Reminiscing with Stephen Burrows in Savannah

Published May 20, 2014

ABOVE: (LEFT TO RIGHT) BETHANN HARDISON, STEPHEN BURROWS, AND PAT CLEVELAND IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA. PHOTO COURTESY OF COLIN DOUGLAS GRAY.

Over the weekend, New York-based designer Stephen Burrows found himself in Savannah, Georgia. The reason for his trip was two-fold: to celebrate the opening of a new retrospective of his work at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum, and to receive SCAD’s André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement fashion award.

At first meeting, Burrows can seem reticent. When asked about the ’70s, however, an effervescent bolt of childlike energy flashes through him. The man behind the iconic flirty dresses and subversive patchwork skirts of the era is suddenly giddy with nostalgia, eager to share intimate anecdotes about his model friends and muses, Bethann Hardison and Pat Cleveland, who were also in attendance for the weekend’s festivities.   “This is my favorite look in the show,” said Burrows, referring to a handkerchief-hemmed robe-cum-mini-dress in dove gray, sheer silk chiffon, its crisscross seams edged with red thread, a Burrows signature.  “I remember Pat wearing this in Paris at Club Sept, dancing on the bar opposite model Donna Jordan,” he continued.   “Oh, yes. I loved wearing that dress. And I didn’t wear anything underneath, only heels,” a breathless Cleveland recalled. Burrows was quick to remind the group of Cleveland’s artful grooming of her nether region that night: “It was shaved into the shape of a heart!” Hardison also remembered going commando in Burrows’ designs, though not to the extent of Cleveland’s racy toilette: “It was the look, honey. Nobody wants to see lines in that clingy matte jersey. It was sexy!”   Floor-to-ceiling images of a young Elsa Peretti, bust exposed in Burrows originals, are mounted at either end of the Talley curated exhibition, and more than a few ensembles, displayed on Crayola-colored mannequins, are Rihanna ready. Standout looks include slinky gold chainmail crop tops with slim skirts that fall just above the ankle, and day dresses paired with oversize accessories by Pharrell, Stephen Jones, and Miuccia Prada. Many of the garments are decades old, yet just as relevant today.

For her part, Hardison—who next month will receive the CFDA’s  Founders Award for her efforts championing diversity in the fashion industry—remembered a time when “Stephen was it, not because he was black, but because he was cool.” As a founding member of downtown’s ultra-hip O Boutique—the fashion equivalent of today’s A$AP Mob—Burrows and Co. quickly caught the attention of Henri Bendel’s Geraldine Stutz, who installed the experimental collective at the uptown pillar of cutting-edge shops-in-shop.   Shortly thereafter, Burrows and his posse, including Cleveland, were featured in a Vogue layout wearing outfits by the color-blocking wunderkind, reminiscent of a scene from the musical Hair. That image, used as a backdrop in the intimate gallery space, inspired Talley, then a student at Brown University, to cajole a classmate into adding “a must-have skirt” from the then-emerging designer’s collection to her wedding trousseau.   Burrows was suddenly a force on Seventh Avenue, and showed alongside Oscar de la Renta, Halston, and Bill Blass at the now iconic “Battle of Versailles” in 1973. Burrows’ ebullient designs, shown on an ethnically diverse group of young women, wowed the otherwise staid crowd, and caused Yves Saint Laurent, Jacqueline de Ribes, and Princess Grace of Monaco to sing his praises. The event not only cemented Hardison’s and Cleveland’s careers as trailblazing models as they slithered and twirled in the show, respectively, but secured an enduring friendship with Burrows as well.

STEPHEN BURROWS: AN AMERICAN MASTER OF INVENTIVE DESIGN IS ON VIEW AT THE SCAD MUSEUM IN SAVANNAH, GEORGIA, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15.