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The childhood relationship between Jane Davee and Stephen Sprouse can be described as unusual. They had a common bond, but not one that would normally be associated with toddlers, grade school classmates or teens.
It was a pursuit that would eventually make Stephen one of the most celebrated names in fashion design around the world and Jane a devoted follower of his career, even years after his death.
“He designed clothes, and I made them,” she recalled earlier this week. “He’d give me the designs, and we’d go down to JoAnn Fabrics on Washington Street, buy the materials and I’d sit down at my sewing machine and put them together.”
Jane has more than her own memory to back up her recollections — the drawings for many of those childhood creations she put together on her mother’s sewing machine are encased in a thick binder of laminated pages, each bearing sharply outlined sketches of thin young women dressed in stylish ensembles.
The sketches were the work of a pre-famous Sprouse, whose name is usually included when pundits run through lists of the world’s top designers. His clothing line was marketed by Target and celebrities like Debbie Harry of the band Blondie, who proudly flaunted his custom-made outfits. He and his work have been the subject of at least one coffee table book, and his fame only increased after his early death at the age of 50 in 2004.
But Jane knew another Stephen when the two were growing up in Columbus.
“We were together from kindergarten on through high school,” she said. “Back in high school we were definitely in the academic/nerd group of kids that just hung out together.”
The binder of sketches dates from that period when the two were attending Columbus High School from 1969 to ‘71.
“I had no doubt then that Steve was destined for a career in fashion design,” she said. “He was just so far apart from all the rest of us.”
Jane recalls their relationship as normal, although “Steve didn’t talk a lot. He’d be working on those sketches for hours and never say a word.”
To leaf through the pages of the binder — which Jane will have available for viewing at tonight’s Retro Rock fundraising event at Mill Race Center — is to be witness to a professionalism and skill of a fully mature artist, not a teenager.
By high school Stephen was already well-embarked on his future career. By the age of 11 he had completed his first collection of designs in the home of his parents, Norbert and JoAnne Sprouse.
By the time he was 13 he was showing his works to the likes of Bill Blass — legendary New York fashion icon who died in 2002 — and a year after graduating from Columbus High School was working as a personal assistant to another legend, Halston.
Jane remembered that period before he began his internship and a trip the two made to Chicago, where they were photographed in a downtown park. The Columbus High School senior was wearing a stylish coat, standing alongside an equally sharply clad Stephen. She had made that coat from one of her friend’s drawings.
Following graduation the two grew apart, especially as Stephen’s time was consumed by his work. He would return to Columbus infrequently — often to decelerate from his fast-paced lifestyle — but he and Jane never resumed their friendship.
She has faithfully followed his career over the years as judged by a bulging folder of newspaper stories and magazine articles about his work. She also has that binder with the designs crafted by a teenage friend. I suppose that in the minds of a collector of that sort of thing, Jane’s binder would be very valuable.
It has a simpler meaning for her — a friendship in which he designed the clothes and she made them.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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