“Stephen was a lot like the musicians he inspired and was inspired by. His fashion pieces were his songs, each collection was an album; his work was the soundtrack to our lives.”
With the Metropolitan Museum of Arts retrospective Punk: Chaos to Couture being one of the must-see events this summer I was inspired to write about one the most talented American fashion designers of the movement.
When I think of punk I envision The Mudd Club NYC, Vivienne Westwood, The Sex Pistols, The Dead Kennedys, Blondie, my good friend and super talented jewelry and fashion designer Michael Schmidt, and of course punk legend Stephen Sprouse.
He is a designer we haven’t heard much about since his passing in 2004, but now with the amazing book by Mauricio and Roger Padilha of Mao PR titled ‘The Stephen Sprouse Book‘ his career is once again garnering attention. I highly recommend it.
Sprouse brought us neon colors like no one else. He did the skinny suit before Helmut Lang – and made graffiti, safety pins and camouflage prints high fashion.
My personal experience with Sprouse goes back to one of his first collections from the early 80’s. I’d like to share the story:
I had purchased two of Sprouse’s neon tee shirts from Bergdorf Goodman, one in orange and one in green, and a ‘peace’ logo metal belt from Patricia Field. I went to work at Jimmy’s one day (the store that started my career in fashion) wearing one of the t’s, a pair of cropped Comme des Garcons navy blue pants, my peace belt slung around my waist and high top converse sneakers. As I walked into the store both owners Elizabeth Lepore and Gloria Jacobs said ‘WHO ARE YOU WEARING? you look STUNNING (a word we used in the store at least 1000 times a day.) With a holier-than-though attitude I boasted Stephen Sprouse – one of the hottest new designers out there. I suggested we purchase the collection and within the hour I was on the phone with the Sprouse showroom and had made an appointment for a private showing.
The day came for my appointment, I was very excited. As I walked into the all-white showroom (which was in the old Warhol studio on Union Square) I went completely out of control. I had a few beers while Sprouse’s muse Teri Toye modeled the collection for me. It was brilliant.
Teri Toye wearing Stephen Sprouse
I bought way over my budget, but to no one’s surprise as quickly as the clothes came into the store they sold out. Silver leather motor cycle jackets (I still have mine in storage), velvet ones with A-line mini skirts to match with safety-pin details, skinny camel and chocolate-brown suitings and overcoats, and giant-sized paillette tank dresses in neon yellows, greens and pinks flew out the door. We had continued success with his collections until the closing of his company.
Debbie Harry wearing Stephen Sprouse
His career had its ups-and-downs before relaunching with the opening of a mega-store in Soho on Wooster street. I attended the opening with my friend Michael Schmidt. I remember it like it was yesterday – Michael introduced me to Sprouse – and everyone from Deborah Harry to Mayor Koch. I was blown away. The store offered a vast selection of Sprouses’ most iconic pieces to date. I got to know most of the sales staff which later made it a great place to hangout and shop on Saturdays – and definitely have fun. I was extremely sad when the store closed its doors only a few years later.
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He collaborated with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2001, which probably made him a little more famous and recognizable by the “it” girls of fashion that would have not known of his past brilliant career of putting safety pins and razor blades on clothing many years before Versace did. It was the Sprouse classic Graffiti print over the LV bags that made him a household name for today’s celebrities and socialites who still see them as a must have accessory. I imagine Sprouse’s later collaboration with Target might have brought him into the mainstream, but that only lasted one season.
I asked Michael Schmidt and the creators of ‘The Stephen Sprouse Book’ Mauricio and Roger Padilha of MAO PR to chime in on how they remember Sprouse.
Mauricio Padilha: “We first saw Stephen Sprouse on a short lived MTV show called ‘Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes’ in 1984. He was everything that we loved about Andy – but the modern punk version. He had his Marilyn in Debbie Harry, and worked in many medias aside from designing clothing; he was a painter and photographer like Andy… way ahead of his time.
“Stephen’s impact of us goes further than anyone else’s, if it wasn’t for Stephen we would not have come to NYC to work in fashion. Seeing what Stephen was doing inspired us to come to NYC and be part of everything that was going on downtown with artists, performers and designers.”
Roger Padilha: “Stephen was an artist who became a fashion designer, his clothing is now considered art in and of itself. He was the very first designer who Warhol allowed to use his art for clothing prints.
“He influenced us greatly in our aesthetic, and when we did the book about him it was our way of sharing that experience with the rest of the world. ‘The Stephen Sprouse Book’ was a labor of love that we are most proud of in our lives.”
Michael Schmidt: “Like so many of the other misfit youths of the late 70’s I was hopelessly addicted to Deborah Harry, and she was my ‘gateway drug’ to Stephen Sprouse. I first met Stephen in 1986 when I was amusingly asked to sit in as Debbie during the lighting tests for her Rockbird album cover shoot. I wore her Sprouse dress, a blonde wig and lots of makeup – and sat in front of a gigantic camouflage Warhol backdrop while they adjusted the lighting. Can you imagine? I then hung out and watched the actual shoot, my jaw ajar, becoming fast friends with Stephen in the process.
“Stephen was a shy, sweet guy with a bit of a naughty side. That contradictory tension was the key to his electrifying designs. He was, in person, the very antithesis of his brash, in-your-face work, which managed to walk the razor’s edge between the Bowery and the ballroom. He was the great master of street couture.
“He was a lot like the musicians he inspired and was inspired by. His fashion pieces were his songs, each collection was an album; his work was the soundtrack to our lives.”
For me Sprouse was not only a creative genius but the epitome of what true American punk means, and when he died in 2004 the world lost a great talent, and he instantly became a legend.
Written by Anthony Costa