The Stylish Sphynx

Remembering Prince, the miniature master of working a look.

Prince loved black panties, either on women or on himself. In 1980, he released Dirty Mind. There he is, on the cover, wearing black panties. A year later came Controversy. More black panties.

Within a short period of time, though, Prince developed a signature look that went way beyond black panties. How to describe his style? Prince’s fashion aesthetic was a unique and unforgettable mashup. The tousled curls and ruffled Mr. D’Arcy shirts evoked the vain Regency dandies of 18th century England. The tight pants and Cuban heels screamed sleazy Latin gigolo. The embellished trenchcoats and shades gave him the air of a rock star private dick, or a spy from another planet. The boas and maquillage gave a nod to Hendrix and to drag. The Prince look, throughout the ’80s, was a magical synthesis of naughty, tacky, knowing, sexy excess. A real F-U to the Reagan era.

Just before the debut of Controversy, I got a call from a pal who worked with Prince at Warner Brothers Records. “You are good at kinky décor, right?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically. I had only been in the States for a couple of years, but had already established a reputation for creating disturbing window displays. “We are having a launch party for Prince at a Sheraton Hotel ballroom in the Valley,” explained George, adding, “but Prince wants it to look horny.”

My team and I drove immediately to a porn wholesaler and ordered 100 blow-up sex dolls. I figured we could dress them in black panties and dangle them from the Sheraton ceiling. While concluding our sale, the store manager asked me, sotto voce, if we might be interested in some blow-up German shepherd dogs. “Some people are into that canine stuff,” he offered. “Yes, emphatically, yes,” I replied.

Installation day arrived. There we were, ironing black panties, and inflating our dogs and dollies when the Sheraton manager strode into the ballroom. For some reason he was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of me duct-taping inflatable fetish objects—including nods to bestiality—to their precious crystal chandeliers. The concept was nixed.

I had barely finished jamming deflated dollies and dogs back into their boxes when Prince arrived, avec entourage. He was dressed à la the Sandeman brand of port, with a black cape, over-the-knee boots, a ruffled blouse, and a wide brimmed hat. Instead of his usual shades he wore a vintage bandit eye mask. As theatrical as it was, his outfit did not look Halloween-y. Prince always attired himself with such precision and such unstoppable conviction that he defied mockery.

The party went ahead sans décor, but nobody seemed to care, especially not Prince. His only concern appeared to be that we all enjoyed ourselves. Affably mute, Prince alternated between dancing enthusiastically with guests, including Vanity and the gals from Vanity 6, and DJ-ing his own music. He danced with boys and girls. No talking. Just dancing. At one point we all started doing the Electric Slide. I ended up next to Prince. This was when I realized that he was shorter than me. And I am minute.

Thanks to my Warner Brothers connection, and despite the inflatable dolly debacle, I was able to see Prince perform on multiple occasions, often in small venues. His vocal pyrotechnics were matched with fearless acrobatics. When he wasn’t doing the splits, he was jumping off an amp and doing the splits. In heels. By the time Purple Rain was released, Prince’s overt sexiness, inventive style, technical brilliance, and musical genius had established an irrefutable fact: He was the new James Brown.

In the coming decade Prince built on his signature look. The heels got higher. The epaulets got more encrusted. But the high-voltage theatricality remained. He maintained the tight-assed elegance of a snooty toreador.

It’s 1991. Prince changes his name to Prince and the New Power Generation. Diamonds and Pearls—my personal all-time fave—is released. The video for the best song, “Cream,” shows 32-year-old Prince at his zenith. His look is less Byronic, more polished and graphic. Note the 1940s film-noir bad-girl pompadour. Note the custom vest, kipper tie, and high collar in matching fabric. The key accessory? That badass yellow guitar/phallic symbol.

Then 1992. This is a big year for Prince. He has flummoxed the world by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. I am charged with unearthing a concept for the holiday windows at Barneys. There was no question in my mind that Prince—the most stylish bloke in music apart from Bowie—deserved an homage in our temple of chic. All of the hype around Prince makes him the perfect subject for a press-generating caricature homage. I envisage him standing amid a clutter of retrospective iconography: red corvettes, raspberry berets, purple boas, and black panties. Merry Christmas!

How to get his permission? Prince’s Garbo schtick is the core of his identity. Everyone around me tells me that I am wasting my time: Prince will never give you the green light to erect a life-size caricature in a shop window, no matter how prestigious the store, screeched the naysayers.

All it took was a phone call to Paisley Park. Within days, a huge box of Prince’s clothing —and shoes!!!—arrived in the Barneys display studio. There is no way to describe the hysteria which these mysterious artifacts engendered in both male and female window dressers. There were 10 or 12 items to choose from: wicked jumpsuits, crepe pantsuits, slinky slacks encrusted with silver mariachi detailing and matching boleros and hats. White, black, purple and yellow were the dominant hues. The teensy Cuban-heeled boots—satin, lizard and snake—resembled exquisite objets d’arts.

There was no question in my mind that Prince deserved an homage in our temple of chic. Above, the 1992 holidays window display at Barneys.

Simon Doonan/Barneys New York

We selected a yellow outfit with flashes of purple, along with purple boots. By now artist Martha King had begun to sculpt the oversized caricature head of Prince at her studio on Ludlow Street. She soon reached the point where she needed to attach the head to a mannequin body. This is where things got challenging. How to find a body slender enough to fit into Prince’s clothing? At first we tried to fit the clothing on a teen male mannequin. The chest, calves, and forearms were too big. We ended up using a teen girl mannequin, but only after giving her a double mastectomy. After sawing off the toes and the heels we were finally able to insert the feet into a luscious pair of purple boots. My point? Dude was petite. Like a combo of Puck and Ariel, Prince was blessed with a flitting, swooping, fairytale scale. After we dismantled the window, I put dibs on the Prince head—I purchased it from Martha King with my hard earned shekels—and have kept it on my coffee table ever since.

In 2008, I am hosting the Fashion Group International’s Night of Stars annual fundraiser at Cipriani in New York City. Jennifer Lopez and His Purple Highness are presenting Donatella Versace with a lifetime achievement award. For one entire minute, Prince and I are wedged backstage with Donatella and J-Lo. I felt as if I had wandered into Madame Tussaud’s.

My impulse to gush at Prince was barely contained. “Remember me? The one with the inflatable German shepherds?” But Prince—massive shades, simple crisp black shirt, and slacks under a mini spy trench—remains mysterious, incommunicado, and unknowable. Affably mute. Somehow I kept my trap shut.

In addition to that legendary shyness, Prince is also exhibiting obvious physical discomfort. As Prince mounted the podium, I noticed he was limping badly. He was only 50, I reflected to myself, but years of explosive landing splits had clearly done a number on his joints.

In recent days, as information has emerged about his physical pain and his alleged reliance on prescription drugs, I have reflected on the life of Prince with a mixture of sadness and gratitude. Throughout his career, His Purple Highness stopped at nothing to give us all the ultimate show and paid the ultimate price. His life was a life of service.

“U—I would die 4 u,” he sang.

Read more from Slate on Prince.