Get your passport ready. After 45 years in the business, Stephen Burrows is still taking us places with his colorful collections and whimsical fashion. Burrow, considered the first internationally recognized African-American designer in the world, began his illustrious career in 1969 when he started with the prestigious Henri Bendel clothing store in New York City.
Since then the legendary fashion guru has traveled the world revolutionizing the industry, most notably as the originator of a finishing touch known as the “lettuce edge.” Burrows has remained at the forefront of American fashion, winning not one, but three Coty Awards (fashion’s highest honor). His sexy chiffon and flowy frocks have draped the backs of everyone from Cher, Barbara Streisand and First Lady Michelle Obama to Naomi Campbell and country sweetheart Taylor Swift. Today his youthful designs continue to inspire new generations.
CultureList caught up with the living legend during New York Fashion Week at his Spring 2013 presentation. Inspired by his jaunts in Rio De Janeiro, the collection is packed with playful prints and tropical trends. Here, Burrows dishes out tips to young designers, talks Michelle Obama’s fashion faux-pas and looks back on a fashionable 45 years in the business.
Tell me about your latest collection?
I wanted to do easy, comfortable, summertime, fun clothes with color. Of course, body conscious but it’s the designs are a little freer than usual because it’s hot. You want things to slip in and out off. Not constructed and constricted. The prints were inspired by Rio, a place I visited quite often. I was in the Rio mood and the prints just struck me.
You describe the clothes as more “body conscious.” Did you have a curvier girl in mind?
Yes! Absolutely. They are easy and comfortable and that’s why I love them so much because the clothes stretch and change with your body which is wonderful.
When did you know that you wanted to be a fashion designer?
Well I didn’t start out thinking that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was going to school to be an art teacher and the second year you have to pick a major.I had done fashion illustrations, I liked drawing. In High School we used to go to the Palladium, a Latin club on 52nd and Broadway, and I began sketching dresses for my partners to dance Latin. But then I decided I rather not illustrate, I rather be the one to think about what the dress is, instead of just illustrating someone’s dresses. That made me switch from my school in Philadelphia to FIT and that began my life as a fashion designer.
Did you face any obstacles as an African-American designer?
I never felt any obstacle in that way, ever. I got a job before I left FIT. Well you had to get a job as part of the course, but they wanted me to come back and be the head designer. I have never been the assistant to anyone and they put me in a room and said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ And that’s what I did and that’s how I started.
Speaking of FIT, any thoughts on “Project Runway” as a vehicle for finding the next big fashion designer?
I’m not a reality show lover so I have a hard time with it. It’s great for whoever participates in it I would assume but I never really watched it.
What designers do you admire today?
Jean Paul Gautier, Rick Owen, Zac Posen. I like Haider Ackermann.
How does it feel to celebrate 45 years in the business?
Like it hasn’t been that long… but it has [laughs]. And I’m still happy to be here and I still love designing.
It’s hard for some designers to remain fresh after 10 seasons, how do you stay fresh season after season?
I just like what I do and you just look for new details, new innovations in textiles and it’s fun. They keep coming up with new things. Right now it’s all about laser-cutting and you just search for new ways to finish things. New applications to fabric. You never know what what’s going to be there when you go to look.
How do you approach creating a new collection? Do you create an inspiration board?
Yes I put up things that I think I like at the moment to see if that spurs me on. Mostly the inspiration is people. It’s the body you are doing anyway so I am always body watching body language and movement and that’s what I try to put into the clothes.
Who is the Stephen Burrows woman?
She’s adventourous. She knows herself. She’s strong. She likes color and she’s not afraid of it. She has different facets of her life. She’s a very active woman from the daytime to the nighttime and that’s my customer.
You have designed for everyone from country singer Taylor Swift to Michelle Obama. What was it like when you saw the First Lady in your designs?
I couldn’t believe that she like it. She wore it twice and that’s risking a lot there but she liked it obviously.
Have you ever been asked by a celebrity to design something just for them?
Yes by Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland…
How do you approach creating an original piece for Diana Ross?
This was a bathing suit for a photo shoot actually and I just made up a bathing suit that I thought would be good for her. And she loved it. I don’t know. You just do what the task is at the moment.
What do you consider some of your career highlights?
Versailles in ‘73. My Cody Awards in 73, 74 and 77. And my CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] Award in 2006.
What advice would you give to African American designers trying to enter into the business?
Go to school. Learn something about business even though you hate it. You need a healthy business in order to make a living at designing. And you got to mix commercial with your artistic side so you have things to do sell [laughs]. A lot of kids starting out don’t want to know about these things. They just want to do, do, do all of these artistic things but can people actually wear your designs? You try to blend both of those things together so you are happy about selling and you are happy about the artistic side.
Why do you think there is such a lack of African-American designers in the business today?
It’s a hard business. Very hard and you just have to find money. Funding is a big thing today.
Tell me about your new Pazette Barbie Doll.
Mattel called and they asked me if I would be interested in a Barbie Black Collector’s Edition and I said yes. My first one was inspired by Josephine Baker and Pat Cleveland and I would have called it ‘Patricia’ but that name was taken. We had to go through a bunch of names that we liked and Pazette became the name.
Why should every Barbie enthusiast own Pazette?
Simple. She’s fabulous.