Burrows Has A Lifelong Career In High Fashion

New York City is considered one of the world's fashion capitals. And Stephen Burrows is one designer credited with helping put American fashion on the world map. He's got his own star on the city's Fashion Walk of Fame and Burrow's creations have been worn by generations of celebrities, from Jimi Hendrix to Michelle Obama. As part of a special Tell Me More broadcast from New York, host Michel Martin speaks with the veteran African American designer about his career of more than 40 years.

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(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

From dance to fashion during Fashion Week in the city. Of course, many people know that New York is one of the world's style capitals. And one of the first African-Americans, if not the first, to find critical acclaim on the international fashion stage is with us now. He's Stephen Burrows. He's even got his own star on New York City's Fashion Walk of Fame. He's with us now from his studios.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. STEPHEN BURROWS (Designer): My pleasure.

MARTIN: I did want to ask for those who are not familiar with your amazing career, you know, many people know that African-Americans have long had a place in the fashion history of this country, dating back to say to Elizabeth Keckley, who was a seamstress and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln. But how did you get interested in taking fashion to this level? How did you get interested in a career in fashion?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURROWS: Well, in high school we went mambo dancing every weekend. We were mambo nuts. And I liked drawing dresses that my partners would wear when we danced the mambo. That was about the only thing I liked about fashion at the time because I was studying, going to go to school to be an art teacher. But both my grandmothers were sample hens here in the Garment District, so I was familiar with sewing, because they both sewed and made their own clothes.

And while I was going to school to become an art teacher, I had to pick a major for my second year after the first year, so you go on a tour of the school, and I just happened to go through the what was the economics department is where they taught fashion at this school, Philadelphia Museum College of Art, where I was going. And I just thought I might try my hand at fashion design, since just illustrating the dresses wasn't enough. I wanted to make my own dresses, create my own dresses instead of copying as an illustrator does; he just copies other people's design. So I switched schools and switched to FIT and took up fashion design and that was the beginning.

MARTIN: Well, you're known for your soft fabrics. You're known for your clothes that really drape the body.

Mr. BURROWS: Yes. Unlined, sexy, body-conscious for daring adventurous women who know themselves and are confident.

MARTIN: And some of those daring adventurous women who have worn your clothes are and I don't I cannot read the whole list. It would take up our whole interview, but Michelle Obama, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Aretha, Oprah, people with we know by their first names because all they need is...

Mr. BURROWS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...is one name. What do you think they're attracted to?

Mr. BURROWS: Just the adventurousness of the clothes and the color, of course, and the softness, the comfortable fit that it has and I strive for a comfortable fit. And I guess that's what attracts them to my clothes.

MARTIN: And do you mind if I ask, though, is there a way you feel in which your cultural background has influenced your work?

Mr. BURROWS: Well, I think you get influenced by everything you see and hear. You're like a sponge, absorbing whatever info or condition is around you, politically, socially, culturally. And when you sit down to design it all comes out.

MARTIN: It's my perception - I don't know if you share it that the fashion world is much more diverse than it used to be, certainly, when you were breaking through and that you may...

Mr. BURROWS: Do you mean with diverse designers, you're saying?

MARTIN: Diverse designers.

Mr. BURROWS: Well, yeah it's...

MARTIN: Is that accurate or not?

Mr. BURROWS: Well, it's gone so global. There's people all over the world who want to be in that and the melting pot here, you get all the different cultures here, so you got that all mixed together. It just happens that's that way because everything is so mixed together.

MARTIN: And yet, there are those who still feel that the industry is like every couple of seasons it's almost as if people of color disappear from the runways and then they reappear. Is that true?

Mr. BURROWS: Yeah, well, that all has to do with financing and finding backing and you run out of money you have to stop and I think that diverse people have a harder time finding the money than non-diverse people. I don't know why that is but that's just how it is.

MARTIN: Do you have some wisdom to share? We often like to ask our guests who've had distinguished careers if they have any wisdom to share, particularly if - for people who might wish to follow in their footsteps.

Mr. BURROWS: Well, I just like to tell young kids that are coming up and who have the desire to do this that it really is a hard business, the business side, and they should go to a school where they can learn the trade and that's very important. And they should also take a few business courses to understand things about business and profitability and deficits. That's the hardest part of this business.

MARTIN: Stephen Burrows is an internationally known fashion designer. He was kind enough to join us from his studios in New York. And his 2011 fall collection will be shown tomorrow in New York.

Stephen Burrows, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BURROWS: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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