Newfields’ Stephen Sprouse exhibition showcases iconic fashion moments

Stephen Sprouse was famous for sending neon colors and graffiti onto garments that became a seminal fusion of punk and high-end. When the Hoosier-bred designer superimposed his distinctive bold lettering over Louis Vuitton’s iconic monogram in 2001, waiting lists skyrocketed before the clothing line even came out.

His single-strap “Choose or Lose” dress — with buttons but no bodice — was part of a 1996 MTV election awareness campaign starring model Kate Moss and musician Iggy Pop. And Sprouse’s single strap wore the TV scan line printed 1979 dress worn by singer Debbie Harry in Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” music video.

The looks emerged in the spotlight over Sprouse’s decades. Critics characterized his career as a series of comebacks and troughs – a designer whose ideas were brilliant but who never quite settled in the place of the biggest names in retail. In the years since Sprouse’s death in 2004, his work has solidified into an enduring legacy, which is the subject of a new Newfields exhibition.

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“Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion” will open Saturday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, a venue that was significant to the designer. Sprouse attended the museum growing up in Columbus, Indiana, and in 2019 his family donated a more than 10,000-piece collection of clothing, accessories, textile samples, sketches, audiovisual images, and Polaroids. Many of the items are a key resource for the exhibit’s display, which includes more than 60 pieces of clothing along with shoes, videos of his runway shows, and more.

“We have this very specific image in mind of the 80s, which is more of a working girl, corporate, big suits, women entering the workforce. And he was very focused on the youth of that time and the underground culture of that time. that’s kind of not our universal understanding of the ’80s,” said curatorial assistant Lauren Pollien.

Many of the roots of his designs come from his time living in a loft in New York while exploring the underground music scene in CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. With neighbors like Harry starting 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 that certain something see

In May 1984, Sprouse’s show at the Ritz nightclub famously captured that energy. The club atmosphere included concert speakers, a video screen, and flash and black lights “The Book of Stephen Sprouse.”

Three years later, in 1987, he told the IndyStar fashion editor how his newer collection captured America’s burned-out teenagers.

“These are pretty strange times between AIDS and the economy and people need to think positive and pray for good things,” he said in reference to his coat, which read “God Save America.”

Personally, Sprouse spoke softer than his drafts. IndyStar and Indianapolis News have reported his shyness over the years, but noted that he was polite and answered any questions.

In a foreword to The Stephen Sprouse Book, his friend Tama Janowitz described him as cool, saying that he loved children and animals and drew on his friends’ shoes, which, albeit unexpectedly, ultimately made them better.

Sprouse formed close friendships with many of those he worked with – evidenced by a biker-style leather jacket in the museum exhibit tagged by his friends. One is by artist Keith Haring, whose collaboration with Sprouse included a shirt pattern based on an 1872 painting by Antonio Ciseri showing Pontius Pilate and Jesus after he was scourged.

Pop artist Andy Warhol granted Sprouse the rare opportunity to use his prints on his clothing and was later buried in one of his suits. In the exhibition, Warhol’s camouflage pattern is presented in a dress made multidimensional thanks to cut-out fabric shapes stiffened with acrylic paint. Other pieces feature paintings that were created in collaborations 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, tailoring and all, I use music and art to help my stuff do that.” to give something see.”

Hoosier designers oversaw Sprouse

Halston tutored Sprouse in fine tailoring, and under his tutelage the young designer helped tailor the likes of Anjelica Huston and Barbra Streisand.

Sprouse, who was born in Ohio in 1953, moved to Indiana with his family when he was a child. There he drew fashion collections so amazing his father took them to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was through this connection that Sprouse met Norman Norell of Noblesville and Bill Blass of Fort Wayne.

The influence of Sprouse’s high-end training is evident in his up-close attire. The Scan Lines dress made famous by Harry, for example, is constructed of two layers, with the stripes precisely aligned, according to the museum information. Another olive-orange ensemble, consisting of a hooded cape, sweater and skirt, is so tailored Pollien had trouble laying it flat.

“It’s just lying right on top of a corpse,” Pollien said.

To preserve such carefully tailored garments, the museum actually modified the mannequins to accommodate them.

“We take the measurements of the garment and then we carve down the fiberglass mannequins and then rebuild them,” said Amanda Holden, senior textile conservator.

Videos throughout the exhibition feature Sprouse’s runway shows, which Niloo Paydar, Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts, says is important for gaining a deeper understanding of clothing.

“The models are clashing. It’s not like those stoic European catwalks,” Paydar said. “He wanted to create a more vibrant type of club environment for his runway shows.”

Stunning and expensive materials

Newspaper articles covering Sprouse’s career note that he had difficulty breaking through in the retail market. Part of that stems from his love of high-quality, innovative materials in wild colors that were hard to come by for mass retailers, Pollien said.

“He didn’t compromise on color choices,” said interpretation planner Maggie Ordon. “He’s worked with a couple of very high-end department stores on a couple of collections, but overall he didn’t compromise to sell to a larger market.”

But Sprouse’s perfectionism bestows a gift on those who see his work. His Fall/Winter 1999-2000 coat and matching trousers, for example, appear to be reliably solid gray in the front. But step back far enough for light from the nearby screen to hit them, and the ensemble goes from blue to turquoise to violet in a matter of seconds. That’s because tiny embedded glass beads in the high-visibility fabric reflect light, Holden said.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a chic, threadlike light pink dress glows in the dark. Nearby, a pink Day-Glo jacket fluoresces under a black light, becoming much brighter, Holden said. Sprouse’s love of technology also evolved with developments. In his Fall/Winter 1999-2000 show he used NASA photos of Mars from the Pathfinder mission in his fabrics.

Embedded in many of his designs are the unique letters he drew – forward and backward. The words have meaning, of course, but seem to say more in their artistry, with blunt strokes and delicate edges conveying his bold vision.

IndyStar’s fashion editor wrote on December 6, 1987 that Sprouse’s art got the most talk. She noted that he apologized for being hard to reach and said he rarely gave interviews. His reason?

“I don’t think I have too much to say,” he told her.

when 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 further information: Included in admission. Free for members. Advance ticket sales required. Visit

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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or keep following her Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenica reports.

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