With a new coffee table book, an art show, and a limited-edition collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton all out at once, the pop-punk genius of the late Stephen Sprouse shines brighter than ever. Sprouse’s muse, transgender model Teri Toye, has her own opinion regarding how the shy visionary would react to his ascendance to modern legend status. “Stephen Sprouse did not want to be a star,” says Toye, whose elongated frame and deadpan glamour proved a potent inspiration for many a Sprouse Day-Glo ensemble or sleek erogenous cutout. “He just wanted to create. His life was about producing work. He was driven to produce. And if you were his friend, you went along with that.”
Going along with Sprouse’s working life certainly had its perks, not the least of which was access to collections embraced feverishly by both uptown and downtown clientele. Sprouse’s career, as defined by the fashion press, had several peaks and valleys (including an infamous retail flameout in 1985, followed by a slow rebuilding of the brand, his emergence as an artist in the 90s and collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2001), but enthusiasm for all things Sprouse among the avant-garde has never wavered. “His showroom on West 57th Street was like my closet,” says Toye, who famously convinced Sprouse to use his own graffiti on designs rather than hire a street kid for the task. “I stopped in constantly. I never thought about keeping much of what I wore — I usually returned most of it. And what I did keep, I wore to death.”
Sprouse’s mash-up of the bold with the blasé, of punk’s edginess with couture’s classic lines (he had, after all, dropped out of RISD to work with Halston before launching his own brand in 1983) gets a full-scale multimedia revival this month, with a show of his rock ’n’ roll inspired paintings at Deitch Gallery, which opens today, and a collection of his fashion drawings at the John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Gallery opening tomorrow, followed by the launch of a deluxe Rizzoli coffee table book, Stephen Sprouse, by Roger and Mauricio Padilha, and a limited-edition re-release of the graffiti-covered bags and shoes that Sprouse had collaborated on so electrifyingly with Marc Jacobs.
Stephen Sprouse was ahead of his time and very much of his time, living large at the white-hot center of the downtown New York early ’80s art scene ruled by Andy Warhol. Flanked by Toye and photographer Steven Meisel, Sprouse and his terrible twosome were cool and enigmatic, turning heads and upping the electricity in any club they stepped into. Despite his tough urban guerrilla appearance — scrappy build, stocking-capped, usually dressed in black — Sprouse, to those who knew him, was shy. “He wanted to get out and absorb what was going on,” recalls Toye, who met Sprouse in the ’70s while studying fashion design at Parsons, “but Stephen was much more comfortable in a private setting. I had to drag him out.”
Given Sprouse’s low-key personality, the current revival might actually have been a little stressful on the creative genius were he alive today, says Toye (Sprouse, who privately battled lung cancer in his later years, died in 2004 at age 51). “I think he’d be a little bit embarrassed by the attention,” says Toye, “and I think he’d be pleased. He liked to have complete control over his work, so I know he’d want everyone to get it right.”