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The Punk Glamour God

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.”

“The Concorde hit turbulence. I looked over at Stephen. He was writing his name on his arm so he’d be identified.”

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.