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.
"I've been trying to be able to do it on my own. You can do it for a year, but you can't expand," Burrows says. "It's a little frustrating when you're on the verge of collapsing because you can't find backing."
"At my age," he says, "it's harder."
For all the frustrating truths about the ingenue scrambling to the top, the story of the veteran trying to do it all over again may be little more than a heartbreaking pipe dream.
"Who comes back after 30 years?" Hardison wonders.
Very Much Alive
One afternoon at the end of April, Burrows and business partner John Miller gathered in the Garment District offices of publicist Karen Erickson, in a spacious loft on the 24th floor of an office building not far from the Parsons School of Design. Erickson's Showroom Seven pulsates with color, from the work of various designers on display and the quirky furnishings filling the space, giving it the look of an expensive kindergarten.
Erickson has been hired to perform a dual role for Burrows. She offers a central location where store buyers can see his collection, and she is attempting to mastermind a media blitz. Erickson is a tiny woman -- a sparrow in bohemian black -- who throws off a kinetic energy and the constant feeling that tomorrow is too late.
There is a strong market for vintage Burrows, but not for the new collections, even though they possess much of the same cheerfully, colorfully sexy spirit. A sunburst-hued chiffon dress with butterfly sleeves flows down the torso and splashes to the floor in a waterfall of ruffles. A long black $1,200 jersey dress is ringed with bands of turquoise and white.
The team at Showroom Seven doesn't have a plan, but it has a lot of ideas. Staff members have brainstormed names of celebrities who might be enticed to wear the clothes: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson. They have a list of magazines they'd like to see feature the collection, most of which tend to be esoteric publications with a circulation -- and this is only a slight exaggeration -- limited to about five prominent stylists. The goal is to position Burrows as a brand being organically resurrected by iconoclasts and influencers in the manner of Hush Puppies, Dickies and Puma.
Erickson is not Burrows's most eloquent cheerleader, but she is certainly his bluntest. She speaks in prayerful pleas and interjections. The problem with Burrows, as she sees it, is that a lot of people in the fashion industry, particularly editors in their twenties and thirties, do not realize Burrows is still alive. Because he is so equated with fashion's history -- the '70s, Studio 54 and a drugged-out joie de vivre epitomized by designers such as Giorgio di Sant'Angelo and Halston -- they assume that he, like the others, is dead.
"How do we change that?" Erickson cries, as she throws her arms toward the heavens.
Hooked on Clothes
In the feverish discussions about the future of his work and the fact that he is not -- not -- dead, Burrows is the least animated person in the room. His expression suggests embarrassment over the fuss, fatigue in anticipation of the hurdles he must clear and caution about wishing too hard for success. In particular, he does not look especially enthused at the prospect of courting celebrities. But he does not deny the importance of doing just that.
"It helps to get that exposure. It helps to get you in that 'class,' " he says. "It helps people believe you can reach the goal of profitability."
Burrows is a shy, preternaturally boyish man, of medium height with a distance runner's build. He keeps his hair cut short and always wears tinted schoolboy glasses. On a steamy day in June he was wearing Bermuda shorts and a plain V-neck T-shirt in olive drab, accessorized with a black leather fanny pack and black ankle boots. A week later, when he was to have his picture taken, he was wearing khaki trousers and a tropical print camp shirt with a stingy sprinkling of rhinestones. A photographer suggested he remove the ubiquitous fanny pack.
Burrows is not the sort of designer who owns a room. Even during the party days of the 1970s, he didn't make an entrance or travel solo. "We would go out en masse -- 30 people all dressed in my clothes. It was a very communal thing," Burrows says. "The boys and girls could wear the same thing and they would come and raid my closet."
Burrows stumbled into the fashion spotlight by accident. He grew up in Newark, N.J. Both his grandmothers were prolific seamstresses and they would "bring home fabrics to make clothes for Sunday." He began sewing, as so many people do, to dress a friend's doll when he was 8. Later, he would make clothes to wear out dancing.
He planned to be an art teacher. He was enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art when, in his second year, he walked past a fashion design class with its mannequins, bolts of fabric, sketches. He was hooked. In 1964 he transferred to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
By the late 1960s, he was selling his clothes at O boutique, a kind of fashion collective downtown. He bumped up against the Andy Warhol crowd, the free-love crowd, all the crowds. "There were no color barriers," Burrows says. "You liked somebody and that was it."
