Museum image of a Stephen Burrows garment

Stephen Burrows, Woman’s Ensemble: Top and Skirt, 1971-1972, Philadelphia Museum (Link)


American designer Stephen Burrows was born on September 15, 1943, to a Trinidadian-American father and an African-American mother in Newark, New Jersey, where he was raised by his mother and grandmother. [1] As a child, he developed a love for clothing and sewing, making ensembles with his grandmother’s zig-zag sewing machine for dolls. [2] Also inherited from his grandmother was an innate love for dancing. [3] Finding he had a natural affinity for movement, she enrolled him in dance classes to the horror of his mother, who “worried it would make him effeminate.” [4] However, Burrows never lost his love for fashion or for dance, instead embracing them both and carrying them into his adult life as defining aspects of his unique design perspective. After setting out to be an art teacher and attending the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, he decided to pursue fashion instead, and switched to Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where he graduated in 1966. 

In the summer of 1968, after short stints designing at Weber Originals, co-founding O Boutique (across the street from Max’s Kansas City in New York), and designing a ready-to-wear collection for retailer Bonwit Teller, Burrows met film director Joel Schumacher. [5]  Schumacher, who was then the visual display director for the 5th Avenue luxury department store Henri Bendel, eventually organized an introduction, during which Burrows could meet the store’s president, Geraldine Stutz. [6] [7] According to a 2002 New York Times article, “Mr. Burrows showed up for the appointment with a single melton bathrobe coat, which he intended as men’s wear. ‘She put this coat on and twirled around in front of this mirror — you know, she had this famous mirror,’ he recalled, ‘and she said, ‘I’ll give you a boutique.’” [8] She was true to her word, and in 1970, “Stephen Burrows World,” a boutique inside the department store, was born.

The partnership made Stephen Burrows one of the first Black designers to become internationally-known. Stephen Burrows World attracted celebrities like Diana Ross, Cher, and Barbra Streisand, who wore his colorful body-conscious designs with the ease and fun they were created to evoke. [9] What made Burrows’ designs unique and attractive to women of the ‘70s was his almost-childlike sense of color, fun, and whimsy, coupled with a sexy and easy-to-wear simplicity that refused to compromise the quintessential glamour of the period. Forever a lover of dancing and music, his clothes reflected streetwear and the party-ethos that came to define New York’s era of decadence and disco. In the ’70s, Burrows entertained the likes of Andy Warhol, Elsa Peretti, Joe Eula, Fernando Sanchez, and personal muse Pat Cleveland in his apartment on East 7th street, where he often cooked for them. [10] Inevitably, these get-togethers would become dance parties, and “[h]e would dress everyone, and I mean dress everyone,’ Ms. Cleveland recalled. ‘He’d create something for you in the moment.’” [11]

At a Glance

In 1973, Burrows became the first Black person to receive the prestigious Coty Award, the highest honor for designers working in the American fashion industry. That same year, he was also one of five American designers invited by PR titan Eleanor Lambert to participate in the so-called “Battle of Versailles” fashion show. He was the youngest to participate and the only Black designer. The event was the brainchild of Lambert and French curator of the Palace of Versailles Gerald Van der Kemp. [12] The idea was to stage a showing of the best of French and American fashion, which ultimately resulted in a kind of mock competition between five French designers and five American designers. [13] While the event was planned as a relatively benign fundraiser, the press labeled the event a “battle,” and the name stuck. [14] The goal of the event was two-fold. If carried off successfully, Lambert could receive unprecedented press for her designer clients, who, with the exception of Burrows, made up the entire American team. [15] Secondly, the money raised by ticket sales and donations from the French mondains would contribute to Van der Kemp’s 60-million dollar goal to restore the dilapidated roof of Versailles. [16] While Burrows was not represented by Lambert, she was well aware of his originality and talent, and also of the press that a young Black designer in the Paris couture scene could generate for herself and for Burrows. [17]

While American fashion and American designers today experience the privilege of being both influential and visible on the world’s stage, in the mid-twentieth century, the power within the fashion system was almost exclusively the domain of European designers and Parisian couturiers, in particular. Most American designers were not given the opportunity to be simultaneously original and profitable. Instead they were instructed by department store buyers to make copies of French couture to meet demands in the US, and consequently much of American high fashion became derivative. [18] By the time of the Battle of Versailles in 1973, the hierarchy of French couture over American ready-to-wear was still widely-accepted, and as such, Eleanor Lambert, and the American fashion industry had everything to prove that night. 

