Scott Barrie by Nick Machalaba for WWD, June 25, 1974.
Ready for his interview, the 28-year-old designer relaxes in his art deco living room—spotless except for one wilted string bean under the closet door... "I wanted to try to live up to some kind of image people have of a designer living the life of glamor. People really think that's all we do," he continues. "They don't know about working 'till 3 in the morning and putting collections together over and over again until they're ready to be shown to real people."
As Cherie recently added a beautiful floral Scott Barrie dress to Shrimpton Couture, I thought I would revisit this often overlooked designer. The Philadephian Barrie was one of a group of young black designers who rose to prominence in American fashion in the late 1960s. While studying fashion design at the Mayer School of Fashion he began selling his designs to small boutiques, leading to his first appearance in Vogue when he was 19 (see below). He started his own company, Barrie Sport, in 1969, but by that time he was already well-known in magazines and in the nightlife for his slinky and revealing matte jersey dresses. Though he made clothes for all times of day, Barrie excelled at party dresses—vampy, sexy and perfectly in step with the loosened sexual mores of the 1970s. The shifting climate of fashion led him to shutter his company in the early 1980s and began working for a number of different labels, including Krizia. His remarkable career was cut short by brain cancer; he passed away at 52 in 1993. The remarks below are excerpted from an interview he gave when he was just 28—then at the top of his career, with multiple collections and licensing agreements. Among other subjects, Barrie discusses what it was like being a black designer and how he believed that he and his compatriots (like Stephen Burrows) had completely opened up possibilities in fashion for upcoming black designers. Unfortunately, we can now see this has not been the case—it is still incredibly difficult for black designers to garner any attention in fashion, other than as a token attraction or through a very specific element of society (i.e. the hip-hop world and aesthetic of Kanye West and Off-White).
Sub credit text from an interview by Ki Hackney for WWD, June 25, 1974.
Jerry Hall in Scott Barrie; photographed by Scavullo for Cosmopolitan, July 1978.
Glamor has been part of Barrie's life since childhood in Philadelphia. "My godmother—often with help from my grandmother—was the neighborhood dressmaker," says Barrie. That included making clothes for "black stars"—Della Reese, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington. "That's more or less how I was indoctrinated into this business of clothes."
Barrie's first appearance in Vogue: a white lace jumpsuit. Photo by Jean-Philippe Sadron for June 1965.
Barrie's reputation as a designer was built on his sensuous, matte jersey dresses, since the first one appeared in 1966. "There are three I still can't stop making after all this time," he says. Two are wraps and the third is a tank dress in a repertoire which now includes every shape from the clingiest bodydress to the fullest smock-tent.
A Scott Barrie minidress with chain lacing. Photo by Richard Avedon for Vogue, April 15, 1969.
"I'm Scott Barrie, the outfit man. I can sell a dress by itself; otherwise, it has to be a total outfit before stores will buy it—partly because I never sell to real sportswear departments. In the beginning, I was making lots of pants and little tops. But I can't sell pants without tops today..."
Lauren Hutton in a Barrie Sport dress; photo by Arnaud de Rosnay for Vogue, December 1970.
"...Before dress departments knew what they were doing they just put everyone together. The looks got younger and younger and along came Kenzo and they got even younger. That's when stores finally started to separate the clothes that had looks along the same line. Now I hang with Halston, Stephen Burrows, Jean Muir, etc.... Kenzo hangs with Betsey Johnson and DD Dominick where they belong and Jerry [Silverman] is in the regular misses department. That's part of the reason for increased dress sales today and all stores should concentrate in this direction. It's past the idea of individual boutiques. It's having clothes together with a certain look, a certain distinction."
Herculon II ad with Scott Barrie jersey dress, 1973.
In addition to his "close to 2 million" ready-to-wear business priced $69.75-$159.75, loungewear for Barad, furs for Barlan, accessories for Barrie Plus and the upcoming men's wear—both retail and wholesale—Barrie would like to work abroad. "Very few American designers have international reputations. I'd like to. I don't know if that means Italy... France is less receptive. I'd like to do England or Italy or some place. There's little from America available in Europe. Maybe no one has taken enough interest... Brown's [in London] really has the best collection of international designers and is more receptive than any other store. Galleries Lafayette doesn't buy any designer stuff—they buy blue jeans, cowboy skirts and T-shirts. In fact, almost everything in French ready-to-wear has been taken from America. But that;s not all there is here."
Scott Barrie jersey dress. Photo by Jack Penati for Vogue, September 15, 1971.
Barrie has a passion for the '20s, '30s and '40s periods in American fashion and life style. "Everything else before that was rather costumey, don't you think? But people were involved with themselves and being individuals—they thought about how they looked and sat at a table. We're into that today."
Scott Barrie by Nick Machalaba for WWD, June 25, 1974.
Barrie sees his role as a "young, contemporary, black designer." He says, "I'm considered way out in some circles outside of New York, such as Los Angeles, because my clothes don't appeal to everyone. They have definite mood, which is sometimes quite slinky and person who isn't thin enough is a little put off by them. Everybody can't be thin."
Scott Barrie for Barrie Sport nightgown. Photo by Neal Barr for Harper's Bazaar, June 1973.
Some may consider the soft-spoken and sometimes aloof designer "off-the-wall," but so does Barrie. "I consider myself an oddball. I do crazy things the way I put myself together sometimes—like wearing a white hat when everyone else is concerned about having a lot of hair or having short hair instead of an Afro."
Marina Schiano in Scott Barrie. Photo by Norman Parkinson for Vogue, January 15, 1969.
"It's hard to get a big business going without the backing of a big SA [Seventh Avenue] angel. You can't go up to one of them and ask them. I've had offers—not from SA—and have gotten ripped-off a couple of times. But if you love what you do, even not making that much money doing it, you can make it."
Lisa Taylor in Scott Barrie. Photo by Patrick Demarchelier for Harper's Bazaar, May 1977.
"I don't feel like a martyr so much. Now, because I am black and made it, it's a lot easier for other black designers to not be fearful of going into design or any other career. Black designers in schools don't have to worry now. Success depends on how good they are. At some point, being black actually helped. People like Bill Smith, Willi Smith, Jon Haggins, Stephen Burrows and myself are path-blazers. That's too few, but there will be more. They won't be considered just black designers anymore as we were. And thank God that's over."