THE LEAST UNDERSTOOD KID IN NYC
Last week I met up with Gordon Stevenson, a New York-based artist know as Baron Von Fancy, at New York’s The Odeon. The Odeon is arguably the restaurant that defined New York in the 1980s. A time both Gordon and myself were born. A time in New York City’s history that tested its strength. People fled in record numbers to the suburbs. City government’s mismanagement caused near bankruptcy. The introduction of crack-cocaine unleashed a wave of violence. The Mets were New York’s Baseball team. Not the Yankees. Things were not alright. However at The Odeon everything was okay.
There is a famous cocaine-fueled scene in Jay McInerary’s Bright Lights Big City that occurs at The Odeon. In Bret Easton Ellis‘ American Psycho Patrick Bateman spends time wondering why he wasn’t invited to “Odeon for the artists dinner”. It was the go-to spot for New Yorkers like Andy Warhol, Robert DeNiro and the cast of Saturday Night Live.
He arrived, wearing his signature tie-dye from head to toe and a Mets hat. The hostess ushered him to the table in the corner. The table that for decades people have fought over. The table that back in the 80s if you had the opportunity to sit at you’d have the perfect view of John Belushi dining at one table and Jean-Michael Basquiat at another. It’s the table that means you have achieved the utmost respect from the downtown New York community.
I caught Stevenson as he passed me. He decided to sit at the table I had already been sitting at. I asked if he prefer to sit elsewhere,, “No, no, no, I’d rather sit here. I don’t like the special treatment anyway. Let them give that table to Harvey Keitel,” who happened to walk in just behind him.
I have known Stevenson for nearly 20 years. We met in High School. He used to date my sister, who he credits as helping him become an artist. And when they broke up, him and I continued to communicate. We go way back.
Stevenson would routinely remember he was being recorded as we had lunch. The purpose of me recording interviews is so I can accurately quote the subject I’m interviewing. We did go off record at one point. Since Stevenson and I have known one another for some time and haven’t been able to catch up recently there were many times when he said “I haven’t discussed this with anyone before.”
At one point Stevenson said looking at how our relationship has just come full circle, “I just have confidence from the idea that you are fucking interviewing me and recording what I have to say. Even if you are going to bash the shit out of me in the article… and if you were to write an article bashing me I would just feel you wouldn’t wrap your head around what I am doing or what I am about. And if you didn’t like me, okay, but I would still have the confidence that what I do is killer because lots of people have instilled in me that it’s killer. Enough that I believe it’s killer.”
I smiled when he said that. I remember a time when Gordon Stevenson was not confident.
// THE LEAST UNDERSTOOD KID IN NYC?
“There has always been something about you that when people know you they love you and only say the nicest things about you, but when they don’t,” I started before getting interrupted. “Yeah they hate me,” Stevenson said.
“I’m mad nice and sweet and sincere and genuine and honest but from afar people, and I don’t know if it’s envy,” Stevenson said trying to make sense of why throughout his whole life he has had to deal with this. “I am a fuckin’ shrimp. Always have a hot girlfriend. I think other people look down, which is weird in our society, it’s not my fault I grew up with money and my parents have money I didn’t instill that in myself and I’m anti-country club. You will never find me joining a country club or anything like that. All my brothers and sisters are into that. I am not about that life.”
Stevenson didn’t just grow up with money. He grew up with lots of money. His father, who runs a hedge fund and got into mechanical trend following, is a billionaire. His father, Charles Stevenson also serves as the chair of Bard College where his son, Gordon, studied art.
“When people talk shit about me from afar that’s because they are judging a book by a cover,” Stevenson tells me. “If they talk to me they would feel me. There are some people who talk to me and we’re not on the same wave length and don’t feel each other and that’s just how life works. So be it. But I feel you. From afar people, lots of people, just think I look like an asshole little shit.”
I saw it a lot growing up. When people found out that he was dating my sister, they would tell me “he wasn’t a nice guy,” or “he scares me,” or my favorite, “he has a lot of problems.” Not entirely untrue but all came from people who didn’t know or understand him.
This attitude toward Gordon Stevenson has also translated to his art: “When I went to art school I had an art teacher who, when I showed stuff she would say this is not art. I had a teacher Nicole Eisenman, a very famous and respected artist. Well not very famous. She’s a respected painter. She shows in museums. She is not fucking around. She’s in the Chelsea art world. She’d be like this is not art. I would say, this is crazy.”
