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.”