Monday, August 1, 2005
Stephen Burrows is a once-celebrated designer trying to orchestrate a comeback. He is 61 years old. He works out of a first-floor office that is technically on Seventh Avenue but in fact sits about 100 blocks north of the Garment District, where fashion's main street broadens into Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem.
Those few miles might as well be a million, as the fashion industry struggles with myopia. Its members have trouble seeing what is not directly under their noses. They like their designers young, arriving with a prepackaged biographical story line that can be reduced to a single marketable paragraph. Favorite narratives include having an influential store purchase one's first collection straight out of design school. An elaborate tale of poverty is also appreciated.
Burrows has a story, but it isn't neat and it isn't mythical. Ask some of the veterans in the fashion industry about him and they all say the same thing: Stephen Burrows was talented. He was influential. His aesthetic still can be seen, as in the collections of Marc Jacobs, for instance. His clothes are collected by aficionados and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His work is included in an exhibition at London's highly regarded Whitechapel Art Gallery called "Back to Black -- Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary."
Over the years, as Burrows slipped into the shadows, he made mistakes and stepped on toes, but he didn't do anything cataclysmic. He is like a lot of talented people who miss out on opportunities because they take a poorly timed sabbatical, can't dazzle the boss, don't have a strong enough sense of entitlement, or simply are not charismatic enough in an age of tabloids and television.
In his heyday, which was the 1970s, Burrows set a historic precedent. He was the first African American to gain stature as an international designer. He built a profitable company capturing nonchalance, effervescence and sweaty indulgence in matte jersey dresses that looked best on lithe young women slouched in the corner of a disco in the wee hours of the morning.
Burrows made going-out clothes -- not gala dresses or cocktail frocks, but clothes worn with one hand thrown up in praise of Giorgio Moroder and the other swinging to the bliss of Bolivian marching powder. He made body-conscious clothes that were easy to wear and, in a sexually promiscuous time, easy to get out of.
His clothes reflected a pop-art sensibility. They startled the eye with adventurous color combinations and chaotic collages. And today each time a woman slips on a jersey dress with a fluttering hemline and a child's celebration of color -- a dress that makes her feel as graceful as a dancer and so comfortable she might be wearing only a slip -- she owes a debt to Burrows.
He was a creative wunderkind, but with no business sense -- or perhaps more accurately, no interest in business. "The designing is always a joy," Burrows says. "The business end of it is the drag."
While that attitude is not unusual in the fashion industry, to his detriment he never found a financial partner to make himself whole.
"The right team," says his friend Bethann Hardison, "can sell [expletive] to turkeys."
Calvin Klein had Barry Schwartz. Marc Jacobs has Robert Duffy. Tom Ford has Domenico de Sole. The closest that Burrows came to a longstanding business partner was the New York specialty store Henri Bendel. Its executives launched him on a grand scale and gave him a design home. But it was an on-again, off-again relationship that has finally gone kaput.