Stephen Sprouse was famous for dispatching neon colors and graffiti on garments that became a groundbreaking marriage of punk and high-end. When the Hoosier-bred designer laid his trademark thick lettering over the iconic Louis Vuitton monogram in 2001, waitlists ballooned before the fashion line even came out.
His single-strapped “Choose or Lose” dress — covered with buttons but without a bodice — was part of a 1996 MTV election education campaign with model Kate Moss and musician Iggy Pop. And Sprouse’s single strap carried the 1979 TV scan lines-printed dress that singer Debbie Harry wore in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” music video.
The looks emerged across Sprouse’s decades in the spotlight. Critics characterized his career as a series of comebacks and valleys — a designer whose ideas were genius but who never quite eased into the retail marketplace slot that the biggest names do. In the years since Sprouse’s death in 2004, his body of work has crystallized into a steady legacy that is the subject a new Newfields exhibit.
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“Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion” opens Saturday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a place that has been meaningful to the designer. Sprouse visited the museum when he was growing up in Columbus, Indiana, and in 2019, his family donated a more than 10,000-piece collection of garments, accessories, textile samples, sketches, audio-visuals and Polaroids. Many of the items are a major source of the exhibit’s display, which includes more than 60 garments along with shoes, videos of his runway shows and more.
“We have this very specific image of the ’80s in our mind, which is more working girl, corporate, big suits, women entering the workforce. And he focused a lot on the youth at that time and the underground culture of that time, which is kind of not our universal understanding of the ’80s,” Curatorial Assistant Lauren Pollien said.
Many of his designs’ roots were born during his time living in a loft in New York, when he explored the underground music scene at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. With neighbors like Harry, whom he began to dress, Sprouse was already well on his way to becoming the designer who captured America’s transition into the 1980s and beyond.
‘I use music and art to give my stuff the look‘
In May 1984, Sprouse’s show at the Ritz nightclub famously captured this energy. The club atmosphere contained concert speakers, a video screen, and strobe and black lights, according to “The Stephen Sprouse Book.”
Three years later in 1987, he told the IndyStar fashion editor how his newer collection captured America’s burned-out teenagers.
“Between AIDS and the economy, these are pretty weird times, and people need to keep their heads positive and to pray for good stuff,” he said in regard to his coat with “God Save America” written on it.
In person, Sprouse spoke more quietly than his designs. IndyStar and Indianapolis News reports over the years remark on his shyness, while noting he was polite and answered any questions.
In a foreword for “The Stephen Sprouse Book,” his friend Tama Janowitz described him as cool, saying that he loved kids and animals and drawing on his friends’ shoes, which, even if unexpected, ended up making them better.
Sprouse formed strong friendships with many of those he worked with — evidenced by a leather biker-style jacket in the museum exhibit tagged by his friends. One is by artist Keith Haring, whose collaborations with Sprouse included a shirt pattern based on an 1872 Antonio Ciseri painting that shows Pontius Pilate and Jesus after he had been scourged.
Pop artist Andy Warhol granted Sprouse the rare opportunity to use his prints on his clothes and was later buried in one of his suits. In the exhibit, Warhol’s camouflage pattern is shown in a dress made multidimensional thanks to cut-out fabric shapes stiffened by acrylic paint. Other pieces show paintings created by the collaboration between Warhol and art pioneer Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“Music and art really influence my fashion,” Sprouse told IndyStar in a January 1998 interview. “While I use all the stuff I learned from Halston, the tailoring and everything, I use music and art to give my stuff the look.”
Hoosier designers mentored Sprouse
Halston taught Sprouse about fine tailoring, and under his tutelage, the young designer helped fit the likes of Anjelica Huston and Barbra Streisand.
Sprouse, who was born in 1953 in Ohio, moved with his family to Indiana as a child. There, he drew fashion collections so astounding that his father brought them to the the Art Institute of Chicago. From that connection, Sprouse met Noblesville’s Norman Norell and Fort Wayne’s Bill Blass.
The influence of Sprouse’s high-end training is evident up close in his clothes. The scan-lines dress made famous by Harry, for example, is constructed from two layers with the stripes exactly aligned, the museum information notes. Another olive and orange ensemble that consists of a hooded cape and sweater and skirt is so tailored that Pollien had trouble getting it to lay flat.
“It only lays right on a body,” Pollien said.
In order to preserve such carefully cut clothes, the museum actually modified the mannequins to fit them.
“We take the measurements of the garment and then we’ll carve down the fiberglass mannequins and then rebuild them,” said Amanda Holden, senior conservator of textiles.
Video throughout the exhibit shows Sprouse’s runway shows, which Niloo Paydar, curator of textile and fashion arts, said is important to gaining a deeper understanding of the clothes.
“The models are bumping into each other. It’s not like those stoic, European sort of runways,” Paydar said. “He wanted to create more of a lively kind of a club environment for his runway shows.”
Stunning, and expensive, materials
Newspaper stories that cover Sprouse’s career note that he had trouble catching on in the retail marketplace. Part of that stems from his love of high-end, innovative materials in wild colors that were difficult to acquire for more mass retailers, Pollien said.
“He wouldn’t compromise on which colors he was selecting,” Interpretation Planner Maggie Ordon said. “He did work with a few very high-end department stores, though, on a few collections, but overall, he wasn’t compromising to sell to a larger market.”
But Sprouse’s perfectionism grants a gift to those who view his work. His coat and matching pants from the fall/winter 1999-2000, for example, appear to be a reliably solid gray up front. But stand back enough so that light from the nearby screen hits them, and the ensemble goes from blue to turquoise to violet within seconds. That’s because tiny embedded glass beads in the high-visibility fabric reflect the light, Holden said.
Elsewhere in the exhibit, a swishy, stringy light rose dress glows in the dark. Near it, a hot pink Day-Glo jacket fluoresces under black lights, becoming much brighter, Holden said. Sprouse’s love of technology continued to evolve with developments, too. In his fall/winter 1999-2000 show, he used NASA photos of Mars fromthe Pathfinder mission in his fabrics.
Embedded into many of his designs are the one-of-a-kind letters he drew — forward and backward. The words have meaning, of course, but seem to say more in their artistry, with blunt strokes and finessed edges that communicate his bold visions.
The IndyStar fashion editor wrote Dec. 6, 1987, that Sprouse’s art did most of the talking. She noted that he apologized for being hard to get hold of, saying he rarely gave interviews. His reason?
“I don’t think I have too much to say,” he told her.
If you go
What: “Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion”
When: Runs Saturday through April 2, 2023
Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, 4000 Michigan Road.
Tickets and more information: Included with admission. Free for members. Advance tickets required. Visit discovernewfields.org.
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