After making a splash in Manhattan, an artist gets his due back home

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Music by the Rolling Stones blared from speakers at the Ritz nightclub on East 11th Street in New York’s Manhattan borough as men and women walked side by side down the runway. More than 1,500 audience members, a sheen of sweat glistening off their necks in the tightly packed space, sized up the glow-in-the-dark creations under strobe lights.

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But this show did not take place last week, or last year, or even in the last decade. It was the debut of designer Stephen Sprouse’s sophomore collection 38 years ago, in May 1984.

“He was so, so far ahead of his time,” said rock legend Debbie Harry, 77, who shared a bathroom and a kitchen with Sprouse in a loft in Manhattan’s East Village for several years in the mid-1970s.

In the 1980s, Sprouse, who died in 2004, distinguished himself as a designer with day-glo ensembles that mixed graffiti with cashmere, bringing a punk-rock sensibility to high-end apparel. He created iconic looks for Harry, Axl Rose and Billy Idol, and his later collections incorporated art by friends including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.

The designer’s eclectic aesthetic is on display in a new exhibition, “Stephen Sprouse: Rock, Art, Fashion,” which opened this month at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in the state where Sprouse grew up.

The show, the largest survey of Sprouse’s work to date, showcases his passion for punk couture, including many ensembles not seen since they debuted on runways in the late 1990s, among them a version of the asymmetric silver dress Harry wore in Blondie’s 1979 “Heart of Glass” music video and a polyester-and-metal-button dress worn by supermodel Kate Moss in a 1996 commercial for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” election-education campaign.

“I hope people come away with an appreciation for just how talented and groundbreaking he was,” said Niloo Paydar, curator of textile and fashion arts at the museum.

The pieces, which also include two portraits of Sprouse painted by Warhol, a close friend of the designer, are part of an archive of more than 10,000 items that Sprouse’s mother, Joanne, and younger brother, Bradford, donated to the museum in 2018.

During a recent tour of the collection, Lauren Pollien, a curatorial assistant at the museum, pointed out some other show-stealers: a neon nylon and spandex blouse printed with images of Mars taken by the NASA Pathfinder mission (which the runway audience at Sprouse’s fall 1999 show viewed through 3D glasses); two leather jackets by Sprouse that were hand painted by Italian artist Stefano Castronovo in the mid-1980s and depict a young Warhol and Harry; a 1988 silk velvet bubble dress featuring the famous dancing squiggles of Haring; two graffiti-laced handbags from the spring 2001 Louis Vuitton collection; and a number of oversize denim suits, which Pollien said initially perplexed curators because they could not determine whether they had been intended for men or women.

“He designed for both,” she said. In addition to the prescient nonconformity of his creations, which disregarded gender binaries, Sprouse’s collaborations with Teri Toye made him one of the first designers to work with a transgender model.

When Sprouse was growing up in Columbus, Indiana, about 45 miles southeast of Indianapolis, his parents were not initially sure whether he was a prodigy or just obsessed. The fledgling designer sketched spring and fall collections in detail every year from the time he was about 10, Bradford Sprouse recalled.

sprouse exhibit Bradford Sprouse, brother of the designer Stephen Sprouse, at the exhibit “Stephen Sprouse: Rock, Art, Fashion,” at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He said he hoped the new exhibition would introduce his older brother’s work to Midwesterners, many of whom may not know the designer was from Indiana. (Cheney Orr/The New York Times)

After his father took him to New York when he was 12 to meet designers Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Norman Norell, he began his career as an assistant for Halston, a fellow Indiana native, in New York City in 1972.

“We had such a strange life,” said Dennis Christopher, 79, a friend and fellow former Halston assistant. “We would go to Diana Vreeland’s house for dinner in a limousine, and then we’d stand on the platform and count our money to see if we had enough change to take the subway home.”

In 1975, Sprouse moved to the East Village and began designing clothes for Harry, his downstairs neighbor, before opening his business with a $1.4 million loan from his parents in 1983. While Sprouse presented an intimidating exterior — he was known for his head-to-toe black ensembles, nail polish and grungy black Dynel wigs — he was sweet and shy, his friends said.

“He let his designs speak for him,” said Candy Pratts-Price, 73, Sprouse’s friend and former neighbor and a former creative director of Vogue.com.

His use of Velcro, day-glo colors, mirrored sequins and high-tech fabrics was ahead of his time, helping propel his designs into the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Yet commercial success eluded him. His commitment to quality — he had developed a taste for expensive materials during his time with Halston, Christopher said — and disregard for his bottom line led him into financial trouble when he could not fulfill orders. He filed for bankruptcy in 1985.

He made a comeback in the early 2000s with his spring 2001 collaboration with Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, for which he graffitied a logo bag. (Harper’s Bazaar once claimed that the collection “launched a thousand waiting lists.”)

Then, in 2004, Sprouse, who had secretly been battling lung cancer after years of smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, died from heart failure at 50. He was buried in an Edie Sedgwick T-shirt, and, after the funeral service, mourners wrote messages to him on his wooden coffin with pens and markers.

“It’s a shame we lost him so soon,” Pratts-Price said. “He would’ve had so much fun designing for today’s world.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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