My bias toward oral histories is this: they can be the most nostalgic, fluffy, self-important saccharin out there. Contributors, usually in the twilight of their influence, see this little trip down memory lane as means to remind the world just how special they – and their friends – once were, and thereby, to quote Woody Allen, “romanticize it all out of proportion.” (NB. This phenomenon is especially prevalent among books concerning rock movements and fashion people. Trust. I’ve read more than two.)
Now, enter The Stephen Sprouse Book, part sumptuous coffee table flipper, part oral biography of the late tastemaker. This could very easily be a book about how great The Mudd Club was. And it is, a little. What sets it apart is the sheer volume of Sprouse relics reprinted in its pages; there are dozens of Polaroids of friends Debbie Harry, Steven Meisel, and Karen Bjornson (to name a few). His illustrations for Halston are included, as is the diaphanous “scan line” dress he designed for Harry to wear in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” video.
Personally, I feel the most insightful additions are the letters and sketches from Stephen’s childhood, which was, according to Roger Padilha’s essay in the beginning of the book, perfectly “idyllic.” These early sketches are especially remarkable, not only for their resemblance to the clothes he would later design, but because they present a fully conceived aesthetic. At 13 years old, Stephen designed sunglasses, gloves, and jewellery for his “line” – he even imagined hairstyles for each look (sketching the front and the back thank you very much). My favourite item from Stephen’s early years is a facsimile of the descriptions and notes for his Spring 1967 collection. A glance at number 10 on the list confirms the tween’s precocious nature. “A white satin tent over white satin bloomers. The collar on the tent and the cuffs of the bloomers are heavily beaded in white crystal. (I had this designed several months before I saw Oscar De la Renta’s in Women’s Wear Daily.)”
The book continues with chapters dedicated to key periods in Stephen’s life: his start at Halston, the downtown culture of post-punk New York, first collections, “failures,” artwork, and his globally coveted collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2000 (yes, the graffiti bags). The only text is the aforementioned recollections by Sprouse’s friends and colleagues. Their voices recapture the mood of the period, but do not provide any context (you get that in Roger Padilha’s essay). It’s not a terribly confusing effect, though I often went back to the essay to reorient myself in the timeline (this may be because Sprouse went in and out of business several times during his career). People and disputes are mentioned without explanation, which is not always a bad thing as it prompts the reader to do a little research. Me, I had to figure out who this Kezia Keeble was and why it was controversial for Teri Toye to open Sprouse’s Fall/Winter 1984 collection.
Although Stephen’s people sometimes slide into flowery worship, especially Teri and Tammy Toye, the majority of their quips offer insight into the man and his designs. Ellin Saltzman, former director of fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorfs, says, “There wasn’t an extra button anyplace. I don’t remember buttons. I remember some zippers, but there weren’t any extraneous details.” Quotes such as this, placed alongside photographs of Sprouse’s shifts, overcoats, and enlarged sketches create a complete image of his design sensibility. They tell us what kind of person wore Stephen Sprouse, who they wanted to be, and how his clothes made them feel.
Like any successful retrospective, The Stephen Sprouse Book is carefully curated. The Padilha brothers carefully balanced the text, photographs, sketches, and facsimiles and published a visually engaging and highly informative book worthy of the man. Though I was not overly familiar with Sprouse’s work (I knew him as they guy Marc Jacobs liked), I now see his influence everywhere. Sometimes those romanticizers are right; I mean, the term “genius” exists for a reason, n’est-ce pas?
by Roger and Mauricio Padilha, Rizzoli Press, 2009
reviewed by Sara Forsyth
helmet by downstairs neighbour Karen
Order The Stephen Sprouse Book from Amazon.com