Stephen Sprouse – The Punk Glamour God

New York Magazine

When Stephen Sprouse was working for Halston in the early seventies, he liked to tease the designer. “Okay, here we go,” he’d say. “Another shirtdress for the old ladies.” Sprouse loved Carnaby Street and miniskirts. He wanted to see women’s legs again, and pestered Halston constantly about it. Finally, two days before a major New York show in 1974, Halston let Sprouse have his way. “We rolled a big fat joint,” says the actor Dennis Christopher (another of the designer’s “Halstonettes”), “and Halston said, ‘Do it!’ Stephen picked up a pair of giant shears and began cutting off the bottoms of the dresses.” Christopher soon joined in, and with Halston crying, “Skimp it, skimp it!,” they created what became known as the Skimp.

Sprouse, who died at 50 of heart failure on March 4, spent his entire career slashing conventional notions of style. From one of his earliest shows in 1984, when the model Teri Toye, a transsexual blonde Valkyrie, burst upon the runway in a blaze of Day-Glo, Sprouse’s clothes signaled the dawn of a new day. Dawn, in fact, was the operative word, for his models, stylistic forerunners of Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp, looked as though they’d spent the whole night partying and were using the runway as a shortcut home.
Sprouse wedded downtown cool with uptown luxury and space-age fabrics. He created $1,500 sequined dresses swarming with graffiti; silk pants photo-printed with Pop Art; 3-D prints in collaboration with NASA. Sprouse loved rock and roll, infusing his clothing with its raw, pulsating energy. “He put a face on punk and got it out of the rock setting,” says Ileen Sheppard Gallagher, who is curating a Sprouse retrospective for the Museum of the City of New York. “What Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood did in London, Stephen did in New York. It was something we hadn’t seen before. Few designers, if any, were combining rock and roll, art, and fashion in such a unique and creative way.”

“New York has certain figures who will always personify a particular age,” says Tama Janowitz, a longtime Sprouse friend who chronicled the eighties downtown scene in her novel Slaves of New York. “There was Andy Warhol in the sixties, and then, later, Woody Allen. For a certain segment of New York, Stephen Sprouse represented the eighties.”
But Sprouse never achieved the unambiguous success in the marketplace his cultural position seemed to merit. He approached the brink of stardom more than once, only to see his company fail each time. “Stephen was like a shooting star,” says the photo-studio owner Nuala Boylan, a friend. “He’d shine very brightly for a while, then he’d go dark and then blaze again.” More artist than fashion designer, he couldn’t navigate the realities of the business world and never found the right partner to help him.

Wanting fame but not courting it was one of Sprouse’s many built-in contradictions. With his translucent skin, grungy black hair, and bleary blue eyes, he had the look of a haughty, dissolute rock star. And yet he was the total opposite of his wild image—drug-free for his last twenty years, Tetley iced tea and cigarettes his only vices. “He was one of the kindest, most generous guys around,” says the hairstylist Christiaan, a longtime friend. “I’d get annoyed because sometimes people would take advantage of him. But that was Stephen.”

Sprouse’s uncompromising vision cut both ways. “Stephen accomplished something that younger designers haven’t been able to do,” says Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys. “He had a signature style.” Yet that style was often derided as either too retro or too futuristic. Sprouse never seemed completely of his time, which eventually hurt him with buyers and the fashion press. “He’d say, ‘Why isn’t it happening for me?’ ” says Candy Pratts Price, executive fashion director of Style.com and an old friend. His lack of commercial success “hurt him a lot. Whenever he saw people diluting his ideas, he’d be so disappointed. But he was never the guy working for ‘the deal.’ ”

