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 found many of his ideas at the Mudd Club—the antithesis of Studio 54, which to him was Halston territory.
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.”