And also at home: “Even my parents. Now My mom says ‘my son is Baron von Fancy’. When I first started doing this my mom never came to my art shows. She was like ‘this is a joke.’ She didn’t say it to me. ‘I sent you to private schools and you could have done anything. You’re gonna be an unsuccessful artist? Do what ever you want. You will regret that in the end.’
Once you get to know Gordon Stevenson you realize he is right. He is ‘mad nice’ and ‘sweet’ and ‘genuine’ and ‘honest’. He’s also complicated and complex and constantly overthinking. You also realize for all the advantages he received due to family money or connections, they haven’t always helped him. At times they have put him at a disadvantage. Stevenson has had to win over every person he has met. They hate him or judge him or view him negatively or try and be fake and play him when they first meet him. In some ways, life would have been easier for him if he was like one of his siblings at a law firm or on a desk on Wall Street hitting up the country club on the weekends. But that is not who he is.
// WHAT IS DRIVING GORDON STEVENSON (BARON VON FANCY)?
Before understanding who Gordon Stevenson is, it’s important to first understand what is driving him to become who he is today. During our conversation, Stevenson kept attributing his success to his determination to winning and refusing to lose. At one point he said he fully considers himself “a hustler in all assets of things”.
Growing up, Stevenson exhibited a heighten level of determination and refusing to lose. When he wanted something he went after it and refused to let it go. I remember years of an intense relationship he had with my sister, Valentina. When she felt their relationship ran it’s course, Stevenson wouldn’t let it go. He was determined as ever to get what he wanted, as irrational as it was a times.
But what was that really about? What was driving that? It’s easy to say you are determined to win. My guess is every successful person says that. However, what is the driving force behind it, I asked him.
“I felt lots of rejection,” Stevenson opened up as he leans back and looks at another table. “When I was younger [my siblings and I] went to Horace Mann (an affluent private school in the Bronx) and they said I had a speech impediment. They wanted me to do speech therapy. My mom was like ‘he doesn’t have a speech impediment, I could tell you if he has a speech impediment, he might speak quickly.’ My mom made us all transfer to other schools… I wanted to go to Buckley. My parents were making me go to an all Boys School. I got into Buckley and St. Bernards. I was like I really want to go to Buckley. They were like no you have to go to St. Bernards. I remember feeling this rejection.”
A similar situation happened at St. Bernards so Stevenson eventually switched to Columbia Grammar for High School.
In High School, Stevenson felt a bit more rejection, “when I look at High School when I was younger with girls, and I was a good looking guy, and this will sound weird for a guy who has had a lot of beautiful girlfriends, when I was younger I think I hit puberty later and that really put me in a disadvantage to what girls wanted. I was like a boy.”
Then came his breakup with my sister, Valentina. “Even stuff with Josh [Safdie] and Valentina that happened later that was in High School. That was a very hard thing for me to deal with. The Josh Safdie thing was (both Stevenson and Safdie – a filmmaker – are close friends today). I am such a stoner burnout that I can’t even remember all the details except that I remember not going to prom with Valentina and she was going with another guy. It took that jarring understanding she was going to prom with another person to actually realize it was over.”
Stevenson also has a severe case of psoriasis that affects his hands. I remember times in High School and College when Stevenson didn’t want to to go out or was embarrassed to be put in a situation where he might have to shake someone’s hand. “My hands were really bad,” he recalled. “I wore gloves and shit. Physical pain was annoying. Not wanting to shake someone’s hand because you were embarrassed was rough.”
Story after story of talking about growing up, Stevenson focuses on moments in his life where he felt out of control, not confident and rejected. They might sound like smaller things today but at the time they felt big. At least to him.
Then he tells me about perhaps the biggest moment of rejection in his life. What would be the biggest rejection for anyone. The moment he got rejected by someone he idolized.
In Steven Hyden’s Your Favorite Band is Killing Me he devotes a chapter to the music rivalry between Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. Hyden discusses the emotional toll it takes on someone who gets put down by their idol (Vedder’s admiration for Cobain was never reciprocated). He uses Governor Chris Christie’s relationship with Bruce Springsteen as an example. Chris Christie is a die-hard Springsteen fan. Springsteen does not reciprocate the relationship. Springsteen has been very outspoken against Chris Christie. He even went on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and participated in a skit that embarrassed the governor.
Hayden wrote on the musical skit, “I couldn’t help feeling a smidgen of sympathy for Christie when I watched it. Yes, Christie is a public figure. And his beliefs exist on opposite end of the political spectrum from my beliefs. but he was mocked by his idol in front of millions on national television.” All Christie can do now is hope that Springsteen changes his mind. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to put someone on a pedestal only to have that person look down on me in disgust,” Hyden wrote.
