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The Punk Glamour God

Midwest to Upper East: Clockwise from top right, Sprouse during his RISD days, circa 1971; back home after his three months there; and fitting Angelica Huston with Halston in the early seventies.  

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.)