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Stephen Burrows Recalls Henri Bendel's Glory Days

We sat down with the designer before the SCAD fashion show to talk about his long career and the legendary Battle of Versailles fashion show.

Stephen Burrows's designs hung in the closets of many of the 1970's chicest women; Jerry Hall, Cher and Diana Ross all slipped into Burrows's creations. His fluttering lettuce hems and bright knits turned the disco divas of the international nightclubs into exotic birds of paradise.

But celebrity dressing was just the tip of the iceberg for Burrows's career, which was honored Saturday evening at the 2014 SCAD Student Fashion Show. Longtime friend André Leon Talley presented Burrows with the ALT Lifetime Achievement Award. Burrows, who was also honored by Pratt in earlier this month, is still excited by the recognition after decades in the industry. 

"I love getting awards," he told Fashionista earlier that day. "My peers in the industry showing me that I mean something to them, that's a great feeling."

Another close friend on hand for the evening was legendary model Pat Cleveland; she actually snagged a black knit dress off of a mannequin at the SCAD exhibition featuring Burrows's work, and danced across the stage in it while the designer accepted his award.

It was a fitting tribute to Burrows's career -- after all, his designs were made to dance. But Cleveland has been taking a twirl in his dresses at most of the major moments in his career, including his first fashion show at Henri Bendel department store, which gave Burrows his very own boutique in 1969.

"In college, the store that everyone wanted to be at was Bendel's," Burrows recalled. "They helped make me famous. That was a great experience and working with all of those people there, because they hired almost the whole group of us, we were all transported to Bendel's and that was absolutely amazing."

Burrows remembers that his group of friends and coworkers took over the store -- both literally and figuratively, thanks to a signature scent. "We all wore this fragrance called Musk from Kiehl's," he explains, laughing at the memory. "And they ended up banning it because they said the whole store smelled of musk!"

Despite forging friendships and enjoying the exposure, Burrows left Bendel's in 1973 when his contract expired and the department store refused him a raise. Yet this was hardly a setback; he won his first Coty award that same year, and participated in the now-historic Battle of Versailles fashion show, which cast an unprecedented number of black models, a moment of pride for the designer.

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"Back then, all the black girls were working -- in New York, at least, it was a big thing and it wasn't so much in Paris," he explains. "But after Versailles they started using them in Paris too -- Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ungaro -- it started something."

It's sadly one of the few things that hasn't changed since Burrows's heyday. "[Casting directors] think that that's not the customer, so they don't pay any attention to it," he says. "But that is the customer, they're all different color customers! Especially since it's more global now, there's even more color! So I don't understand how they can ignore it, it's ridiculous."

(He's especially proud of pal Bethann Hardison, who is leading the charge with her Diversity Coalition. "She's been at it for awhile, and really successful with that letter they sent out naming people," he adds. "It was really adventurous of her to do that and I'm glad she did do it because it helped.")

Of course, the rest of the business is quite different now -- Bendel's recently shuttered its third-party retail business, choosing to focus instead on in-house brands. But on top of that, it's become much more difficult to finance a line. Where once designers could have ordered fabric samples or purchased something on an advance, many are now required to pay for everything upfront and order in higher numbers.

"That's a sad part about today's fashion world," Burrows says. "Finding funding to put a line together and put it out is very expensive."

Still, don't count Burrows out just yet -- he's designing the costumes for a religious opera, and has a third Barbie doll in the works. And another fashion show is always on the table -- provided he can get that elusive financing. He's currently seeking private funding. "I'm still inspired and will keep doing it until I drop!" he says with a laugh.

"It's exciting to do it and I love doing it," he adds seriously. "I'm so happy that I found something that I love to do that I can do for my whole life, because sometimes people don't find that."

Disclosure: Fashionista was provided travel and accommodations in Savannah by SCAD.

Above: Stephen Burrows at SCAD. Photo: Courtesy