Photo by Bill Phelps
There’s a whole network of Minneapolis transplants who moved to town for Prince. They wanted to work for him or simply be near him—often showing up at Paisley Park night after night, hoping to catch his eye. Native New Yorker Gwen Leeds is one of those transplants, except she came grudgingly in the pre-Purple Rain days of 1983, when she knew only that there was an edgy young musician who often performed in his underwear, in a city so cold you needed skyways to get from building to building.
“I was in fashion. I was all about what was coming next,” she says. “Who Prince was and where he was going didn’t register with me.” But it did register with her husband, Alan Leeds, a music industry exec who was willing to relocate (and drag Gwen along) to be Prince’s tour manager. “He likes cutting-edge artists,” Gwen says of her husband. “He recognized something in Prince long before I did.”
Her own relationship with Prince evolved gradually and accidentally. “He would call on the weekends when he needed someone to do errands,” Gwen says. “Alan would be busy doing something else, so I did it. Then it became every weekend.” Soon she was going to New York to source fabric for Prince’s wardrobe—and acting as his go-between with fashion designers like Azzedine Alaia.
Gwen, who lives in Edina with her husband, went on to work as a fashion stylist for magazines, retailers, and other celebrities. She credits Prince for setting her on that trajectory.
Do you remember the first time you met Prince?
The first time I probably spoke to him was at First Avenue. He was very shy.
So what kind of errands would you do for Prince?
I’d go to the airport to pick up tapes and bring them to the house, and then he’d want a second one. Things like that—on and on.
How did your role evolve into stylist?
I wasn’t Prince’s stylist. I would never say that. He didn’t have a stylist—he was his own stylist. But I had all these East Coast affiliations. I knew so many resources. I remember one time going to a shop to have fabric sewn onto his boots—the boots always had to match his outfit—and they said they didn’t know if they could get it done. I said, “Hire people! Get it done! We’ll pay for it!”
Did you ever buy him clothes off the rack?
Never! After he blew up so big, there were so many designers who wanted to give him things, but he didn’t want to be affiliated. He did not like being beholden to people. He had a whole wardrobe department—cutters, sewers, seamstresses, pattern-makers. It was probably the biggest department in Paisley Park.
What was his process for creating his look?
He looked through magazines, but it didn’t really influence his look. There weren’t meetings—he never sat down and said, “Go get me a blue sequined suit.” You had to feel it out. I honestly believe that Prince was born with this gift. He played almost every instrument. He was one of the most talented, creative people ever. Even if he was shy, he was still self-assured. He knew what he wanted.
His look evolved over the years—do you have a favorite time period?
The dandy—the suits, the ruffles. In the beginning, he dressed for shock. Then he realized he could change. You grow up. He knew what he wanted, and he always made you think. To be able to say you worked with one of the most creative minds ever is an honor.
What was one of your most pinch-me moments while working for Prince?
I had to buy material for him for the Oscars. I was at a very exclusive fabric store on East 57th Street in Manhattan. There were two others shopping, and we all wanted the same fabric. One guy was trying to buy for Luther Vandross. The other said, “I’m representing the Queen of England!” And I said, “Well, I represent the Prince.” Plus, I had cash. I got the fabric.