Mauricio And Roger Padilha Talk Sprouse
When he died of lung cancer not quite five years ago, Stephen Sprouse was in the midst of one of his many comebacks. Widely credited as the designer who made street style soigné, Sprouse had spent much of the nineties wandering in and out of the fashion fold: Several times, he’d relaunched his eponymous label, only to shutter each business and return to making art. But the new millennium found Sprouse revolutionizing the fashion industry all over again. His collaboration with Louis Vuitton was a phenomenon. At Marc Jacobs’ behest, Sprouse scrawled graffiti all over the brand’s iconic monogram bags, and years later, even Canal Street knockoffs proved hard to come by. Then Sprouse debuted AmericaLand, his collection for Target. The first collaboration between a luxury designer and a discount chain, AmericaLand established a fast-fashion template still being followed today. Taken together, Sprouse’s work for Target and his work with Louis Vuitton capture his disrespect for the traditional standoff between high and low, and after seeding their fusion years earlier, the man had met his moment, yet again. And yet again, Sprouse’s moment was followed by a fall. But the time has come for another comeback. Last Friday, Deitch Projects in Soho opened the show Stephen Sprouse: Rock on Mars, an overview of Sprouse’s work as an artist. That same day, a limited-edition Stephen Sprouse for Louis Vuitton collection launched at Louis Vuitton stores worldwide. And tomorrow night, Sprouse muses Debbie Harry and Teri Toye host a celebration of the new book Stephen Sprouse, published by Rizzoli and written and compiled by MAO PR impresarios Roger and Mauricio Padilha. Harry and Toye assisted the Padilhas with the book. Jacobs chipped in, too, as did Sprouse’s buddy Tama Janowitz and his former neighbor, Style.com’s Candy Pratts Price. But the project’s guardian angel was Sprouse’s mother, Joanne Sprouse, who proposed the book to the Padilhas and allowed the brothers exclusive and unfettered access to her son’s archives. Here, Roger and Mauricio Padilha talk to Style.com about their comprehensive and eye-popping new book—and why you should avoid your idols.
You guys are obviously Sprouse acolytes. You have an enviable collection of his designs and published a tribute to him in Mao Mag after his death that led to the making of this book. How did you become fans?
Roger Padilha: I can be really exact about that, actually. In 1984, Stephen put on a runway show at the club the Ritz, in the East Village. It was such a huge deal that a clip aired on the nightly news. I was 12 at the time and Mauricio was 15, but we were already huge fans of Debbie Harry and Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, and we were already into fashion. Stephen’s show put all that together. We were totally fixated. And because we were bad kids, as well as precocious, we’d take our parents’ credit cards and jump on the train from Long Island and shop for his stuff at Bloomingdale’s and Charivari.
Did you ever get to meet him?
Mauricio Padilha: Oh my God, we avoided him. For years. We’d had the chance to meet a few of our idols, and you know, it’s just really rare that anyone you look up to lives up to your expectations.
RP: It’s like if you meet Madonna and she’s not nice to you, you can’t listen to Madonna songs ever again.
MP: So we really went out of our way to avoid being introduced. He’d heard of us, and he wanted to meet us, and there were more than a few times after we’d moved to the city where we’d be at a birthday party or something and he’d show up—
RP: And we’d slip out a back door. He was just way too formative and inspiring to me and Mauricio for us to risk any disappointment.
What was it about Sprouse’s work that was so meaningful to you?
MP: Like Roger said, he combined everything we loved. I mean, before Stephen, fashion was this uptown thing. It was Halston. It was Paris couture. But he took all these influences that were our influences, too—Edie Sedgwick and Andy, and the pop sensibility of Andy’s work, and Barbra Streisand and graffiti—and made it into something futuristic. And “cool.” I think it’s fair to say that Stephen Sprouse brought “cool” to the table, fashion-wise.
Do you see that as his legacy?
