A few moments after Lori Phillips lugged a blue pillowcase into a coffee shop in downtown Franklin, she took a self-conscious pause to reconsider her choice of tote. Then she smiled. “Stephen would approve,” she says. “It’s very understated.”
Inside the unassuming carryall, she had put mementos—photos, handwritten letters, original art—of her friendship with the cult fashion designer and artist Stephen Sprouse, who is the focus of a new exhibition, Sprouse: Rock/Art/Fashion, opening July 16 at Newfields. The two had grown up in Columbus, Indiana, and kept in touch until his death in 2004, at age 50, of heart failure.
After graduating in 1971 from Columbus North High School, Sprouse moved to New York City and soon began working for the famous designer Halston. In one letter, sent to Phillips in college, Sprouse joked about her dislike of denim and offered encouragement: “Keep wearing your nice clothes, and don’t worry about those blue-jean clad freaky girls. That’s out of style, anyway—they just don’t know it yet.”
“He was just the sweetest fellow,” says Phillips, a retired speech and language pathologist who still lives in Columbus. “He always had a twinkle in his eye, because he was so keenly observant and able to read between the lines. And what a quiet, gentle spirit.”
That was Sprouse, the friend. Sprouse, the style iconoclast? He was dubbed “The Duke of Day-Glo” and “The Punk Glamour God” by fashion writers. He created the silk chiffon and silk jersey dress with photo-printed TV scan lines that Debbie Harry wore in Blondie’s 1979 “Heart of Glass” video and designed the kilt Axl Rose wore on tour with Guns N’ Roses in 1993. His pop-graffiti lettering reinvented the spring 2001 Louis Vuitton handbag collection that Harper’s Bazaar declared “launched a thousand waiting lists.”
The 60 looks on display at Newfields, arranged by curator of textile and fashion arts Niloo Paydar, will include a version of the “Heart of Glass” dress, along with a wall of shoes. All are part of a massive donation made to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2018—800-plus pieces of clothing and shoes, along with thousands of Polaroids, video cassettes, sketches, and papers—by Sprouse’s mother, Joanne, and younger brother, Bradford.
Stephen Sprouse had a connection to the museum. As a high school student, he often visited to see art and stage photo shoots with his friends. His family’s relationship with Paydar, which began with the 2012 exhibit American Legacy: Norell, Blass, Halston & Sprouse, led to the landmark gift. It offers an intimate look into the visionary artist’s creative process and his personal life. It’s also a scrapbook of New York City’s nightlife and underground art scene in the 1970s and ’80s, when Sprouse collaborated with the likes of groundbreaking transgender model Teri Toye, photographer Steven Meisel, and artists Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol. Warhol is buried in a Sprouse-designed black cashmere suit, and the pop artist’s double portrait of Sprouse will be shown at Newfields.
“Mom wanted to put it somewhere where they’d appreciate it, preserve it, and let people see it,” Brad Sprouse says of the collection. “And heck, Warhol’s museum is in Pittsburgh.”
Sprouse’s personal collection did not include the elusive Louis Vuitton bag. Newfields borrowed two of those from the luxury French fashion house for its exhibition. Outside the Franklin coffee shop, Phillips retrieved her handbag—in perfect condition—from the trunk of her SUV, along with a never-inflated beach ball from Sprouse’s 2002 Americaland collaboration with Target.
One item she wishes she had saved? A sign Sprouse wrote and posted on the door of her family’s den when he flew home for the funeral of his father, Norbert, in 1994. When Sprouse was 12, Norbert, the owner of a successful manufacturing company, began taking his talented son to New York so he could show his portfolio to fashion designers like Bill Blass and Norman Norell, who also had Indiana roots.
While others gathered at the Phillips home after the funeral, Sprouse retreated to the den with his niece and nephew. Their “clubhouse” sign required a special password for entry.
“When he came home for Christmas or was at a party, he almost always gravitated to a corner with children,” Brad says. “And before you’d know it, there would be markers and crayons, and they’d all be doing an art workshop.”
The following outfits are part of the exhibit Stephen Sprouse: Rock/Art/Fashion, which opens at Newfields on July 16.