Though Sprouse lived in Manhattan for 33 years, he was in many ways still a wide-eyed, ingenuous Midwesterner. Born in 1953, the oldest son of Norbert and Joanne Sprouse, he spent his first two years in Dayton, Ohio, where his father was stationed at the Air Force base. After the family moved to Columbus, Indiana, Norbert Sprouse pursued a lucrative manufacturing career; the family lived comfortably in a white, columned house a friend describes as something out of Gone With the Wind. Sprouse’s artistic talent emerged when he was a toddler. “Stephen was wired the way he was from the time he was 2,” his mother says. “He was totally unique.” Whenever Sprouse’s uncle would come for dinner, he would take out his pen and draw pictures of cars on Sprouse’s arm. “Stephen absolutely loved that,” she says. “At night, when he’d recite his prayers, he’d say, ‘God bless this person, and God bless that person, and then God bless Uncle Gene’s fountain pen.’ ”

He was rarely without a pen himself, churning out pictures with such intensity that his mother worried that her shy son was relying too much on his art to do his talking. Sprouse was assertive only when wielding a pen or pencil—and then so much so that teachers nicknamed him the Art Supervisor. At 9, he drew a series of four self-portraits, in which he imagined his future career choices. “I might be a hobo,” he printed beneath one. “Or a movie star . . . or a father.” But then in the last picture, as if acknowledging his special gifts, he wrote, “Now I know who I better be—ME!”

When Sprouse was 12, his father showed his portfolio to someone at the Art Institute of Chicago, which led to an introduction to the designer Norman Norell. Sprouse’s father took Stephen to New York to meet both Norell and the Indiana-born Bill Blass, who later hired the aspiring artist as a summer apprentice. Sprouse was then only 14. “He was cool, my dad,” Sprouse told the late fashion editor Amy Spindler, another Indiana native, whose death preceded his by less than week. “I mean, this was in Indiana. He could have beat me up if I didn’t play football, and he didn’t.”

Four years later, Sprouse enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design, where a teacher introduced him as “the designer of the future” to a class that included Nicole Miller. For Sprouse, however, the future couldn’t come soon enough, and he left after three months to come to New York. “Stephen was totally fascinated by Andy Warhol and the people who hung around him,” says close friend Charles G. Beyer. “He loved Edie Sedgwick. For him, she was like the sixties Kate Moss.”

Sprouse immediately got a job with Halston, yet another Indiana boy, who was then at the height of his fame as America’s top fashion designer, and a reigning prince of Manhattan’s nightlife. Christopher remembers Sprouse as a “total drawing machine.” Halston frequently designed by draping fabric, and Sprouse, sketchpad in hand, would have to visualize the architecture of his draping and then translate it to paper. Other times, Halston, between drags on a cigarette, would simply say, “Now, give me a dolman sleeve,” and Sprouse would instantly create one. From Halston, whose strength as a designer was in the purity and simplicity of his forms, Sprouse learned about shape and luxury. He also met many of the leading social figures of the day. “We were living such a strange existence,” says Christopher. “We’d be going off in a limousine with Halston to have dinner at Diana Vreeland’s and then, because we were so broke, we’d have to scrounge for change to take the subway home.”

Halston’s boutique on East 68th Street functioned as a kind of salon, where multiple tiers of New York society intermingled. “You’d have the Babe Paleys and the Pat Buckleys,” Christopher says, “but you’d also have Liza Minnelli and the younger beautiful girls, like Marisa Berenson.” Jackie Onassis, for whom Halston created the famous pillbox hat, came by regularly to have him design her pants. “Stephen loved her,” says Christopher. “He thought she had an ‘edge.’ ”

Sprouse’s favorite, however, was Barbra Streisand. While he appreciated her voice, it was her space-age looks that really impressed him. “He thought she had this fabulous, 1960s lunar quality,” says Christopher, “with that winged eyeliner and that beautiful haircut. It reminded him of an alien helmet.” One day, without telling Halston, he took part of the designer’s collection over to the Plaza, where she was staying, and showed it to her. “When she called up later to place her orders, Halston couldn’t believe it,” says designer Bill Dugan, also an assistant. “Let’s just say he sent Stephen home for a few days after that.”

More and more, the artist in Sprouse bridled at the conventions of both fashion and uptown society. “It was getting a little too grandly divine for Stephen,” says Christopher, “and he was ready to say good-bye to that world and connect to the life of the streets. He and Halston had a real father-son dynamic and he needed to break away.”

