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Chasing Andy

Warhol's pioneering in art, fashion and other fields echoes in the style makers he influenced

June 28, 2002|BOOTH MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pop! There goes Andy Warhol. Fashion types--designers, magazine editors, window dressers and photographers--just can't seem to get the Campbell's soup king off their minds. And why would they? In a culture hopped up on celebrities, where "the democratization of fashion" is a catch phrase, the original mix master of high and low, mass and class, is a natural point of reference.

Stephen Sprouse pays homage to his former mentor in a photo spread he shot for the July issue of Interview magazine. Using Warholian repetition, it features items from Sprouse's Americaland collection of graffiti-spattered tank tops, skateboards and swimsuits for discount retailer Target.

"If Andy were alive today, he'd totally be doing stuff for Target," muses Sprouse, who is himself living the high-low legacy, selling his signature scribble on $800 Louis Vuitton logo bags just last spring and then mass marketing it at Target this summer (99 cents for a beach ball to $29.99 for a woman's swimsuit).

"So much of what Warhol did has been assimilated into the culture. The 'heroin chic' fashion photography of the 1990s looked like it could be straight out of his film 'Trash,' " says Sprouse. "Warhol even predicted with his Brillo boxes the kind of repetition which has made Target's ads so popular."

The current Warhol retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art focuses mostly on his work as a painter. But he, like director, author and artist Jean Cocteau, had a multifaceted career. Warhol was also a photographer, a filmmaker, a window dresser, a fashion designer and model, and the creator of two fashion-related cable TV interview shows long before the Style network even existed.

Warhol started out in New York as a commercial artist in the 1950s. He was an illustrator for several magazines, including Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and his enlargements of comic book images graced window displays of department stores Bonwit Teller and I. Miller. Unlike contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who both designed windows under pseudonyms, Warhol was not ashamed to take credit for what some might have deemed "low art."

"He's the patron saint of window dressers," says Simon Doonan, who put the windows of Barneys New York on the style map. "And the great thing was that he wasn't so serious about being an artist, which is why he was able to do windows.... There was no pomposity about his achievements, which made it almost easier to enjoy them because they weren't jammed down your throat."

Warhol didn't value a painting over a TV show or a dress. "It's that kind of freedom to cross what might be perceived as boundaries into different creative endeavors that Warhol contributed," says Margery King, who co-curated "The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion," an exhibition organized by the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 1997 that traveled to several venues, though not to Los Angeles.

Sprouse recalls his last night with Warhol, who died 15 years ago, at a punk rock club on the West Side Highway in New York. "It was July and super sweaty and hot, with a lot of slam-dancing going on," he remembers. "So, in between bands we would go out and sit on the curb to cool off across from the river. A car full of kids drove by and asked if he was Andy Warhol. We thought they were going to beat us up, but instead they jumped out and asked him to draw a soup can. Andy did it and they got a signed soup can."

Sprouse and Doonan are just two of a generation of style cognoscenti Warhol inspired. He hired Vogue magazine editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley for his first fashion gig and encouraged celebrity photographer Patrick McMullan to begin documenting nightlife, giving him his first pocket camera. He also hosted the opening party for Paraphernalia in 1966, the first store owned by fashion designer Betsey Johnson, who still says, "Andy is in my blood." (Johnson married a member of the band the Velvet Underground, which performed at Paraphernalia, and Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick was one of her models.)

As for Talley, he had just moved to New York from Durham, N.C., when he walked into the offices of Interview magazine, without an appointment and dressed in an Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche suit, to ask for a job. "I feel indebted to him," says Talley, who was the fashion editor there from 1974 to 1975 and is now Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour's right-hand man. "He gave me the confidence to be who I was. And coming to New York from the South, I had not been myself to that degree."

McMullan got to know Warhol hanging out at Studio 54, the center of disco culture in the 1970s. "I used to try to walk in with my 35mm camera and Andy said, 'You can't bring that to a party. You need a pocket camera. Because once you get inside, people don't care if you take pictures, but if they see you at the door with a big camera, they might not let you in.' " When the photographer told Warhol he couldn't afford a pocket camera, he sent him one as a gift.

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