Nor can I. Just think for one second what that might feel like to have the person you idolize shit on you. How would you feel? Since reading Hyden’s book I’ve often thought about this. So when Stevenson starts to tell me his story, I couldn’t help but think about it.
“I have one artist that I do not get along with who’s name is Steven Powers,” Stevenson tells me. “When I was younger I idolized him. He does stuff in a signed painterly style and it’s about love and life, which is what I do. When you asked me who my greatest inspiration was I would have said Steven Powers. If you put one of my drawings next to one his drawings you will very easily be able to tell the fucking difference. And he’s kind of over time felt that I have, I really feel this in some way, that I dig into what he is doing or stolen his concept in some way. And I take great offence to that.”
Stevenson went on, “We collaborated years ago. If you ask me about Steven Powers, I do not now have nice things to say. And this is a person I idolized. To say that I’m copying and stealing from you, dawg you are using a signed painter style. Did you fucking invent signed painting? And also I am smart. I’d steer clear of things if I felt it looks too similar to his. I never would have done it to be a copycat. I fully admit that I was inspired by him and I have made that clear. But to be inspired by something and then shit on you beause of what you do…” Stevenson paused for a bit.
“I think it’s also because I have become popular in it,” Stevenson reflects with some sadness more than anger in his voice. “Early on this was never an issue. Now that my thing has legs there’s an issue with it. He made me something years and years ago and I have never sold art that anyone has made for me and I’m putting it in auction immediately. I don’t want it anymore and I am very sentimental about objects and appreciation of people and things and that’s one of the few things that really hurts me that Steven Powers feels that way.”
Stevenson is sensitive and sentimental. He thinks about the times he has felt rejected. And he questions why people judge him without knowing him. For most of his life he might have thought he was confident, but it wasn’t until the past few years, the years of Baron von Fancy, that he found his confidence. And it appears that rejection has only driven him.
// FINDING HIS CONFIDENCE
Gordon Stevenson never completely felt he fit in growing up. He grew up with money and went to private schools. However he wanted to set himself apart as being different from others. He felt he was different. There was a period of time in High School that he only wore the color pink. In a way he was making it clear to everyone that he was a little bit different than everyone else. Becoming a lawyer or working on Wall Street was not in the cards for him. His mind was much more creative. He just did not know how to express that. Until he fell for my sister, Valentina who enjoyed spending most of her free time making things.
“I wanted to make things,” Stevenson tells me. “Valentina taught me that also. Whenever anyone asks me about how I got to art. I thought I had no artistic ability. I took an art class with Lynn Schulte who was the art teacher and she was like ‘Gordon whatever makes you not disrupt the class you can do it.’ I couldn’t make an apple in perspective and she was like do whatever you want. So I played with ink and glue and would make weird things. And Valentina spent all her free time in the art room and so it was a place I would go because I was into Valentina. I would spend time in there. It made me make stuff with my hands. And use my hands.”
“If you asked me before meeting Valentina if I would have been creative in any way in my life I would have said no,” Stevenson tells me. “I had no idea what creativity was or what making things was. I think being a successful artist – Valentina is a much better artist than me – she taught me things like just because I cannot draw an apple in perspective doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. Lynn Schulte also instilled that in me but Valentina put forth the place and time to show me what art was in a way I didn’t understand before that.”
After graduating Stevenson went on a metaphorical journey to find himself, while he made things. He started collaborating with various friends who at the time in the mid 2000s were creating some cool shit. One company was PegLeg, which one if it’s founders, Harry, is the son of Keith McNally, owner of The Odeon. Another early collaboration was with good friend Josh Ostrovsky, better know as The Fat Jew. In one instance they sat in a tub of Burger King burgers, which arguably launched The Fat Jew’s success. He also found himself working at Barney’s making private label designs that worked for Barney’s but not for him.
And Baron von Fancy was born. The name comes from college friends who called him ‘fancy pants’ for his Versace Jean collection.
So Stevenson left Barney’s, continued to collaborate with his friends in the downtown New York counter-culture scene and started to make some cool shit.
Around that time Stevenson’s father told him a story, “My dad said to me, if you want something go get it,” Stevenson tells me as he takes a sip of his Jameson neat. The story goes that his dad started dating a woman who was a secretary for a man in the finance industry. He asked her if she can set up a meeting for him with her boss. She did. He then got turned on to mechanical trend following and became a billionaire. “He just took advantage of opportunities that came to him at times. And I have great appreciation that he also made opportunities. I would have never done anything like that until he told me a story about doing something like that.”
