Born: Ohio, 1953. Education: Attended Rhode Island School of Design for three months. Career: Worked briefly for Halston and Bill Blass; showed first collection, 1983; out of business, 1985-87; showed three lines, S, Post Punk Dress for Success, and Stephen Sprouse in own shop, 1987; opened satellite shop, Beverly Hills, 1988; out of business, 1988-92; designer, introducing Cyber Punk line, Bloomingdale's, 1992; signed licensing deal with Staff International, 1997; began working with Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton, 2000; designed gown for artist E.V. Day, 2000.
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A much lauded figure on the New York fashion scene in the early 1980s, Stephen Sprouse is one of the most notorious success-failure stories in the American fashion business. One of a number of designers with their roots in the rural backwaters of Indiana, Sprouse shares his origins with Norman Norell, Bill Blass, and Halston, for whom he worked briefly in the early 1970s. Reputedly already displaying a precocious talent by the age of 12 when he designed leopard-print jumpsuits, Sprouse went on to study for a mere three months at the Rhode Island School of Design before hitting the New York scene as a rock photographer.
In the late 1970s Sprouse made his name by designing stage clothes for Debbie Harry of the pop group Blondie, having met her in the kitchen of the flats they were sharing in New York's Bowery. His designs included ripped t-shirts, minis, and leotards, paving the way for the first of his collections in 1983. Sprouse's clothes displayed a nostalgia for the New York underground of the 1960s, particularly Andy Warhol and the Factory aesthetic, and he seemingly designed with Edie Sedgewick or Ultra Violet in mind. Revisionist rather than retro, the garments were a witty caricature of the wildest excesses of 1960s fashion, harking back to the days of Betsey Johnson at Paraphernalia—yet tempered by Sprouse's New Wave sensibilities.
Sprouse used synthetic fabrics, neon hues, and striking graphic prints to give his basic shapes visual appeal, contrasting Day-Glo colors with black jersey separates such as t-shirts and minis. Press attention focused primarily on his use of sequins shown on jackets, thigh high boots, and his signature single shoulder strap dresses worn with matching bra tops. The influence of André Courréges and Rudi Gernreich has been obvious in his use of cutout panels revealing parts of the female torso such as the waist or midriff or in his redefinition of that staple of the 1960s male wardrobe, the Nehru jacket, colored hot punk pink by Sprouse in 1985.
Acknowledging the clichés of youthful rebellion, Sprouse toyed with items of subcultural style, which through overuse in popular imagery became mainstream. A prime example of this approach is the motorcycle jacket Sprouse experimented with endlessly, covering it with sequins, 1960s iconography, or pseudoslang. His use of logos, which seemed to be making reference to some magical teenage argot, bemused audiences in 1988 when the meaningless phrase "Glab Flack" was emblazoned over clothes shown on the catwalk.
Arguably his best work, as worn and publicized extensively by Debbie Harry, was the collection in 1983 on which Sprouse collaborated with celebrated New York graffiti artist Keith Haring to produce Day-Glo prints of hand-painted scribbles, imagery lifted straight from the subway walls. Matching outfits of miniskirts and tights or shirts and flares for men made the wearer look as if he or she had been caught full force in the fire of a spray can.
Sprouse's designs were strictly club clothes, street fashion at couture prices as a result of the expensive fabrics, applied decoration, and hand-finishing applied to every garment. Following a 1997 comeback based on Andy Warhol spinoffs, Sprouse's 1998 fashion line thrust fatigue-green hooded capes with orange lining above wide-leg pants and long maxiskirts. He bolstered his showing with matte sequined evening dresses and slim-line tuxedos anchored with Velcro.
With free-flowing chutzpah, Sprouse produced a techno-chic line for fall 1999. During Fashion Week, Sprouse caught the eye of the global fashion in-crowd and rockers such as Axl Rose and Steven Tyler, energized by the designer's high-fashion shoes, 3-D microminis, and unisex pants. Taking his cue from the Mars Pathfinder Rover, Sprouse toned up the runway spectacle with silvered colors, plastic sheen, and imagery from the Warhol catalogue, to which he has exclusive rights. Sprouse outdid himself with a unique application of head gear, paneling, and body computers. According to PR Newswire, he exulted, "I had no idea that the computer industry has advanced to the point that people can be wearing computers. This technology is so cool." In his estimation, the melding of cyber hardware with garments set the tone for the new millennium.
In fall 2000, Sprouse supplied a silver spangled dress to artist E.V. Day for "Transporter," one of her Exploded Couture exhibits. Spotlighted against a marine backdrop at the heart of her show, the gown floated between disks like a celestial mirage. Day slit the fabric to enhance a semblance of earthly beauty absorbed into the cosmos. Valued for his spunky countercultural panache, Sprouse made a palette of world-class luxury items. For 2000, he moved easily from clothes to accessories. Partnering with creative director Marc Jacobs during regular commutes between New York and Paris, Sprouse returned to the Day-Glo graffiti of his 1983 debut to enhance fabrics, prints, handbags, and luggage for Louis Vuitton.
Sprouse freed himself of the retro tag, telling Women's Wear Daily his use of a sprinkling of squiggles and a reinterpretation of LV lettering was not looking back— "I'm more into the present, but I guess the 1980s are the present now. This stuff looks more now to me." Even more demanding than his Paris job was a sizeable painting commission for NASA. At the New York showing of spring 2002 collections, he spackled show tents with his trademark eye-popping fluorescent color.
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass