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Stephen Burrows, Still Dancing

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The work of Stephen Burrows is as much about fun as it is about fashion. And that message shines through in a retrospective of the designer’s early creations, which opens at the Museum of the City of New York tomorrow. Burrows and the show’s curators, Phyllis Magidson and Daniela Morera, gave Style.com a sneak peek of the exhibition, which features more than fifty garments created between 1968 and 1983. “I didn’t think of it as history-making or anything,” says Burrows of his early, flowing garments made to be worn with ease on the dance floor until 4 a.m. “I just did what I wanted to see in front of me.”

Intentional or not, Burrows’ clothes were history-making. At the beginning of his career, fashion’s status quo was old-world, and generally French. It wasn’t until the fabled “Battle of Versailles”—a decadent 1973 fund-raiser for the then-decaying palace during which American designers Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Anne Klein outshined elite French talents Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, and Emanuel Ungaro—that American designers became truly respected. Burrows’ fresh, fun, and wildly colorful Versailles collection—shown on video in the exhibition—was all about a free-spirited aesthetic. His presence at “The Battle” also made him the first African-American designer to rise to international acclaim.

“It was a career-changing moment,” Burrows, says, quick to add, “More importantly, it was a changing moment for American fashion on the world stage. It made everyone realize that America had a fashion voice in the world.”

Burrows, who’s in the midst of conceiving a Spring ’14 collection, recalls the seventies as a time of freedom and prolific expression. It was in the seventies that he had an atelier at Henri Bendel, won three Coty Awards, and designed for Cher, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand. “Everyone would come to my house and get dressed up,” he says. “The whole gang. And then we’d go out to all the nightclubs. Sanctuary, Enchanted Gardens, La Jardin. Later it was Studio 54.” The “whole gang” included Halston, Elsa Peretti, and his longtime muse, Pat Cleveland.

“He had a wonderful apartment in the East Village,” Cleveland recalls. “It was decorated as a jungle atmosphere, and he had a huge room filled with plants and clothes. We’d go in and just throw the clothes in the air. Whatever we caught, we’d wear out that night…guys and girls. We’d exit like a rainbow.”

Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced opens March 22 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10029. An accompanying book is being released in April by Rizzoli.

Photo: Charles Tracy (Pat Cleveland and Stephen Burrows in 1972); Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images (Exhibition) 

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Dept. of Culture