Sprouse left Halston after two and a half years, and in 1975, he moved to a loft in the Bowery, where he shared a bathroom and kitchen with singer Deborah Harry, who would routinely feed his cats. Harry, a beautiful ex–Playboy Bunny, and former art student Chris Stein had recently formed Blondie, and they were beginning to gain a following at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. At Halston, Sprouse had loved playing dress-up with the designer’s favorite model, Karen Bjornson, who personified the cool Upper East Side blonde. He transformed Harry into a kind of Bowery Bjornson, creating clothes from ripped tights, T-shirts, and objects he picked up off the streets. In London, designer Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, were already making the conceptual link between fashion and punk with their Kings Road boutique, Sex. It sold slashed T-shirts and bondage gear. Sprouse’s vision was less hard-core, more glam. He may have created a dress with razor blades dangling from the hem, but it was beautifully designed.

Two years later, Sprouse and Harry moved into a building in the West Fifties, where neighbors included rock-and-roller David Johansen and Candy Pratts Price and her husband, painter Chuck Price. “Stephen and I were totally fascinated watching Debbie’s various dates come and go,” says Candy. “It was like, ‘Wow, there’s Mick Jagger.’ It was like one big playground for us.”

Art, rock music, and fashion were the central themes of Sprouse’s life. When he wasn’t designing clothes, he worked on his art, doing giant silk-screen paintings of rock stars, and painting pictures over the Xerox copies he made with his large industrial copier. With the advent of music video, rock and roll was becoming a bigger part of mass culture. In 1978, he photo-printed a picture he’d taken of TV scan lines onto a piece of fabric, which he then designed as a dress for Debbie Harry. She wore it in the video for her No. 1 hit “Heart of Glass,” giving Sprouse the kind of exposure it had taken Halston years to get.

Sprouse found many of his design ideas on the downtown club scene. He was a regular at the Mudd Club, where the “theme parties”—the equivalent of happenings in the sixties—attracted both an art and a music crowd. It was viewed as the antithesis of Studio 54, which, in Sprouse’s mind, was more Halston’s territory. One thing both places had in common, however, was the copious quantities of drugs being consumed on their premises. Pot was Sprouse’s drug of choice during the Halston years, says Christopher, but he later moved on to heroin. Friends say that if he hadn’t stopped, it would have killed him, but he went into AA and quit twenty or so years ago. “Stephen wasn’t stupid,” says Christopher. “He wasn’t about to become a drug victim. His work meant too much to him.”

For years, Sprouse had been adorning his hands and arms with friends’ phone numbers—his version of a Palm Pilot. Graffiti, both an essential element of punk and an outgrowth of subway art, had already been incorporated into the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Sprouse decided to use it his way.

“Stephen told me that he was wandering around the East Village one day,” says Beyer, “and suddenly went home and began sketching graffiti-covered motorcycle jackets and sequined miniskirts.” He showed them to his friend Steven Meisel, then an aspiring photographer, who brought them to fashion producer Kezia Keeble. In April 1983, Sprouse’s clothes appeared in a show of young designers that Keeble produced and were such a hit that Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel immediately ordered ten dresses. He was suddenly a bona fide fashion designer—something he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted—and with $1.4 million from his parents, he set up his business.

Eight months later, at his silver-painted showroom on 57th Street, he introduced his first, groundbreaking collection, a synthesis of sixties and eighties pop culture, which merged all the visual references he’d picked up on during his thirteen years in New York. The models wore big Jackie O sunglasses, impish stocking caps, and graffiti-covered white motorcycle jackets, while punk rock and the Rolling Stones boomed from speakers. “I remember being totally overwhelmed,” says Kal Ruttenstein, now Bloomingdale’s senior vice-president for fashion direction. “It was the first time I’d seen Day-Glo clothing. You had very loud rock-and-roll music, which you just didn’t have before in shows. You had boys and girls walking together down the runway, which wasn’t done, and you had Teri Toye, a man who lived as a girl. It was a very powerful moment.” (Ruttenstein says that when Bloomingdale’s started carrying the line, Karl Lagerfeld and Claude Montana always wanted to see Sprouse’s clothes.)