So Stevenson made opportunities for himself. He began posting his work on Instagram. He hustled to make every collaboration work. And he started to gain traction. “Once I started getting appreciated for things I did,” he tells me, “I had the utmost confidence and I don’t think you can be successful without having confidence.”
// BECOMING APPRECIATED
Baron Von Fancy (the name Stevenson releases art and products under) according to wikipedia “has applied his distinctive artistic sensibility to create a broad range of tangible, practical items such as sponges, doormats, socks, backpacks, lighters, bow ties, matchboxes, handbags, cell phone cases and shits. Clever and enchanting at the same time, Baron Von Fancy’s work spans the spectrum in some instances from light-hearted to profound, to in other instances, from playful to crude.”
At the time of our interview he was wrapping up a collaboration with Google, creating cell phone cases for the new Google phone. He has collaborated with and worked with: Nike, Louis Vuitton, Vans, Uber, Rag & Bone, Bobby Brown Cosmetics, Urban Outfitters among many others.
Stevenson says he owes much of his success to Instagram, “Instagram has been the most valuable thing to me in terms of my career.” Most of his deals, sales and collaborations come to him through Instagram. He has amassed nearly 100,000 followers. He uses his account to post his signature painterly style words and sayings that he has appropriated from pop culture and conversations he has or overhears. It was getting unwelcoming feedback from members in the fine arts community, like his college art teacher, that made him turn to the Internet.
“The Internet was a place I didn’t want to have my shit known because it was a place people looked down upon,” Stevenson says. “I really think the Internet and I mean this in all sincerity, is a physical space. It might as well be a gallery. The majority of people have their phones out and are in that physical space spending time there. If I am known as an Internet artist, that’s fine with me. If I had a show in Chelsea from beginning to end maybe I can get 20,000 people in a month. But if I put up a picture on Instagram even if half of my followers see it, that’s 50,000 people. Then people screenshot it and send it to their friends. That goes wider and wider. I just want my stuff to be seen and appreciated.”
The accessibility of the The Internet has given Stevenson the ability to reach people well outside the fine arts world. And in a way that is probably why he has become successful. “I don’t even have a gallery,” Stevenson proclaimed with a sense of pride. “I used to feel some sort of shame that I wasn’t represented by a gallery. But I don’t give a fuck. I don’t even like having shows that much. It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of bullshit. Either you like what I do or you don’t. I don’t need some rich person who thinks it might be worth something in the future to sign off on what I do.”
Would Stevenson be where he is today if he went the Chelsea fine art gallery route? One will never really know. I would bet, no. Stevenson’s work, whether you want to call it art or not, is for the masses. Younger people are connecting with it. It could be due to it’s accessibility. It could be that it speaks to them because it doesn’t just exist in a gallery somewhere or in a museum somewhere else. His art was created to be seen and to be enjoyed.
// ABOUT THOSE DEALS
I was most interested in discussing his collaborations with businesses. Most of Stevenson’s business opportunities come to him through Instagram. He now has a manager who brings some opportunities his way. And he has a lawyer. He does not have an assistant or an intern.
“The first ever huge collaboration I did was with Juicy Couture,” Stevenson recalls. “They paid me well. If I can redo it… I gave them rights to drawings in a way that I learned very quickly from that, that I would never do that again. I’m now a licensee operation. I own everything. If you want to work with me, you are licensing my drawings for a certain amount of time, or for a certain amount of objects. And that’s how I make money off of it. I want to retain my rights to my original drawings for as long as humanly possible. They are mine. There is value in that.”
“I also want to take drawings that I make and for certain things to become iconic that you see over and over again,” He went on. “This is not my favorite phrase but “Mercury was in Fucking Retrograde” has gone very far for me. I have done collaborations with Reformation. With cell phone companies. All these different brands have used that. If I simply sold it to the first brand that used it I would have put myself in a bad position. I like that I will always have that to use it again.”
“But do you own the words?” I asked.
“Art is weird,” he told me. “I appropriate words from popular culture and conversations I hear so for me I don’t consider ownership of any words. There are certain phrases that are important to me and that I think are integral to what I do so I feel somewhat responsible for them. If you were to type in ‘Mercury was in Fucking Retrograde’ in a Google search my image will probably come up first. I did not invent that quote. I overheard it and I appropriate things.”
“But what about copyright?” I asked.
