Artist: Stephen Sprouse

Wright proudly celebrates the work of Stephen Sprouse, a visionary fashion designer and artist. Sprouse is famous for his iconic graffiti patterns and is associated with the downtown New York City music and arts scene of the 1970s and 1980s. His irreverent, luxurious and radical collections serve as the link between a Warholian ethos and aesthetic and contemporary designers. Sprouse cultivated a distinct retro-futuristic style, equally influenced by high and low culture, that continues to excite and engage the fashion and art world in equal measure. 

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People say, oh he did these fluorescent 1960s-inspired clothes. That’s really over-sampling things. I just think Stephen made cool, luxurious, young clothes.

Marc Jacobs

The Radical Fashion of Stephen Sprouse

Sprouse began his fashion career at 14, interning with Bill Blass in New York City, and worked in Halston's studio from 1971–1975, until he decided to move downtown and focus on developing his own work. He debuted his first collection in 1984, at The Ritz nightclub to 2,500 of New York City's most influential downtown tastemakers, artists and musicians (including Andy Warhol). The collection was a holy trinity of art, fashion and punk and blurred the distinction between fashion past and present and high and low culture. 

Too far is not far enough.

Stephen Sprouse

Coverage of Sprouse's 1989 collection, heralded as a "comeback" for the designer.

Auction Results Stephen Sprouse

Stephen Sprouse 1953–2004

Stephen Sprouse was a pioneering fashion designer and artist, responsible for bringing a “downtown,” pop sensibility to luxury fashion. Sprouse’s unique vision, both retro and futuristic, a meeting of high and low influences, came to define the look of New York City in the 1980s and continues to inspire designers today.

Sprouse was born in Ohio and raised in Columbus, Indiana. His family recognized his interest in fashion from a young age and supported his artistic talents; his father, who was in the Air Force, would take him to New York City in the summers to meet with fashion designers and see current collections. When he was 12, his father showed his portfolio to a friend at the Art Institute of Chicago, leading to an introduction to fashion designer Normal Norell and, later, Bill Blass (a fellow Indianan), who hired Sprouse as a summer intern when he was 14.

In 1971, at 18, Sprouse enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design but left after only 3 months to pursue an offer to work in Halston’s studio as a sketch artist and draper. Halston and Sprouse developed a close working and personal relationship, though Sprouse eventually began bucking some of the uptown conventions of the designer and his clothing. Sprouse loved working with the likes of Jackie Onassis, Barbara Streisand and Diana Vreeland but was drawn to the edgy, artistic downtown culture emerging in the mid-1970s. One day, in the studio, Sprouse was bemoaning an upcoming show of “old lady dresses” to Halston and pressed him to make the hemlines shorter. In the rousing atmosphere of the studio, Halston relented and Sprouse began cutting up the dresses, with Halston yelling “Skimp it, skimp it!” The Skimp was introduced by Halston in November 1974, to acclaim from fashion tastemakers.

Sprouse left Halston in 1975 and moved to the Bowery, where he lived upstairs from Debbie Harry of Blondie and became involved in the downtown punk and arts scene. He was photographing rock bands, creating large silkscreens and Xeroxed posters of music figures, as well as designing clothing. He received his first wave of attention in 1978 for designing the dress Debbie Harry wears in the music video for "Heart of Glass", which featured a photoprint of television static. In the time between leaving Halston and presenting his first collection in 1983, Sprouse was working mainly as a visual artist and had become a fixture in the downtown milieu that included Jean Michel-Basquiat, Keith Haring, rock bands at the Mudd Club (the downtown response to uptown’s glamorous Studio 54), and Andy Warhol, who Sprouse idolized.

Sprouse received further attention after competing in a contest for young designers in 1983, sponsored by the Polaroid Corporation, which led to product orders from Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel. He debuted his first collection on May 1, 1984 at the East Village club The Ritz, where 2,500 people were in attendance (including Warhol). The collection, and its presentation, was radical. Models with dark-rimmed eyes and choppy haircuts sauntered down the runway to blaring punk music and strobe lights, and the star of the show was Sprouse’s muse, transgender model Teri Toye. With Day-Glo garments, some oversized and boxy, others a direct reference to the 1960s mod style, scrawled with Sprouse’s own handwritten graffiti, the collection was executed with an incredibly high level of couture materials and tailoring. After the show, Warhol traded two portraits for the entire collection and Sprouse became the most sought-after designer in New York City. Sprouse merged the worlds of art, fashion and punk, with a keen understanding of history and an eye for the future, all while challenging the notions of status and luxury with a rebellious and irreverent attitude.

The years following this bombastic entrance were rocky for Sprouse; he received numerous endorsements and sponsorship and was critically lauded, but financial success belied the innovative designer, mostly due to his insistence on expensive, high-quality materials, producing many of the prints by hand himself, and corporate entities not always understanding how best to represent his work. In 1987, he opened an ambitious, high-profile, three-level store in New York City, with a smaller one following in Los Angeles. He also was selling wholesale to department stores and working out of Warhol’s former Union Square factory. That same year, Warhol died and was buried in a Stephen Sprouse suit. Despite the positive reception his designs received, the economic downturn from the stock market crash in 1987 and the difficulties in production and pricing caused the failure of this store by 1989. After this setback, Sprouse focused on making stage costumes for people such as Mick Jagger, Duran Duran, and David Bowie and going back to creating large silkscreens of iconic figures such as Iggy Pop, Warhol and Patty Hearst.

The 1990s brought a similar seesaw of success and setback; he presented the prescient capsule collection Cyberpunk at Bergdorf Goodman in 1992, but the clothes sold poorly. He was the consulting curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and, granted permission to use Warhol prints, created a collection in homage to Warhol in 1997. As the millennium approached, Sprouse was still highly regarded in the fashion industry, with his vintage pieces fetching impressive prices, but he had trouble reaching mainstream success. In 1999 he presented a collection printed with NASA images taken on Mars by Pathfinder; Sprouse was always on the vanguard, a fashion “insider” but, ultimately his ambitious creative principles kept him on the outskirts of the industry.

The year 2000 brought about a lucrative collaboration with Louis Vuitton — Sprouse was brought in by Marc Jacobs, a friend and great admirer of his work, to help design a collection. The result was his most enduring and recognizable designs, the Louis Vuitton graffiti logo bags. In the end, though, Sprouse was put off by the corporate demands of the environment. The last collaboration he did was with Target in 2002. Sprouse passed away from lung cancer in 2004, with many of his closest friends not knowing he was ill. At the time of his death, he was painting portraits and working on a mural for NASA. In the years following his death, designers such as Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Patricia Fields, along with many others, have referenced Sprouse’s enormous influence and paid homage to his distinctive and daring vision. His earlier designs continue to be coveted and are held in the collections of prestigious museums, while Louis Vuitton has re-released his designs to critical success.

If you would like to learn more about a work by Stephen Sprouse in your collection, contact one of our specialists today! 

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