In May 1984, when Sprouse showed his latest collection at the Ritz, a former club downtown, 2,500 people attended, including Andy Warhol. He loved Sprouse’s sixties-inspired clothes and afterward traded two portraits for the whole collection. “Sprouse was definitely one of Andy’s ‘children,’ ” says Benjamin Liu, who worked as Warhol’s assistant. “So much of what Andy was brilliantly known for—the neon colors, the Pop imagery, the association with musicians—Stephen brought into his own work.”
Warhol, in turn, brought Sprouse into his life, inviting him for dinners at Odeon or Indochine that would lead to after-dinner excursions to Area, at the time the city’s hottest club. Like the Mudd Club, from which it evolved, Area had changing monthly “themes,” with various people creating installations. Doonan recalls seeing one Sprouse designed, in which a “guy in silver jeans, in an all-silver room, watched one of Stephen’s shows on a silver TV.”

“I remember meeting Stephen at a Valentine Day’s party Warhol threw there,” says Jeff Slonim, now a columnist for the New York Post. “Ursula Andress was on the dance floor with Alexander Godunov, and it was all terribly glamorous. Stephen had this incredible rock style, which was a little off-putting, and I thought he wouldn’t bother with me. But he turned out to be so soft-spoken and friendly and meek.”

Sprouse had been in business only a short time but had quickly become a cult figure, his clothes prominently featured in major department stores and on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He was part of Warhol’s coterie. Rock stars, like Madonna, wanted him to help style their images. But there was one way in which success eluded him: He was running out of money. From Halston, he’d developed a taste for expensive materials, but since no one was making Day-Glo fabric at the time, he turned to Agnona, the Italian luxury cashmere manufacturer. As a result, his clothes were priced too high for the youthful customers who gravitated to them. Then there were the production problems, as Sprouse insisted on doing things like hand-painting the graffiti on the clothes himself. By the spring of 1985, he owed $600,000 to creditors; that summer, Sprouse shut down his business. Kim Hastreiter, co-editor and co-publisher of Paper, remembers vintage dealer Patricia Field buying vast quantities of Sprouse’s clothes at his bankruptcy sale. “She sold them really cheap to the kids,” she said. “They went totally insane.”

The press had a different kind of field day, and stories appeared with headlines like SPROUSE: HOW SUCCESS TURNED TO FAILURE. Sprouse, for the most part, kept his feelings private. Much as he’d done as a little boy, he compartmentalized his life. Many of his friends knew one another only as names scrawled in ink on his arm. While Sprouse, who was gay, had lovers over the years, according to Christopher, he never met his romantic soul mate. “Stephen wore his heart on his sleeve,” he says. “Perhaps in some way, he didn’t feel he was worthy of a relationship. That was all part of the contradiction.”

In September 1987, six months after he’d designed costumes for the New York City Ballet’s premiere of Ecstatic Orange—and after the sudden death of Warhol, who was buried in a Sprouse suit—Sprouse returned to fashion with the opening of his own store in a converted firehouse on Wooster Street. He was now in business with 24-year-old Andrew Cogan, whose father, Marshall, was chairman of GFI-International. At last, he had big money behind him. But the store was a risky venture—he would be the first designer to have a full-scale emporium in Soho. “There was nothing like this downtown,” says Price. “It was a real happening. A living environment.”

Sprouse controlled almost every aspect, designing the interior, picking out the music, selecting the images for the massive video wall on the first floor. He created three different clothing lines, including a cheaper one for younger customers, as well as gloves, fishnets, hats, shoes, jewelry, even makeup. “The opening was unbelievable,” says Jamie Boud, Sprouse’s longtime assistant. “Debbie Harry played on a stage formed by a big red X. Stephen knew a lot of people, and they all showed up for him.”