“I like David Byrne about copyright stuff. And I used David Byrne as an example because I use a lot of Talking Heads songs. “This must be the place” is from a Talking Heads’ song. I have redrawn it and in redrawing it I have made new artwork. I am taking something from his artwork and making new art. For anyone to say this is plagiarism or copy to me is ridiculous”
Stevenson has never been sued. However, he has sent cease and desists to companies where he feels they are using his artwork to profit. If they were to use the words in a similar painterly font, he says he wouldn’t care.
There is one incident where Stevenson overheard the phrase “Never Not Working” while he was working with New York apparel brand aNYthing. “That was a DJ, her name is Yesjulz,” Stevenson starts telling me. “She is a party promoter from Miami. She has more followers than me. ‘Never not working’ she claims is her thing. I draw it and did a print release of it. I don’t feel like I’ve stolen anything from her. She is claiming ownership of something she has never owned. She didn’t come up with it. She’s trying to trademark it. All good. If she were to ever sue me. I would go to court and prove, which would never happen.”
Stevenson keeps track of where words that he uses come from, “I would never take words from someone else who was in the same realm as what I do and use them. I want them from another walk of life.” And he has no problem giving credit if you just ask him where the words come from. Is that enough for some people, like DJ Yesjulz?
// WORKING WITH CORPORATIONS
I asked Stevenson about his recent collaboration with Google. “They want to make cell phone cases and cell phone things so I need to come up with verbiage that relates to cell phones,” he tells me. “For me that’s a mental assignment…it’s a cell phone case so I want things like “now you’re talking” things that relate to your cell phone. The project for me is finding that verbiage, and I love that… it’s so simple and obvious but that’s what I want. If it’s drawn the way I draw it, it brings a smile to your face and it’s simple and smart.”
“That cannot be an easy task?” I said.
“A lot of corporations want me to dumb things down,” he replied. “A lot of brands ask me to do things. I have a flavor and a style and a way I like to do things. To ask me not to do it in my style doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you just want me to draw it in a signed painterly style I can save you a lot of money by having you hire a fucking signed painter to write out the words you want. If you want to work with me, use my intellect to make it happen.”
Stevenson continued, “I work with a brand, they are working with me to make a collaboration with me so it’s unique. And then they want to homogenize me in what they are already doing, and that’s just wrong. Why would you ever want to do that? Makes no sense. My goal with brands is maintaining my integrity and still getting to make things I want to make and that I think are amazing.”
Stevenson enjoyed his partnership with Google, but even then a few of his favorite verbiage did not get selected. That’s what commercial artist need to deal with. If they aren’t so focused on impressing a gallery owner then they are needing to work with and please a corporation they are collaborating with. The most important thing to Stevenson is to maintain his integrity and to feel proud of the work he does with each brand. He said with certainty that he is proud of the work he has done with Google.
“When I started this, working with brands was like selling out,” Stevenson tells me. “Everyone is working with every brand. As long as you are making cool stuff, who cares?”
// THE CHERRY ON TOP
“I’m going to get this quote wrong,” Stevenson starts as he looks up to the ceiling a bit. “We are not smart because we are lucky, we’re lucky because we put ourselves in a situation to be lucky.” He explains: “In that sense luck is a skill. I really consider people who are lucky, who have good things happen to them make their own good fortune. My art thing has worked out for me because I worked really hard to make good fortune happen for me. And a lot of it is luck.”
Sure, luck has been on his side. He did not choose to be born into a wealthy family nor did he chose to go to elite private schools. However, he is the one who is hustling to put himself in situations that are beneficial for him. He works hard for every collaboration. People are noticing that and chose to work with him, which has always been his goal: “I always wanted to be appreciated. I mean this in all sincerity.”
If he wasn’t respected for his art, he would stop doing it, “If I got a lot of hatred, I wouldn’t do what I do, I could not deal with that. I genuinely think people like me for what I do and respect me for what I do. And that is everything to me. I do not care about money. I care about respect. To go into an office or to meet someone who really wants to meet me or has something I made is the coolest shit.”
Recently at a Mets game, where Stevenson has season tickets and attends every home game with his girlfriend (check out their Instagram @Coupleofmets) who he credits for his focus, a Graffiti writer came up to him. He brought him a care package and told him he was a legend.
As Stevenson tells me the story he quickly says “I am not… it’s crazy for him to say that. It makes me in a way enamored and thankful in a way I truly cannot express how cool it is to me. It’s the penultimate of what I wanted when I started this. To wake up and make what I want whenever I want and being respected for it is the cherry on top.”
[+] BARON VON FANCY
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