The 1970s were a transformative time for American culture. While the decade often calls to mind the over-the-top glamour of Studio 54 – and the likes of Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger and Grace Jones – there was transgressive social activity below the glittery façade. Case in point: the 1973 Versailles fashion show, in which American designers – Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta – presented their collections in Paris. Including African American models like Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison and Charlene Dash, the momentous event put America’s innovative fashion and proud diversity on the world’s stage.
The progressive fashion show was the subject of a recent film, Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution by Deborah Riley Draper. And now, the only African American designer of the historic five, Stephen Burrows, is being honored with the first ever retrospective of his work at the Museum of the City of New York.
“It’s nice to be appreciated before you pass on,” Burrows told DuJour, “It’s just an honor.”And while this is the largest collection of his work ever exhibited at once, it is not the only way he has felt the longevity of his designs. Fans and collectors alike have held onto Burrows’ garments from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. “I often hear, ‘I still have that dress. It still fits me.’ It’s very flattering,” he recalled, “Or they come and tell me that they wore the thing so much that it fell apart. The fabric then was so perishable and light and airy.”
Burrows admitted that looking at so many of his pieces in one place is somewhat jarring. “It just brings back memories of the time when I created it,” he paused, and wistfully continued, “the people who were around me and the people who are not here anymore.”
But for the designer, this exhibit is about celebrating the past. And looking back isn’t always serious. The charmingly chatty Burrows laughed when I asked what most surprised him about his early designs when looking at them today. “Things look so small! I can’t believe we were that small, that we fit into them!” He kindly added, “People are more well-built and muscular today.” (So that’s it…)
Although Burrows says that, “the business part of [the fashion industry] has changed so much” and that today, “it’s all about dollars and not so much about creativity and individuality,” he still loves the world who made him the living legend that he is today. With hopes that this exhibit will reignite his now-stagnant line, Burrows remains hopeful. “I’m just doing what I love to do.”
Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York starting March 22, 2013. (1220 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY 10029, 212.534.1672) For a look back at some of Burrows’ designs, and a preview of the accompanying book, take a look in the DuJour gallery.