The French designers who participated in the night’s events were Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Cardin. The American participants were Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Anne Klein (with assistant and soon-to-be successor Donna Karan at her side) and the young up-and-comer, Stephen Burrows. While the French celebrated their storied couture past, the Americans looked forward to the future. The five French designers showed their collections first, followed by the Americans. [19] The French portion of the show was a two-and-a-half-hour-long presentation, which was described by attendees as somewhat of a “circus” [20] that seemed disjointed, chaotic and somewhat out-of-touch, with the clothes being lost in the frenzy. [21] The Americans, however, prepared a presentation that was far less complicated in nature, and with its understated power, seemed to tell a more exciting and cohesive story. Part of the simplicity was admittedly due to poor planning and far less resources than the French, however, the missing pieces and unrehearsed, improvisational quality seemed only to contribute positively to the captivating effect. 

Unlike the French, who had a full live orchestra, the Americans were forced to rely on a single cassette, with each of the tracks for the entire 37 minute show—close to two hours shorter than the French presentation. [22] They could not restart it with each new sequence; they quite literally could not miss a beat. With the exception of Liza Minelli—fresh off of her Oscar win for Cabaret—and her choreographed opening number, “Bonjour Paris,” from the musical Funny Face, the American models were relied upon to bring something artistic, spontaneous, and all their own to the runway. [23] Years after the event, Oscar de la Renta stated that it was the inclusion of Black models [and Stephen Burrows] that evening that “made all the difference.” [24] 

Burrows’ unpretentious clothes, which he has described as “toys for adults,” [25] stood in direct contrast to the highly-structured and restrictive gravitas of Parisian couture. His unlined and unstructured garments, with their singular attention to movement, use of highly-saturated Technicolor matte jersey and color-blocked poly-blends, required and encouraged models to emote and dance as they walked down the runway. They required music, which, at the time, was not customary in France, where models walked the catwalk in abstentious silence. [26]

Burrows took with him his main muse and model, Pat Cleveland, and his collaborator Bethann Hardison, who also modeled in his segment of the show that night. [27] Hardison said of her performance:

I knew how important my dress was to Stephen because [getting to Versailles] was such a journey for us. When I threw my train down, I stood and stared; I wouldn’t move. I was like, if y’all don’t feel that—fuck you! I was defying exactly who they were. This was our moment. They really felt it. They just started to stomp. I’ll never forget that. [They began shouting] bravo, bravo!” Tears came to my eyes, I was shivering; I was trembling. [I thought] oh my god, I think we did it.

After the show, the audience, made up mostly of European aristocrats and socialites hosted by Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, screamed and threw their gilt programs into the air. [28] Yves Saint Laurent conceded that Burrows was “the American designer,” a sentiment that both he and Hardison still describe as the highlight of the entire event. [29] Couturier Hubert de Givenchy confessed that it was only after seeing the American models walk down the runway to music — Barry White’s Love’s Theme, for example — that he, too, decided to use music in his shows. [30] The incorporation of background music at couture shows helped modernize French fashion by blurring the distinction between discursive conceptions of high art and popular culture. The American designers soon had a bevy of European clients, including the eager Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes who was in attendance that night, keen to be dressed in the new American sportswear. Black models, like Alva Chinn, who previously could not get work in Europe, received offers to model from various designers throughout the continent. [31]

Though the Battle of Versailles took place on a single night in the history of fashion, it represents something greater: a crucial point of convergence, visibility, and reckoning. For the first time in history, the artistic ingenuity of American designers, Blackness, streetwear and sportswear were not only acknowledged, but celebrated by those who were once gatekeepers to a culture and an industry. It punctuated, and perhaps catalyzed, a major shift away from the ancien régime of Paris couture, putting New York on the fashion map and introducing streetwear and sportswear into the global fashion vocabulary. Black America, Black queerness, and Black femininity shone that night through the radiant sounds of disco and Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra, through models Pat Cleveland, Billie Blair, and Bethann Hardison, and through Stephen Burrows, who was inspired by and embraced it all. For the French, that night proved to be a whirlwind of inspiration, and for Americans back home, it was a moment of triumphant affirmation.