In 1988, with Sprouse’s career flying high, Absolut Vodka selected him for its popular advertising campaign, taking him to Sweden on the Concorde as part of a promotion—“the Absolut Trip.” Jeff Slonim was invited along at the last moment (“They said, ‘We’ve got an extra seat on the Concorde. Want to take it?’ so I did”). He sat across from Sprouse, who hated flying. “We hit turbulence,” says Slonim, “and all of a sudden the Concorde turned into this projectile, and it was like, Uh-oh, here we go. I looked over at Stephen. He was writing his name on his arm so he’d be identified.”

In addition to running his store, Sprouse was now selling wholesale, working from one of Warhol’s former factories, at 860 Broadway. “It wasn’t Stephen alone anymore,” Powell says. “He had to deal with marketing people in conservative suits. Stephen would get to work very late and he’d always be listening to rock music. I remember one time this businessman walked in and said, in this booming voice, “Stephen, think plaids.” It was right out of The Graduate. Stephen just had his mouth open. But then he took a picture of TV static and, by using a computer, produced these very futuristic plaids in neon hot colors. Stephen delivered.”

He did two shows that year, one grown-up and sophisticated, with prints done in collaboration with Keith Haring, the other a Sprouse phantasmagoria, with models stumbling down the runway chewing capsules that gushed fake blood. “That show was really panned,” says Boud. “But Stephen thought it was the best one he’d ever done. He was into the showbiz of it all. The clothes were just costumes for the ‘show.’ ”
By 1989, Sprouse, in what was now becoming a familiar pattern, was once again unemployed. He lost his stores—he’d opened a second one in L.A.—and his wholesale business. “We were too crazily, overly ambitious,” admits Cogan. “At the end, we were doing close to $10 million worth of business, but it wasn’t enough. The clothing, particularly after that last show, which was a spectacular bomb, didn’t sell. Telling Stephen we couldn’t continue was the worst day of my life.” “After the store closed, Stephen was a little lost,” says Boud. “He was just a freelance guy at that point. He realized fashion was what he was best known for, but nothing about his career had ever been calculated.” He spent more time on his art, creating giant silk screens of rock stars, like Iggy Pop and Sid Vicious. He made costumes for Mick Jagger, Axl Rose, Trent Reznor, Courtney Love, David Bowie, and Duran Duran, and designed numerous album covers and backdrops for sets.

When Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1995, Sprouse was asked to become the consulting fashion curator. He threw himself into it, working closely with a sculptor at Pucci International to make sure the mannequins had the right look. “He felt their bodies should be skinnier than normal bodies, because of the years of drug use,” says Ileen Sheppard Gallagher. “He knew exactly how they should hold their arms and tilt their hips. He was so uncompromising.” Sprouse’s vision even extended to the security guards, whose uniforms he insisted on designing.

In 1996, Sprouse won the rights to use Warhol’s imagery on his clothing, which led to a deal with Staff International, an Italian company whose stable of designers included Vivienne Westwood. Sprouse returned to the runway in the fall of 1997 with a collection that paid homage to Warhol: Models wore the artist’s vivid Pop images on dresses and baggy raver-style pants. But when Staff was later bought out by another company, Sprouse’s license wasn’t renewed—a cruel irony, as fashion was then experiencing a retro-eighties moment and Sprouse’s designs were fetching high prices at vintage stores.

In the summer of 2000, Marc Jacobs asked Sprouse to go to Paris to help with his spring collection for Louis Vuitton. Jacobs, who’d known Sprouse from his own club days, had long been a fan, and arranged for him to stay at the Ritz, where Sprouse, staring at TV static one night, came up with the idea of creating floral prints using huge digitized cabbage roses. But it was Sprouse’s graffiti bag, on which he’d written, in raw painted lettering, louis vuitton paris, that became the big hit, with long waiting lists. Sprouse confided to Boud that even he couldn’t get one. Months later, he could—on Canal Street, where counterfeiters were selling them by the hundreds. “At least the knockoffs were expensive,” says Boud. “Other bags by other designers were selling for $20; his were $90.” Friends bought the standard LV knockoffs and asked Sprouse to paint graffiti on them.

