Stephen Burrows is indeed a fashion legend. He’s the first African-American designer to achieve acclaim on an international level; A big deal even today, when many black designers lack the backing (financial or otherwise) to get their foot in the door. Burrows gained notoriety during an era when Studio 54 was the place to be and disco reigned supreme. His penchant for using jersey fabrics in vibrant colors set him apart from his counterparts who at the time were focused on more structured European inspired looks. It’s been over 40 years since the start of his illustrious career, and his designs are still alive and kicking.
Q: How did you get started in the fashion industry? Has fashion always been something that you loved?
I was going to Philadelphia Museum College of Arts to become an art teacher, and I decided after my first year there that I would try my hand at fashion design as a major. To that end, I decided to switch schools and go to FIT in New York City.
Q: It has been said that your early work captured the essence of the early 70s. Is your approach to design any different today than it was when you first started?
I have the same aesthetic–make it colorful, sexy, comfortable and with a great fit. Today you also have a more versatile textile market in knitted fabrics, which I love, and it helps keep you current.
Q: You’ve been designing for over forty years. How have you stayed inspired all of these years?
I love what I do so it’s more often then not, fun. Yes, you do have your ups and downs but that’s just part of this business, you can’t be perfect all the time it’s just impossible. I also have great muses to get inspiration from since I have known them from the beginning of my career; Pat Cleveland , Alva Chinn and now Pat Cleveland’s daughter, Anna Cleveland who is 18 and modeling.
Q: What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment?
As someone said to me when I asked them “what would you say was my greatest contribution to fashion history in one word,” and they replied, ‘newness’ you brought something totally new to fashion.” I don’t think I could say it better, so I have adopted that statement as it sounded so right.
Q: The fashion business is not known for being kind or forgiving, and you’ve achieved the kind of longevity that most designers can only dream of. What do you think has been the key to your success?
Being in the right place at the right time and a lot of luck along the way from friends and associates who believe in my talent.
Q: How have you weathered ups and downs during the course of your career?
You just never give up because you love what you do. I would be a teacher at a college somewhere if I wasn’t doing this.
Q: If you had to start your career over again, is there anything that you would do differently? If so what?
I would have taken more business courses in college—just so I knew more about profit and loss, so to speak. But math was my least favorite subject therefore difficult for me, so of course I steered away from it.
Q: There’s been much ado about the lack of representation of women of color on the runway. And generally speaking, there aren’t many African American designers who receive international recognition. Why do you think that is?
Economics and demographic profiling by the powers that be in that given industry.
Q: What’s up next for you Mr. Burrows?
I’m always looking to expand my company. I’d love to design for film, have a men’s wear line and some freestanding BURROWS stores around the world sometime in the near future.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers?
Go to school and learn your desired craft and take a few business courses as a minor just so you know something about how it all works and you do not appear ‘a duck out of the water’ on the business side.