Eventually he was taken under the wing of the late Geraldine Stutz, owner of Henri Bendel. (The store is now owned by The Limited Brands.) She ensconced him in a boutique called "Stephen Burrows' World." He didn't look to other designers for inspiration; he didn't look to history. His clothes captured the ethos of that time in a way that no one else's did.
"I'm not sure people today can understand the gestalt of that period -- pre-STD, post-Pill. There was an incredible sense of liberation and freedom. It was an almost hedonistic sensibility," says Harold Koda, chief curator for the Costume Institute at the Met. "He captured an innocent expression of it.
"That's what he projects to me now," Koda says. "He's not cynical. He doesn't seem to have the calluses on his personality after being exposed to the fashion industry for so long."
Working with matte jersey -- a fabric that had been used almost exclusively for lingerie -- Burrows created a unique lettuce-edge hem, a finishing method in which a zigzag stitch is pulled taut until the fabric curls. The effect is a garment with a flirtatiously undulating hemline.
"Lettucing was a mistake," Burrows says. "But I liked the way it looked."
Burrows's choice of fabric distinguishes him as a hands-on designer.
"The material he selected is something you have to be engaged by. You have to handle the material. A lettuce hem, if you just sent it through the machine, it wouldn't do that," Koda says. "It requires the intervention of a person."
His obsession with jersey also has been to his detriment.
"Stephen knew that his dresses, like sweaters, had to be folded. But in department stores they had to be hung," says Hardison, who worked as Burrows's creative director. "But matte jersey doesn't live well hanging on a hanger. It starts to shrink in and grow long. So if it arrived as a 4, 6, or 8, after a while it wouldn't fit. All you have to have is a store telling you your clothes don't fit. Forget it. Stephen knew that would happen, but he couldn't convince the department stores."
In 1973, Burrows abruptly departed Bendel's, leaving a trail of bad feelings. He had gotten himself a backer -- the same moneyman working with Halston and Oscar de la Renta -- and launched a new collection. He was winning awards; Jane Fonda and Babe Paley were wearing his clothes. He had licensing deals and a fragrance called Stephen B.
And yet, "Seventh Avenue was a disaster," Burrows says. "No one knew how to make knit clothes. They considered it lingerie. Seventh Avenue considered it cheap." To attract black customers, Burrows says, his fragrance was distributed to discount stores. His brand was suffering, being watered down. And he was acquiring a reputation for being difficult.
In 1982 he left the fashion business altogether and went home to New Jersey. He stayed away seven years. Designed a bed-and-breakfast in Harlem. Made stage costumes. Cared for sick family members. And recuperated from a decade-long party that had left many of his friends dead.
He lost professional momentum and allowed the industry to forget. "I don't have regrets," he says, "because I wasn't happy. I didn't give a [expletive]."
As Burrows has come and gone, like a prodigal son, he always returned to Henri Bendel. He had one final homecoming in 2002, when General Manager Ed Burstell called him out of the blue.
"At that particular moment, what he was doing dovetailed with what was going on in fashion," Burstell says. "There's no denying the incredible talent that spans many, many years. Some of the things from the archive are just as timely today as then."
Burrows's return was heralded with a party during New York's Fashion Week. His old friends were there and he got a bit of press. He was a designer in residence at the store -- just as in the old days. Other stores could come there to buy the collection. But mostly they didn't.
During that period, the filmmaker Jenny Granville was working on a documentary about Burrows, which she is now editing for a screening in the fall. She filmed the party and later remembers waiting in the showroom, with Burrows and Miller, for the arrival of retailer Jeffrey Kalinsky, whose high-end boutiques in New York and Atlanta bear his name. She recalls the tension of anticipation. Kalinsky swept in and within minutes swept out. As Granville recalls it, disappointment descended like a cloud.
Keeping It Fresh
If people recognize the names Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein and Halston, then they should recognize Burrows's name as well. These were the five American designers who went to Versailles in November 1973 to represent the United States in an elaborate fundraiser benefiting the palace's restoration. It was like a pret-a-porter smackdown -- Americans vs. the French, who were represented by Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior.
