While most New York designers were staging their fall fashion shows in swank Seventh Avenue showrooms, stuffy men’s clubs and elegant mid-town hotels, Stephen Sprouse chose to unveil his collection in a downtown rock club called the Ritz. The show began with an angry blond model whipping down the runway, the back of her black leather coat strung with silver crosses. The models kept coming, dressed in immaculately tailored Day-Glo outfits with yellows brighter than mustard and greens as fresh and bold as spring foliage, while songs such as I Want to Give You the Creeps blared from the sound system.
As the show ended, a video screen flashed a shot of a rocket at lift-off. The comparison was inevitable: Sprouse’s career has taken off like a missile. He has tapped the frenetic worlds of rock, video and postpsychedelic Pop Art and come up with clothes he describes as “late 20th century.” Last year the 30-year-old designer was virtually unknown. Today Mick Jagger, Tony Perkins and Debbie Harry are among the celebs who sport his sizzling threads, which are selling briskly in major department stores across the country. “I salute Stephen,” says his old boss, Halston. “He’s made himself known in only a year.”
The man behind this fashion furor is a wary postadolescent who dresses all in black and wears five silver hoops in his left ear. He grew up in Columbus, Ind. and started designing at the age of 9, drawing up four fantasy collections a year. “I feel lucky that my parents were understanding,” says Sprouse. “They could have kicked me out on the football field with my brother.” At 12, Sprouse made a pilgrimage to New York with his father, an appliance manufacturer, and visited Seventh Avenue. There he met Bill Blass and Norman Norell.
After high school, Sprouse, deep into his hippie period, headed to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he lasted all of three months. He spent the next three years working for Halston in New York. “He refined my taste level,” says Stephen. “He exposed me to higher levels in fabric and color. I absorbed a lot from him.”
Disenchanted with the fashion scene, Sprouse dropped out of circulation in 1974. He hung out with avant-garde types like rock artist Patti Smith and photographer Steven Meisel. He experimented with photography and silk-screening, and also, during the ’70s, with drugs. He has been clean, he says, for two years: “I got off them myself. It was the best thing in my life when I quit.” Nudged by his pal Meisel, Sprouse edged back into designing. Now that his career is assured, Sprouse, a bachelor, has moved into a showroom, complete with video monitor, on Manhattan’s West Side. In homage to Pop artist Andy Warhol, everything in sight—the walls, pipes, even the couch—has been spray-painted silver.
Uncomfortable with strangers, Sprouse had to be cajoled onto the runway for the obligatory end-of-collection bow earlier this month. He is trying hard to become more at ease with his press-clipping image as the hottest new designer in New York. “Is that what they’re saying?” he asks coyly. That’s what they’re saying.