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Stephen Sprouse, 50; Fashion Designer Was a Sensation in '80s

March 06, 2004|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Stephen Sprouse, fashion designer, artist and photographer who brought a counterculture style to a wider American audience, died Thursday at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City of heart failure. He was 50 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer a year ago, according to his mother, Joanne Sprouse.

He was a critical darling when he burst onto the scene with his spare, colorful designs in the early 1980s. But Sprouse's business acumen never matched his creativity.

Although his first two collections, launched in 1983 and 1984, were huge hits, he was out of business from 1985 to 1987. In '87, he opened shops in New York and at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, but he lacked financial backing and closed down again from 1988 to 1992. In 1992, Sprouse designed a line for Bergdorf Goodman and, in 1995, Barneys New York handled the production of an exclusive Sprouse line.

Despite such commercial ups and downs, Sprouse's talent was so admired that his designs continued to fetch high prices in vintage stores long after he stopped producing clothes.

"Three or four years ago, our young, edgy customers began asking for his things," said Rita Watnick, owner of Lily et Cie, a Beverly Hills vintage store. "The value of his great pieces has been huge for a while."

At a time when SoHo and the East Village were still uncharted territory to the fashion establishment, Sprouse unleashed an underground sensibility that married punk, rock 'n' roll and Pop Art to clothing.

Friends and fellow designers Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam and Marc Jacobs also hung out at the Palladium, Limelight and Red Zone, and incorporated the aesthetic of the New York club culture into their work.

The scene was the backdrop for Tama Janowitz's novel "Slaves of New York." In the 1989 film based on the book, the character of Wilfredo, played by Steve Buscemi, was blatantly patterned on Sprouse, who designed costumes for a fashion show sequence in the film. Wilfredo chain-smoked, like Sprouse, and wore the designer's signature black-on-black outfits and train-conductor hat.

After Jacobs was hired as creative director for the Louis Vuitton brand in the late '90s, he asked his old friend to design a limited-edition collection of handbags. Sprouse's graffiti bags, which featured hand-painted scribbles defiling the traditional Louis Vuitton monogrammed brown canvas, were an instant sensation.

A minimalist in the mode of Pierre Cardin, Andre Courreges and Rudi Gernreich, Sprouse employed day-glo colors and strong graphics. He covered motorcycle jackets with sequins and tights with graffiti.

"His look was Mod all the way," said Patricia Field, costume designer for HBO's "Sex and the City," whose Greenwich Village shop was a center for the fashion alternatives that flourished downtown in the '80s.

"It was very pop, very TV, very flash in your face. His styles were classic -- miniskirts and suits -- but they were way twisted. He'd do a man's suit, but it would be hot pink. All of New York City was walking around in his clothes because they were fun and lighthearted. He was a cross between optimistic and punk rock. There was a cartoon quality to his work," Field said.

On one of the occasions when a Sprouse business failed, Field bought a large amount of stock at auction.

"The kids emptied my store out in two days," she said. "They loved his clothes; they just couldn't afford them usually. I wanted to buy at auction and let his fans have the clothes at good prices. A jacket that would have sold for $900 was under $100.

"If you make a couple of hot things and you milk them, that's how you make money in this world. I don't think Stephen was really focused on being huge and making a lot of money. He was an idealist making an ideal collection. He never sold out."

In 2002, Sprouse created a collection of graffiti-spattered tank tops, skateboards and swimsuits for the Target discount chain.

"If Warhol were alive today, he'd totally be doing stuff for Target," Sprouse told The Times. "So much of what Andy did has been assimilated into the culture."

In the late '80s, Warhol collaborated with Sprouse in designing a line of clothing based on Warhol's "Camouflage" series of paintings.

Paul Cavaco, creative director of Allure magazine, helped stage Sprouse's early fashion shows. Speaking on the phone from Paris, he said: "His style was a fusion of street, punk and the East Village, mixed with a little of the '60s.

"Stephen always used very expensive fabric, and the clothing was so beautifully made that anyone could wear it. A coat of his would look very cool on someone young, and on an older person it would look elegant.

"The fashion world went crazy for Stephen because he had the hipness that came from what was going on in the East Village at that time. So if you wore his clothes, you looked cool but still chic," Cavaco said.

Like a number of famous American designers, including Bill Blass, Norman Norell and Halston, for whom he apprenticed in the early '70s, Sprouse's roots were in the rural Midwest. Born in Ohio, he began sketching original designs at 12. He left the Rhode Island School of Design after three months to work in New York as a rock photographer. He created stage outfits for Deborah Harry, the platinum-haired lead singer of Blondie, who became his first and best-known muse.

Outsized egos are common in the fashion industry. However, friends described Sprouse as sweet and shy.

In addition to his mother, he is survived by a brother, Bradford, a niece and three nephews.

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