Graffiti Shirt and Pants
Graffiti was Sprouse’s love language. He marked up outfits like this, luxury handbags, and even his friends’ shoes. Similar writing also made its way to his arms in the form of reminders or phone numbers. When Sprouse was a child, his uncle would come for dinner and draw pictures of cars on his nephew’s arm. “Stephen absolutely loved that,” his mother, Joanne Sprouse, told New York magazine. When he said his bedtime prayers, he would ask God to bless Uncle Gene’s fountain pen.
Scan Lines Dress
Blondie’s Debbie Harry wore an identical version of this silk chiffon/silk jersey dress in 1979’s “Heart of Glass” video. Sprouse, her good friend, based the print on a Polaroid he took of TV analog scan lines. In 2012, the singer paid a visit to the IMA’s American Legacy: Norell, Blass, Halston & Sprouse exhibit and told the curatorial team that up until the moment she met Sprouse in the mid-1970s, she was “wearing vintage dresses and cowboy boots.”
Debbie Harry photographed by Stephen Sprouse.
Look above the pocket on the top left of this dress, and you’ll notice Andy Warhol’s signature. The “Camouflage” series was the last print portfolio that Warhol designed before he died in 1987 following gallbladder surgery. Just a week before, Warhol had given Sprouse—his close friend whom he admired—the rare, very-big-deal permission to use the prints for his clothes. The satin body-con dress was part of Sprouse’s fall/winter 1987 collection.
Through Andy Warhol, Sprouse became friends with Keith Haring, who got his start as an artist by illegally doing drawings in the New York subway before crossing over into the mainstream. The two worked together on fabric design, including this 1988 silk velvet bubble dress featuring Haring’s famous “squibbles,” and on graffiti-infused Jesus screen prints.
The Sticker Dress
Punk rock stickers on skateboards in the East Village inspired this nylon and spandex dress from the Burnout ’88 collection. Sprouse bought stickers, cut them up, and artfully arranged them to create the imaginative design. He also went on to design a pop-graffiti skateboard for Target’s Americaland collection. In 2009, Louis Vuitton debuted three skateboards from its Stephen Sprouse tribute collection. They retailed for $8,250 (including the trunk). Talk about sticker shock.
Hooded Dress with Matching Shoes and Tights
Between 1983 and 1985, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat collaborated on more than 100 paintings. Plug Pulled on Coma Mom (1984–85) inspired the pattern of this hooded dress, with matching high tights attached to the shoes, from Sprouse’s fall/winter 1998 collection. The wool/synthetic fabric dress features Velcro. Sprouse was the first designer to use the sticky, noisy closures. He once mic’d up his runway models just so he could hear the rippp backstage.
“Robot” Hooded Dress and Sunglasses
Silk, rayon, Velcro, plastic, paint—a variety of materials went into the making of this hooded dress accessorized with extraterrestrial sunglasses. Sprouse screen printed an original robot artwork by Andy Warhol to create the design in spring/summer 1998. “Stephen idolized Andy,” photographer Paige Powell said in The Stephen Sprouse Book. “He loved Andy’s idea of taking something common and making it into high art, and Stephen did the same thing in his own way. He juxtaposed the high and the low.”
“Robot” Tank and Pant
“The things I want to show are mechanical,” Andy Warhol once said. “Machines have less problems. I’d like to be a machine, wouldn’t you?” Warhol’s Flash Sharivan Robot was one of the images Sprouse screen printed onto his “Robot” clothes, including this rayon/cotton tank and pants created in spring/summer 1998. The original artwork sold for $93,750.
NASA Collection Blouse
Sprouse transcended time—Kim Kardashian’s recent white cutout dress was a throwback to the Sprouse look that Carmen Electra wore to the 1998 MTV Movie Awards. He also transcended space, having twice collaborated with NASA. He used NASA photos taken on Mars by Pathfinder in 1999 to create the print for this neon nylon/spandex blouse. The audience at his fall 1999 show viewed the interplanetary designs through 3-D glasses.
A Polaroid from one of Sprouse’s collaborations with NASA.