … and so you know, I didn’t do anything! Except privately, underground, not visible.
STEPHEN BURROWS' Fall/Winter 2009 Collection ...
So you yourself don’t call it twenty years of obscurity?
Well, that’s what they call it but I was working and I drew all the time. You just start out doing something you like, that you get famous doing … you don’t start out saying, I want to be famous. You just have a vision that seems click at the time.
Yeah, you were very much of your era.
It was all about freedom … freedom in dressing, no linings, knits and color.
Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Met said about how your clothes ‘captured an innocent expression’ of what was a very hedonistic era.
Yeah, they said they were very ‘young’, which was associated with innocence I guess. But you couldn’t wear underwear under [my clothes] you know! You couldn’t wear a bra. I didn’t care about anything like that.
Yes, I read that they were ‘clothes that were easy to get out of’…
And into, too.
Are you nostalgic about that era?
Well, it was a very experimental time, which you don’t have now.
Why? Why don’t we have that now?
[hesitates] … The only way to explain it is that the buyers are like bean counters … there’s no creativity about it. It’s stagnant. It goes through evolutions. The creativity is being suppressed. Everyone looks the same. There’s a certain banality to it you know … they’re not adventurous. It’s easier to follow.
What is a designer to you, as opposed to a stylist?
Well you think of things, the shapes that aren’t the usual thing. It’s all about something new, trying to keep it fresh, and commercial at the same time, something somebody wants.
How do you know what somebody might want?
And are you better at the business end of things than you used to be?
Oh yeah! Much more. I didn’t care about that at the time. You just care about the clothes. I made myself clothes and all my friends would come and wear my clothes. The girls were all in pants and shirts … that was the thing.
Do you still have the same friends now?
Mostly … the ones who are still with us … yeah.
Stephen with ... Maxine Martins, Audrey Smaltz, and Barbara Zinn Moore; Brigid Berlin and India the Pug Dog.
So can you tell us about your resurgence in 2002?
It was 2001. I bought a house in Harlem in 1999 and we decided we would have a Bed & Bath, not a Bed & Breakfast, for short-term rental. We were going to do this and then Bendels called me up, the president wanted to see me. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. My big heyday was in Bendels. He said that he was looking at a W magazine about the history of fashion and had seen one of my pictures. And he said he loved my clothes and wanted to have them in his store again.
Had you stopped making clothes?
Yes. I was renovating the house. Anyway, we opened at Bendels in 2002 in February and that was very successful initially. But the store’s a mess.
No one has been able to recreate what Geraldine Stutz made of that store … that row of shops. That was like a total fantasy land.
Right. She was a very interesting woman to work with. I went to show her my clothes and she said, I’ll give you a boutique. I was stunned! This was in 1969.
How do you feel about your work now?
I love designing more than anything and if it’s selling, I’m more than happy. But I like the place I’m in … I’m happy. I just wish we could sell more …
Stephen Burrows with ... AlvaChinn; signature backpack (or fanny pack); Pat Cleveland.
So I want to ask you this. I read this article in the City section [of the Times] by this gay African American guy living in Chelsea, you know, pretty much was invisible and then all of a sudden Obama became president, and all these white people who never paid any attention to him all of a sudden were really, really friendly to him. Suddenly they saw him whereas before he had been invisible. Do you find that people are all of sudden more interested in your work because you’re African American?
[Laughs] Noooo … [keeps laughing] … at least not yet.
Don’t you think it would be odd if Michelle Obama wanted to have an African American design her dress for the inauguration?
Oh well they’ll make an issue of it. They’ll make her feel so uncomfortable that she’ll have to do it. She should wear what she wants to wear – except for that red and black dress, that horrible dress. I’ve never seen anything so horrible [shudders] … the whole thing. That dress made her look like she was just one big bottom …
But otherwise she’s got a pretty good track record…
That’s true. She shops at Ikram in Chicago. That’s where she probably got that dress.
Do you think her role is to champion African American designers?
Not particularly. She can champion who she likes … it’s just that they’ve been so in the background, they would like it. If you can show us off, why not do it? Because we’ll never get the coverage any other way, you know?
Stephen with ... Helen Gurley Brown; Pat Cleveland and Paul von Ravenstein.
What is wrong with the fashion industry in that regard? Why are they so skewed towards promoting white designers and white models?
That question I cannot answer. I have bafflement. A lot of them say that blacks or minority groups are not in their demographic. They don’t see them as a customer. And it’s just not true. It’s a stupid thing to say. It’s like cutting yourself off. ‘It’s not in the demographic’ It’s really, well, I wouldn’t say depressing, but it’s sad.
But when you design, you don’t design with any skin color in mind, do you?
No it’s a body. A well-kept body. It can’t be fat. Normally round is one thing, but fat is fat.
When you’re not working what do you like to do?