The experience with Marc Jacobs soured Sprouse on fashion; instead of coming away envious of Jacobs’s lucrative LVMH deal, he realized he’d never be able to work in such a rigid corporate structure. Though Sprouse was then in his late forties, he was still very childlike and loved sitting in Washington Square Park, watching the kids skateboard. “He really fed off their energy,” says Beyer. “I remember we were out at a rock club one night and these kids came up to him and said, ‘Hey, you wrote the last words.’ It made him feel really good.”

In 2002, Sprouse designed a lower-priced line of red, white, and blue clothing and accessories for Target. Everything had usa written on it in graffiti print. While some people viewed it cynically as a cheap way of cashing in on 9/11, Sprouse, who’d lost a friend in one of the plane crashes, felt an uncharacteristic surge of patriotism. “I hope people won’t misinterpret me,” he said to Christopher, who replied: “Stephen, when haven’t you been misinterpreted?”

For years, friends had noticed that Sprouse, who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, seemed frequently out of breath. Benjamin Liu recalls that when Sprouse came to visit him at his fourth-floor walk-up, he had to take a “breathing break” on the second floor. “Sometime in late 2002, he called me up and asked if there were any rehabs for cigarette smokers,” Christopher says. “He wanted to go to a place where they’d lock him up.”

Finally, Sprouse quit cold turkey, but in spring 2003, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. “When he called me on the phone, he was sobbing,” Boylan says. “They told him he had only three months to live.”

Sprouse kept his diagnosis a secret from all but a few friends. Andrew Cogan, who by then had become CEO of Knoll, had hired him to do textiles, and Renzo Rosso, the founder of Diesel, wanted him to design T-shirts and jeans. He was very concerned about losing those contracts.

Boylan took him to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and managed to get him admitted into an experimental drug trial, but when his breathing worsened, doctors wouldn’t let him continue with the protocol. Over the next eight months, he visited numerous oncologists and took various drugs, hoping to improve enough to be readmitted into the Dana-Farber program. One drug gave him such bad acne he didn’t want anyone to see him. In September 2003, though, he had to put in an appearance at the opening of the new Diesel store he’d helped to design on Union Square.

“We went to dinner with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins,” Boylan says. “I’ve never known a man to be so jittery. He just didn’t want to go to the opening. By then, the illness was really contributing to his depressed frame of mind.” At one point during the evening, he looked at her and said, “I was Stephen Sprouse. Am I prostituting my talents?”

Yet he had his optimistic moments, as if cancer were just another business reversal from which he could stage a triumphant comeback. He put his energy into painting portraits of his friends and nephews. He was even working on a painting of the space station for NASA.

This January, he took a six-week trip to Buenos Aires to visit a friend. A few days after his return, he went to the Paradise Cinema to see The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s film about three young film students in Paris during the 1968 student revolt. The next afternoon, Boylan got a call from him. He sounded exuberant and told her he’d do anything to get back on the Dana-Farber program. He pictured himself living in Boston and taking art classes at Harvard. “He didn’t care if he staggered into those classes,” says Boylan. “He was going to do it.”

That evening, though, Sprouse couldn’t catch his breath. He called a friend, Sean Bohary, who took him to St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital, where he died early the next morning.
In Paris, the fall 2004 shows were in full swing, with people saying an emotional farewell to designer Tom Ford, acting as if he’d died when he was only leaving Gucci. On Sunday night at the Vuitton show, tucked inside the program, people found a slip of paper that read, “This collection is in loving memory of our friend Stephen Sprouse.”

Back in New York, Boylan arranged a small funeral service. On March 10, 25 friends gathered in New Jersey for the cremation. With pens and Magic Markers, they covered his wooden coffin in graffiti, writing messages to him on the inside and outside surfaces of the box. Then, before closing the lid, someone placed a Magic Marker in Sprouse’s hand, so he could write the last words himself.

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