One can hear it in the way he speaks, that Stephen Burrows is one among the multitudes who came from somewhere else. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 15, 1943.
Evening Cocoon, a polychrome-printed black silk georgette dress, hand-beaded and sequined, by designer Stephen Burrows shown in theMCNY's groundbreaking 2006 exhibition, "Black Style Now."
The first, 4 years ago, was especially memorable for taking place at an unusual Harlem venue. Mounting a serpentine stair, emerging into a dimly lit cavernous hall, one was embraced by the ever louder sonorous sounds of Sonatas by Chopin. Billed as Collections, Spring Season 2010, Harlem's Fashion Row, the showing of creative apparel I attended, on a 'dark and stormy night,' was extraordinary! There surely could not have ever been a lovelier or livelier paced event held in the city.
Staged at the Gatehouse, a late Victorian industrial building-turned performance space, the show featured the elegant work of Dinna Soliman, wildly experimental offerings for men by handsome Haitian native José Duran, design-team-sisters, Lialia, and the incomparable Epperson.
Audrey Smaltz and Epperson
Characteristic of occasions honoring Burrows, people were at pains to look their best. Every bit as chic and arresting as anything viewed in the collections presented, was the raiment of the fashionable, diversely-multicultural and inter-generational audience.
Such hats and coiffures, such precious paste jewelry, such fabulous frocks and marvelous shoes, all made one optimistic, that allure and glamour are not yet extinct!
And, as if one needed for that notion to be underscored, at the very end, all of the show's models formed a tableau vivant, and a bouquet wasthrust at that ultimate high-fashion-icon, Stephen Burrows. Wearing black, armed with sunglasses, the maestro smiled shyly, as the elegant crowd stood to pay respectful tribute.
Stephen Burrows and Veronica Jones
What strides this masterful man made in the 1970's, dressing Cher, Diana Ross, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minnelli, Jerri Hall, Lauren Hutton, Barbara Streisand and Farrah Fawcet.
What a moment of triumph, for the entire nation, occurred in 1973. During a benefit fashion extravaganza at the Palace of Versailles,
The black models at Versailles were Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Amina Warsuma, Jennifer Brice, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, Ms. Hardison, and Ramona Saunders, who has since died. A disarming combination of simplicity and cool was what made the offerings of the American designers so effective. Think of how divinely their elegant, but uncluttered frocks must have contrasted with the sumptuousness of Versailles' Royal Opera where the show was staged. Due to a mix-up their stets had to be scrapped in favor of a bare stage. Moreover, juxtaposed with the French, the American contingent worked with an infinitesimally small crew that included Kay Thompson, Joe Eula, and Liza Minnelli.
"We had spirited music from the Love Unlimited Orchestra and that personality, and it was something that wasn't typical back in the early 1970's. Anyway, the Americans went first and I was one of the last girls," responds Hardison, who's reported to have, "Stalked down the runway in a tight-fitting yellow silk halter by Stephen Burrows, holding a floor-length train by a tiny ring on her little finger. When she reached center stage, she made a dramatic turn and haughtily dropped the train as the audience exploded in a frenzy of approval!"
At his Harlem's Fashion Row tribute Mr Burrows was accompanying our mutual friend Veronica, whose Harlem boutique from the 1990's is sadly missed. Montgomery, who was seated nearby, also no longer offers the latest in hot-high-style from her closed shop on Seventh Avenue. Rising rents and gentrification threaten the ability most African Americans once had to cater to discerning clients.
A year later, on a bright but bitterly cold and windy Monday afternoon, January 24, 2011, Stephen Burrows arrived alone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hallowed institution was hosting a commemorative lunch in his honor to recongnize the black models who walked in the legendary 'Battle of Versailles' fashion show in 1973.
Audrey Smaltz with Isabel Toledo and Kim Hastreiter
Ruben and Isabel Toledo with Donna Williams
Nancy Lane with Spencer Means
Victoria Horsford with wonderful Audrey J. Bernard
Lowery Stokes Sims
Michelle R. Paige Paterson with great designer b. Michael
Amy Fine Collins, Robert Verdi and b. Michael
Amy Fine Collins chats with Hamish Bowles
Tonya Lewis Lee
Desiree Rogers and her daughter Victoria
Thirsty Jason Wu
Alma Rangel with Norma Aarden, Renald White and Bethann Hardison
Not even the Metropolitan Museum's President's Emily K. Rafferty's mink trimmed hoodie exceeded the brio of Thelma Golden's smart coat made by her husband, Nigeria-born fashion designer Duro Olowu.
Isabel and Ruben Toledo
Robin Bell Stevens who runs Jazzmobile
Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta and innovative star Stephen Burrows, who were all victors at the battle of Versailles
Charlene Dash, Jeniffer Brice, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, Norma Jean Darden, China Machado and Billie Blair.
"Things have improved, today is better," said Charlene Dash garbed in dashing shocking pink silk. "Then, a part of our appeal was definitely an outré exoticism. I was told to my face, 'You are down, and cool, but you're not like other blacks...' The 'loud', 'unreliable' and 'nigger-ish' which in earlier times would have proceeded the 'like other blacks, was merely inferred. That was supposed to be progress then, and my presumed aberrant behavior, was meant as a compliment."
A daughter of privilege, enjoying every material and academic advantage, Norma Darden's young life seemed as idyllic and enviable, in its way, as Princess Dianna's or John Kennedy, Jr.'s. Its unraveling was no less abrupt or dramatic. For both Norma and her sister Carol, seeking the proper role-model meant nothing more than looking to their college educated, former school teacher mother. When she was murdered, while gardening, by a panicked burglar, with her own hoe, their cosseted world was turned upside down. The police knee-jerk insistence that their father must be the culprit was still another blow. Because the Dardens were so widely respected, so accomplished and affluent, the story ran in all the papers and on the TV news for days.
'What', one wonders, has any of this to do with the battle of Versailles fashion challenge, or with black models, or Stephen Burrows? It only underscores how far Norma Darden and her sister models had all come back in 1973, when they arrived at the fabled palace built by Louis XIV, to momentarily gain world notice. For all of them, this fete was a highlight of their lives. Like Norma, they have evolved. Leaving modeling, Norma and her sister Carol produce an award-winning family history, brilliantly laced with extraordinary family lore, precious old photographs and heirloom recipes, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, was in turn parlayed into a catering firm and three wildly popular Spoonbread restaurants featuring 'down-home' favorites. Whatever they do, the models who stormed Versailles provide opportunities for others that they didn't have and this is the true measure of their accomplishment.
In May 2006 the CFDA honored Burrows with “The Board of Directors Special Tribute;” adding the designer to the ranks of such previous luminaries as Tom Ford and Alexander McQueen. Around the same time, Burrows was invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode to return to Paris to present his Spring/Summer 2007 Collection in the Carousel de Louvre. "BURROWS IN PARIS" was presented to resounding applause as part of French Fashion Week. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes of " The International Harold Tribune” praised Burrows as “the Master of matte jersey and colour combinations!” In addition to “Stephen Burrows World”, Burrows expanded his company to include a number of labels drawn from various points of inspiration. “S by Burrows” was created for a venture with Home Shopping Europe (HSN) in Munich, Germany, while “Everyday Girl” was inspired by Anna Cleveland, daughter to muse and model Pat Cleveland, and “SB73,” a cut and sew knit line that was developed based on Burrows’ hallmark, color-blocked creations of the seventies