(The Root) — First lady Michelle Obama is credited with turning relatively unknown designers into superstars, the most famous being Jason Wu, who became a household name after she selected his dress to wear to her husband's first inaugural ball. But she has also helped America rediscover superstars. In 2010 she wore a pantsuit by Stephen Burrows, one of the most influential black designers in U.S. history, and the first African-American designer to become a household name.
After briefly toiling in his own boutique, simply titled O Boutique, Burrows landed a spread in Vogue magazine and began being sold in the legendary New York boutique Henri Bendel. He soon became the go-to designer for New York nightlife, creating dresses worn by Studio 54 regulars and Hollywood starlets alike. His fashion shows featuring early black supermodels like Pat Cleveland became nearly as iconic as his clothes. Burrows dressed celebrities from Diana Ross to Bette Midler, Grace Jones and Farrah Fawcett — who wore one of his most memorable pieces, a liquid gold dress that epitomized disco chic, to the 1978 Academy Awards. But Burrows' greatest influence may have been overseas.
In 1973 he helped America win the Battle of Versailles. During a benefit to raise funds for the Palace of Versailles in France, American and French designers sent competing designs down the runway. With France considered the fashion capital, the evening was not supposed to be much of a competition. But American designers Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Anne Klein and Burrows, who was the youngest, brought the house down with their show featuring 11 black models sporting their designs. The showdown inspired a feature-length documentary, Versailles 73.
Burrows is the subject of an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, "When Fashion Danced," which runs through July 28. During a private tour of the exhibit hosted by Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Burrows spoke to The Root about his legacy, his future and why diversity has gotten worse in the fashion industry.
The Root: When did you know you wanted to be a designer?
Stephen Burrows: I guess 1961, my first year in college. I was going to be an art teacher. [That was] my initial goal. But my second year, I had to pick a major. I was on a tour of the school and they took me through the economics department, which was full of mannequins, and I just thought to myself, "Well, I like the sketching, but an illustrator just copies the dress, so maybe I should try my hand at designing." So I applied to [the Fashion Institute of Technology] and got into FIT, and I switched schools and in 1964 started at FIT.
The Root: How does it feel to have an entire exhibit dedicated to your work?
SB: It's an honor. I feel honored. It's a little overwhelming. [Laughs.] But I'm honored, and I'm just glad we found pieces to put on a good show.
TR: Do you have a favorite moment from your career?
SB: Well, any time Pat Cleveland wears anything of mine is sheer perfection, and of course Farrah Fawcett at the Academy Awards was a great moment.
TR: There were so many popular models of color in the '70s and '80s — even more so, it seems, than today. Why do you think that is?
SB: It's the designers, and now everything is so dictated. The suits [brand executives] are picking out the models, and they don't want personality. We liked personalities back then, and I'm sorry they don't still like that, because it takes the life out of the clothes, the way the models are today.
TR: Also, back in the '80s, there seemed to be more black designers succeeding, from Willi Smith to —
SB: Yeah, you don't have that today.
TR: Why is that?
SB: The money. The funding. It's hard finding funding. It's gotten even harder as the years go by. There are so many designers today that it's saturated. If you don't have big money behind you, it's hard to stay in the loop.
TR: What advice would you give to an aspiring young designer of color?
SB: Learn something about the business side of designing — the commercial side — because you have to be a little commercial and at the same time hope you can have the artistic thing that you want. But you still have to sell things to stay in business. You have to compromise a little bit.
TR: How did it feel when first lady Michelle Obama wore one of your designs?
SB: Great. She wore it twice! [Laughs.] That's unusual. I was very flattered.
TR: Have you ever spoken to her?
SB: No, it was all done through a boutique in Chicago.
TR: Besides this exhibit, where can people find your clothes? At upcoming Fashion Week?
SB: Hopefully. It's not confirmed yet, but you can also go to stephenburrows.com.
Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.