RP: It’s definitely the biggest part of his legacy. [That] and bringing a rock edge to fashion. And beyond that, having an instinct to look to the street for inspiration. Prior to Stephen, fashion was all about trickle down. He invented trickle up, taking these street looks, even being influenced by homeless people, and interpreting them in super luxurious fabrics. But I’ll also say this: I think, once you get past the statement clothes, like the graffiti prints and the Day-Glo, what you realize is that the guy was just an amazing designer. Everything he made in bright colors, he’d do in black, too, and when you look at the work in basic black, you realize that his cuts and his silhouettes are superb—and quite often ahead of their time. There’s a black cloak of his I wear out now and then, and people will stop me and ask: Is that Helmut? Is that Rick Owens? And I’m like, no, it’s Stephen Sprouse and it’s 20 years old.
MP: Not everyone knows this, but Stephen was a design prodigy. He started making fashion sketches when he was 11 years old. His mom was so impressed she wound up writing to the fashion journalist Eugenia Sheppard, who told her to never throw anything this kid does away. She hasn’t. And those sketches stand up. His dad helped him write letters to Norman Norell and Bill Blass, and they were impressed, too. And three months into RISD, he dropped out to take a job at Halston.
Given that his family was so supportive and his early career so promising, where do you think he came by the tragic sensibility you see in his art? There’s a passage in the book, Roger, where you talk about Sprouse’s attraction to the “meteor-like” quality of an Edie Sedgwick or a Patty Hearst. And there’s a real grittiness—almost a seediness—at play in his clothes as well.
RP: Yeah, and he’d send models down the runway looking like blood was dripping down their faces. He was definitely interested in the glamour of tragedy. But fundamentally, I think he just liked a rough edge. To be able to make a perfectly tailored coat out of Italian cashmere and inject it with that kind of tragic grittiness is an art and it’s hard.
But I guess I’m also wondering, you know, was there anything you uncovered in the course of working on the book that accounts for his rather transgressive interest in “the low”? You shy away from psychoanalyzing in the book, but what the hell, I’ll ask.
RP: Well, isn’t everyone who’s “cool” kind of fixated on the darker side of things? I don’t know why that is, but it’s true.
The graffiti bags Sprouse did for Louis Vuitton in 2001 made him a household name again. Your book is coming out at the same time that Louis Vuitton is launching a new, smaller collection of Sprouse accessories. I know the timing isn’t coincidental, but in some ways do you see your book as a corrective to the Vuitton stuff? Like, look, this guy was important way before he made those bags.
RP: From what we understand, Stephen was ambivalent about the Vuitton collaboration. On the one hand, it made him an international figure and it opened a ton of doors. On the other hand, yeah, it’s weird to have this one thing you do overshadow 25 years of work. There were kids walking around with those bags who practically weren’t even born when Stephen was making clothes for Debbie Harry. But I’m not sure “corrective” is the right word. I think the book complements the new collection.
MP: As does the Deitch exhibit. Stephen was as much an artist as he was a designer; maybe more so. We definitely see him as an artist more than anything else. And the two things definitely fed each other. He’d apply art ideas to the fashion, and vice versa.
Sprouse’s mother, Joanne, gave you unrestricted access to his archives. Was there one thing you came across in the course of researching the book that just took your breath away?
RP: First of all, you have to understand that when you say “archive,” what you’re talking about is a storage unit full of boxes and Hefty bags. So what would happen is that we’d be clawing our way through one box or bag, and it would be like, stuff, stuff, stuff, and then, whoa, here’s a dress that was in Vogue.
MP: But the big find like that was the scan-line Polaroid. You know the “Heart of Glass” video for Blondie? Stephen made the dress Debbie Harry wears in that video. It’s this black, white, and gray silk-screen piece, and the screen was something he made from a Polaroid he took of the fuzz on his television set. One day, Roger and I are going through boxes of Polaroids—and there were thousands—and all of a sudden, it was like—
RP: Holy cow. Can it be? It was. We found the actual Polaroid of the TV fuzz. The one he made the silk screen from. That was the Holy Grail.
MP: I mean that’s just one of those things you figure couldn’t possibly still exist. It’s just amazing, what lasts.