The French had live music, Rudolf Nureyev and institutional history. The Americans had Liza Minnelli, razzle-dazzle and innovation. The Americans won -- a victory measured by enthusiastic applause, compliments from the French and celebratory headlines. A Washington Post article noted: "With a precision which had tuxedoed and normally subdued Frenchmen war-whooping with delight, the American models strutted their stuff in the first collective show by five major American designers in Europe. . . . Color, movement, pacing and superb elegant models carried the day against the entrenched home team."
The occasion raised the reputation of American fashion from parochial sportswear to creative ready-to-wear. It marked a heyday for black models, who dominated the show with their carriage and unconventional movement. Burrows became the first black designer since Ann Lowe (who created Jacqueline Bouvier's wedding dress) to gain significant recognition. He cleared a path for Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly. Two decades later, designers such as Tracy Reese, Patrick Robinson and Lawrence Steele walk in his footprints.
There have been numerous opportunities that Burrows could have brokered into something significant and lasting. He never did -- or could. Ask fashion veterans what they remember most about the Versailles competition and they will say Halston's presentation, featuring Minnelli. "The reason we remember is because Halston talked about it," Koda says. "You'd inflate your own role in it; that's the typical strategy.
"Stephen would never presume to talk about it."
There is an element of charm to his current studio -- a single room with a long cutting table, a half-dozen sewing machines and a handful of staff. But with his experience and credentials, it seems particularly unfair that a spring 2006 runway show is a struggle. Instinctively, one counts his age as the major obstacle.
"It sounds good because we live in that kind of world, but it's just one spice in the sauce," Hardison says. "Everything in our world of fashion is about newness. Not how old you are, but how can you keep it fresh."
There is no better example of a comeback in one's later years than Diane von Furstenberg, 58, who revived her signature business, epitomized by the wrap dress, in the late 1990s with a mix of business savvy, social connections and serendipity.
Burrows has conflicting feelings about race and whether it has been a deterrent.
"I always felt the industry hasn't treated minorities well," says John Miller, Burrows's business partner, who is white. "I think when anybody black walks through the door, unless it's a very chic man or woman, it's 'Oh, here comes somebody urban.' "
Burrows, who considers himself an American classicist, calls it "fashion profiling." It is even more disheartening, he says, when a community of black designers -- forced or willing -- chooses not to be self-nurturing.
"I was fascinated that Sean 'Puffy' Combs was backing [designer] Zac Posen. What does he need? He's a white boy. That was mind-blowing. Why? He can get other investors," Burrows says. "It's puzzling to me."
He wonders why Combs, who has addressed his own race and lack of privilege in his personal success story, would not invest in another black designer -- not necessarily Burrows, but one with unrealized potential and limited options.
"I can totally understand him expressing surprise, especially me representing a young black man pushing to open doors and inspire my race," Combs says. "But walking through my offices, you can see all the African Americans in this industry that I employ. . . . My overall philosophy is to empower people of color."
Combs says his investment in Posen was based on a long relationship; he has never met Burrows, but says he is an admirer and would be interested in a business venture with him. "I assumed that with his name, he was a world-famous designer living somewhere doing all this great stuff," Combs says.
In the past, it was possible to spark a designer's business with $25,000. Now it takes $1 million. Department stores don't nurture; they want guaranteed sales. And Burrows now has to compete with celebrities-turned-designers -- Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Combs.
"It's unfortunate," Hardison says, that "someone with such enormous talent has to suffer from the fact that it may not be his time."
Results of the phoenix offensive by Showroom Seven have been mixed. The collection has been picked up by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons for her Dover Street Market in London, which is an eccentric's retail laboratory. The sales will be negligible, but it is a prestigious location.
"Rei helps keep the line in people's minds. The people she partners with are perceived as very contemporary," says Burstell, who is now an executive with Bergdorf Goodman.
But for fall, only three independent retailers -- whose main purpose is to sell clothes rather than make a philosophical point -- have purchased the collection, one in Los Altos, Calif., another in Cranston, R.I., and the third in Moscow.
Burrows's designs were featured prominently in the May issue of Essence. But in Showroom Seven's big plan, Essence is not the kind of influential magazine that sets the fashion agenda.
i-D magazine, however, is. And in the June issue, Burrows's designs were pictured alongside labels such as Cloak and Luella, both of which have cachet as brands on the rise.
The only problem was that even as his clothes were cast in the shadowy light of chic and cool, Burrows's name was misspelled. "Stephen Burro" was getting all the credit. And Stephen Burrows got nothing at all.