Stephen Burrows, the last surviving member of the American team, is still designing. He went on to receive two more Coty awards, one in 1974, and again in 1977. [32] Actress Farrah Fawcet famously wore a gold chainmail dress of his while presenting at the 1978 Academy Awards. [33] In 2009, he was honored with a special event and fashion show by Harlem’s Fashion Row. More recently, in 2010, former First Lady Michelle Obama fittingly selected a Stephen Burrows suit to speak to a group young dance students from the Joy of Motion Dance Center and the Duke Ellington School of Arts. [34] In 2013, Burrows was the subject of retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York, entitled Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced. While the legacy of his businesses is somewhat dwarfed by the other four American designers who participated in the Battle of Versailles fashion show—perhaps a marker of the racial disparities in access to capital that still persist today—the legacy of his designs are wholly enmeshed in the visual language of global fashion. Some of his most memorable contributions are the synthesis of athletic wear, dance wear, and evening wear, color-blocking, and the ruffled lettuce edge hem, which he originated early on in his career.


Collage of images from Marc Jacobs 2002 spring ready to wear collection

Marc Jacobs, Spring 2002 Ready-to-Wear Collection

This early 2000s colleciton from designer Marc Jacobs incorporates unique design features and signatures from Stephen Burrows, including the use of color-blocking, knitwear, androgynous or unisex dressing, and flouncy hems that are reminiscent of Burrows’ signature ‘lettuce hem.’

Images: Vogue Runway, JB Villareal

Collage of images from the Christopher John Rogers Spring 2021 collection

Christopher John Rogers, Spring 2021 Ready-to-Wear Collection

This contemporary collection from designer Christopher John Rogers features several formal elements that borrow from the visual language of Stephen Burrows and the larger fashion vocabulary of the 1970s, including brightly color-blocked and striped body-con knits, the use of the disk or target motif – à la Jasper Johns – and the use of highly-saturated colors like acid and neon green and yellow.

Images: Hampden Clothing, Vogue Runway, Emmanuel Monsalve/Courtesy of Christopher John Rogers


“‘A Master of American Invention’ Panel Reflects on Stephen Burrows’ Career.” SCAD – The Savannah College of Art and Design. YouTube Video, 1:00:37.

Battle At Versailles: The Competition That Shook the Fashion Industry. 2018; M2M, Made to Measure, video.

Bellafante, Ginia. “A Fallen Star of the 70’s Is Back in the Business.” The New York Times. January 1, 2002.

Draper, Deborah Riley, dir. Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution. 2012; Coffee Bluff Pictures, video. 

Givhan, Robin. The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History. New York: 2015.

Jelen, Greta. “Color Blocking is Back, Here’s the History of the Black Designer That First Popularized It.” L’Officiel. February 14, 2021.

“Stephen Burrows.” The History Makers. July 14, 2014.


[1] Robin Givhan, The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, (New York: 2015)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ginia Bellafante, “A Fallen Star of the 70’s Is Back in the Business,” The New York Times, January 1, 2002.

[6] “Stephen Burrows,” The History Makers, July 14, 2014,

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bellafante, “A Fallen Star of the 70’s Is Back in the Business.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Givhan, The Battle of Versailles.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution, directed by Deborah Riley Draper (2012; Coffee Bluff Pictures, video)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Battle At Versailles: The Competition That Shook the Fashion Industry (2018; M2M, Made to Measure, video).

[18] Givhan, The Battle of Versailles. 

[19] Battle At Versailles, M2M

[20] Ibid. 

[21] Ibid. 

[22] Ibid.

[23] Versailles ’73, Draper

[24] Battle At Versailles, M2M

[25] “‘A Master of American Invention’ Panel Reflects on Stephen Burrows’ Career,” SCAD – The Savannah College of Art and Design, YouTube Video, 1:00:37,

[26] Battle At Versailles, M2M

[27] “‘A Master of American Invention’ Panel Reflects on Stephen Burrows’ Career,” SCAD

[28] Battle At Versailles, M2M

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Greta Jelen, “Color Blocking is Back, Here’s the History of the Black Designer That First Popularized It,” L’Officiel, February 14, 2021.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.