Stephen Burrows is the downtown designer who won the ultimate Paris runway battle. When American power publicist Eleanor Lambert organized the Battle of Versailles in 1973, she wanted to show that the burgeoning American fashion industry could hold its own against the Goliath of the fashion world — France. The Battle of Versailles was a runway extravaganza, pitting French designers Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin and Marc Bohan against American creatives Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Stephen Burrows.
Burrows was the only Black designer on the docket. He was also the youngest designer to show, but he was, in the words of fashion journalist Robin Givhan (who wrote the book on the Battle of Versailles), the one who represented what American fashion was all about.
Burrows was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1943. He came to New York City by way of the Fashion Institute of Technology, graduating in 1966. Though he was hired after completing his degree to work for Weber Originals, he left after just a year to co-found O Boutique and launch his own ready-to-wear line. O Boutique lasted only two years, but it paved the way for the launch of his store Stephen Burrows World in 1970. Located in the upscale Henri Bendel store, Stephen Burrows World counted the likes of Cher and Diana Ross among its clientele.
Burrows’ aesthetic defined ’70s fashion — slinky dresses, eye-popping colors, his signature lettuce hem and jersey, lots and lots of jersey. He made clothes for the party scenes he frequented at Studio 54 and Fire Island, that is clothes that came alive with movement and dance. His designs haven’t always survived the decades partly for that reason; as he told The New York Times, his friends were always stealing them to wear out.
In 1973, Burrows won a Coty Award, making him the first Black designer to do so. It was that win that caught the eye of Lambert and led her to invite Burrows to Versailles. He brought with him many of the now-iconic Black models of the era — Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, all of whom showcased Burrows’ and the other American designers’ clothes with a vivacity that blew the stuffy, over-bloated French presentation out of the water. The French designers relied on their heritage to uphold their work, with grandiose, Rococo-style sets and a live orchestra. The Americans showed up with a soundtrack of pre-recorded Al Green and Barry White songs and not much else. The clothes themselves were equally simple, but the garments — and the models who wore them — didn’t need anything more to come alive.
Before a crowd that included the likes of Andy Warhol, Josephine Baker, Liza Minnelli and Rudolf Nureyev, it was clear that American fashion had won the battle. Their work spoke to the future of fashion, not the past. “Saint Laurent told me I made beautiful clothes,” Burrows said in a documentary on the night, “and that was like the best moment of the trip.”
The Battle of Versailles cemented American fashion as an industry to be reckoned with. But Burrows didn’t find the success that his compatriots did following the show. Though he won further Coty Awards and a CFDA Award throughout the mid-1970s, his business began faltering by the ’80s. In 1985, he closed up shop.
In recent years, the fashion industry has paid more of its dues to Burrows. In 2006 the CFDA awarded him the “The Board of Directors Special Tribute” and in 2013 he was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York. He’s made three Barbie dolls with Mattel, sparkly, sequined looks fit for a glamazon. But Burrows’ clothing wasn’t made for a museum mannequin. It was made to be worn.