Fashion One Oh One - Stephen Sprouse Graffiti Dress

fashion one oh one series 

It's the last column in the fashion history series Fashion One Oh One. Sniff. But it's been a great series - be still my geeky history-loving heart. I LOVE having contributors who fill my expertise gaps. Can't know it all!

And today Jacqueline's fashion show & tell is ALL about Stephen Sprouse's graffiti dress.

dress and tights by Stephen Sprouse, 1980s. photo via The Stephen Sprouse Book website

dress and tights by Stephen Sprouse, 1980s. photo via The Stephen Sprouse Book website

Fashion and street art get together

Fashion and art have a long-chronicled history together, but street art and fashion have a newer relationship, one that took powerful hold in the 1980s. A young designer from the Midwest moved to New York, and, after stints at Halston and Bill Blass, took graffiti art off of the streets and put it on clothing.

This young designer was Stephen Sprouse, who was born in Ohio, raised in Indiana, and attended Rhode Island School of Design for three months. He couldn't wait to get to New York and soon met Debbie Harry of the band Blondie in an apartment building both were living in in the Bowery. Their relationship was important to each of them. Sprouse began dressing her in miniskirts, ripped T-shirts, and leotards, giving Harry a much-needed makeover and making a name for Sprouse's clothing. In 1983, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel carried a few of his designs in their stores. Later that year with an investment from his parents, Sprouse launched his first collection. 

Instantly you could tell that Sprouse's influence originated in the 1960s. But his designs weren't knockoffs of clothing from that decade. Instead he was taking the aesthetic and silhouette into a whole new territory — pop art meets Day-Glo colors and New Wave style mixed with Sprouse's experimental graphic sensibility.
 

Dress by Stephen Sprouse, 1984. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dress by Stephen Sprouse, 1984. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Youth + MTV

Sprouse seized on graffiti early on. His debut collection in December 1983, featured Space-Age shapes covered in graffiti and super bright colors. In the dress above from 1984, graffiti lettering scrolls across a mini dress. The silhouette oozes with Rudi Gernreich and Pierre Cardin inspiration, designers from the 60s who played with unisex and cutouts. But the graffiti print tapped into pop culture in a way no other designer had been able to do. Sprouse had captured youth, MTV, and rock music and put it on clothing. This style of graffiti stuck with Sprouse throughout his whole career.

Men's suit by Stephen Sprouse, 1988. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Men's suit by Stephen Sprouse, 1988. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andy Warhol and Keith Haring meet fashion

In 1988, Sprouse received permission from the Andy Warhol Foundation to use  Warhol’s “Camouflage” screen prints in his work. The two had been friends — Warhol had been a fan of Sprouse since Sprouse's second collection (Warhol died in 1987 and was buried in a Sprouse suit). The men’s suit above features Warhol’s print on Sprouse’s design. In the same year, Sprouse collaborated with the graffiti artist Keith Haring on a collection that featured abstract prints of Jesus and Haring's "squibble"-style graffiti, as seen below.

"Signature" dress by Stephen Sprouse, 1988. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Signature" dress by Stephen Sprouse, 1988. from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sprouse had major financial trouble throughout his entire career. His brand's history is littered with out-of-business periods, mostly due to the fact that his clothing's club-kid audience was very narrow but the clothing itself was very expensive to produce. Sprouse often had specialty fabrics custom made in Italy, because he couldn’t find the Day-Glo colors he wanted already in production. 


However, in 2001, Sprouse made a comeback. Marc Jacobs, creative director at Louis Vuitton and a fan of Sprouse's aesthetic, invited Sprouse to collaborate on a print for Louis Vuitton. The result were handbags with Sprouse's famous graffiti lettering reading "Louis Vuitton" over and over and over. The fashion world went nuts for them.

Louis Vuitton handbags and luggage featuring Stephen Sprouse graffiti print, photographed by Raymond Meier for Vogue, January 2001

Louis Vuitton handbags and luggage featuring Stephen Sprouse graffiti print, photographed by Raymond Meier for Vogue, January 2001

Sadly, Sprouse died young in 2004, but his graffiti legacy lives on. Jacobs used Sprouse’s graffiti images again on handbags, shoes, and scarves for Louis Vuitton in 2008. Many other designers from high to low have copied or modified graffiti lettering on their own designs. Graffiti in fashion has become ubiquitous.

illustration by Stephen Sprouse, 1989. image via The Stephen Sprouse Book website

illustration by Stephen Sprouse, 1989. image via The Stephen Sprouse Book website

And so we end this series where we started, with a quote from Massimo Vignelli:

"A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing".

No matter what your art form, none of us create in a vacuum. We're all part of a larger creative unconscious whether we are aware of it or not. And knowing a bit of what's happening in the other arty silos isn't so bad either!