Stephen Sprouse (Financial Times Weekend)

Stephen Sprouse has never been such a stellar name in fashion, or so globally successful, even though he died five years ago, virtually forgotten outside of fashion circles. You saw his distinctive, punk leapord print scarves across last season’s global advertising campaigns for Louis Vuitton and his way with colour and pattern has obsessed designers for years: Y-3’s autumn 08 tartan brights were totally Sprouse. Hermes’ luxe take on the studded rock and roll bracelet, American Apparel’s acid-bright leggings and the lean Dior Homme silhouette with spiky mod footwear are all perennially Sprouse. Every time the fashion wheel dictates an 80s revival, it’s his day-glo tones and cut and paste graphics that set the pace.  Style magazines and art directors are infatuated with him – when Katie Grand launched Pop magazine in 2000 it was as a graphic love letter, full of faux-Sprouse scrawl and fluoro. No designer of the last thirty years made their mark on fashion more literally or more influentially while being so tragically commercially disappointing, and personally disappointed. As Paige Powell, Sprouse’s friend and the curator of a new retrospective of his work at Deitch Projects in New York City, says: ‘Stephen wanted success so badly that it was physically painful to watch him fail.’

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With this months Deitch show, the publication of a lavish coffee table book about his work and the launch of a new limited edition Louis Vuitton collection incorporating his designs, Sprouse is finally getting the recognition he craved during his lifetime. What could be seen as the sixth Sprouse relaunch is being cheerleaded by his high profile supporters both past and posthumous. As gallery director Jeffrey Deitch says, ‘the whole community around Stephen has come together to make this all possible.’

Sprouse was financially toxic – selling out one season, selling nothing the next. His style was gloriously shallow: a fusion of rock and roll, fluorescent colour and postmodern subculture that felt 100% right time, right place – mid-80s New York City. It’s this resonance that has ensured its longevity and influence. For a younger generation of fashion innovators, 80s New York represents the epitome of high style, clique and edge – Tina Chow and the Warhol set prowling the VIP room at the Palladium. Vintage Sprouse pieces are subculture treasure and a badge of insider status, a fantasy about taking a trip in the style Tardis to a time when fashion was less corporate and more fantastical.

His groundbreaking work was with Debbie Harry, who would become, along with Andy Warhol (who was buried in a Sprouse suit), his closest ally. Taking his cue from the monochrome dank of their shared CBGBs punk milieu, he created black and white garments with pinstripes formed from blown up photographs of the lines that make up TV images, rough and distorted. Later they would go on day-glo adventures together, working with the Warhol camouflage print that would become as synonymous with Sprouse as its actual painter. ‘He wasn’t deconstructing clothing, the way some designers do today,’ says Harry. ‘He was deconstructing images.’

He was as much a fine artist as fashion designer; his palette was day-glo pink, green, yellow and orange, but it was the black lines he’d add to much of his work that made them what they were – handwritten text prints would become an abstract pattern across garments in cashmere or sequins. The black of the pattern became so much blacker beside those bright colours, the presence of the hand so much stronger. When he created Duran Duran’s Decade album cover he took his thick black lines around Polaroid portraits of the band, their tones eradicated by photocopying to resemble the pages of a punk ’zine. His work was a neat fit with the neoexpressionist scrawl of his peers Basquiat and Haring; if not exactly primal, then certainly tribal.

His fusion of rock and offbeat art celebrity kept his label niche but powerful. He was New York’s answer to Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End, but unlike Westwood, he never abandoned his rock roots for posh frocks. Who’s to say what Sprouse would have done with success? Commercially he was a notorious failure, making no fewer than five comebacks.  Like many avant garde designers he was all shopfront and no bread and butter; but unlike John Galliano, who made the transition from three-legged trousers to a global accessories market, Sprouse’s brand of downtown, nihilistic fantasy was unlikely to see him handed the keys to a couture house. Instead, had he lived, he may have languished, like Ossie Clark at Ghost in his later years, as a consultant; a revered yet unbankable fashion Yoda. As a designer in his own right, he was influential but shackled by bad business and inaccessibly high price points for his market. As Paige Powell says, ‘He would see Rei Kawakubo do something for Comme des Garçons which was a knock off of him, but it’d be something he was only able to make 30 pieces of.’

His close friend Marc Jacobs has hailed him as ‘a rock and roll Halston.’ In fact Sprouse started his career at Halston, and while dayglo would become his answer to 70s ultra suede, his cuts were simple but flawlessly elegant, much of his voluminous black suitings closer to the work of the Japanese than anything else. The quality was also beyond compare. The finishing on a man’s jacket was meticulous, and indeed his menswear was as revolutionary as his tonal direction. As Roger Padilha, one of the authors of The Stephen Sprouse Book says: ‘While most models at the time had that Bruce Weber muscle boy look, he dressed men in black skinny legged pants with pointed toes, shocks of bright colours and skirts that predated Gaultier. A lot of it you can see Raf Simons and Rick Owens doing today.’

In an industry that won’t overlook wrongfooting a single season, there were some major pratfalls. The sci-fi styling and Velcro detailing of the prohibitively expensive early 90s CyberPunk collection with Bergdorf Goodman found favour only with stylists for Billy Idol videos; a high street range with Target was just tacky. His last major relaunch in 1998, backed by Staff International (who manufacture Margiela), relied too much on Warhol prints at a time when Warhol’s stock was overexposed. At the same time, however, Knoll found success producing a series of camouflage and Techno Tweed textiles Sprouse had designed – the Deitch Projects show, Rock on Mars, proves he was a brilliant printmaker and hugely talented artist.

The Sprouse story both ends and continues with a handbag now more famous than Lady Bracknell’s. In 2000, fellow New York designer Marc Jacobs commissioned Sprouse to bring his distinctive handwriting to the Louis Vuitton range that was under his creative direction. The resulting Speedy Bag was a sensation and brought a semblance of spotlight back to Sprouse until his death in 2004. For Spring/Summer 2009 Vuitton has published welovesprouse.com online and a capsule collection of Sprouse/Vuitton pieces has gone on sale, with Sproused-up roses on high heels and dresses, and his distinctive script on luggage, leggings, sunglasses, scarves, jewellery and footwear. There are several layers of irony in Sprouse’s posthumous success at Vuitton: Jacobs has enjoyed the career that Sprouse might have done in a parallel life (Jacobs had his own Sprouse-style downturn when he disastrously endorsed grunge at Perry Ellis in 1992) and Sprouse’s work is now being appreciated by the luxe consumer who could have kept him in business while he was alive. More ironic still is the vast market of Vuitton/Sprouse fakes that proliferate from Dalston to Patpong, ensuring that the work of one of the most underground and leftfield designers of the last 100 years is now in the clutches of consumers who have definitely never heard of him – and probably never will.

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