King of Neon
With a new gallery exhibition, an in-store tribute at Louis Vuitton, and a coffee-table book, fashion’s DayGlo darling Stephen Sprouse is experiencing a revival, four years after his death.
With a new gallery exhibition, an in-store tribute at Louis Vuitton, and coffee-table book, fashion’s DayGlo darling Stephen Sprouse is experiencing a revival, four years after his death.
On Canal Street in New York, a few blocks from the current Stephen Sprouse exhibit at Deitch Projects (through Feb. 28) and the in-store tribute to the infamous neon designer at the downtown Louis Vuitton store, Marc Jacobs has re-imagined the Sprouse graffiti-print LV logo bags from his collaboration with the luxury brand in 2001. Or you can buy a rainbow of fluorescent paint in delicious-looking bottles at Pearl Paint for 50 percent off. Rather than forking over the dough for an overpriced bag capitalizing on the current Sprouse mania, one feels inclined to buy the paint instead, the way you’d buy a cheap souvenir, and in the spirit of Sprouse’s infamous graffiti, tag your own purse or walls.
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Fashion’s current Sprouse obsession has nearly reduced the once-edgy designer, who passed away in 2004, to an amusement-park ride or a high-end QVC promotion. A black-light-lit basement gallery at Deitch provides a visceral thrill in the form of blazing DayGlo fashion illustrations—and even more thrilling was the unexpected effect of the UV light on my own neon-painted nails. But in the light of day, what does Stephen Sprouse’s work really look like? Does it stand the test of time, or is it just an effect, like the black light? Are all of these homages justified, or is it just a product of good marketing?
And now, along comes a new monograph coffee-table book by Roger and Mauricio Padilha, two brothers who operate Mao PR, a fashion public-relations firm in New York. They are also the owners of one the largest private Sprouse collections outside of the Sprouse family’s own estate. Befitting the authors’ own obsessive-collector tendencies, Rizzoli published the book in four different, collect-‘em-all neon colors, and Louis Vuitton released a limited edition of the book in their store, which sold out in a matter of hours.
Between the book, the exhibit and the Louis Vuitton bags, the Sprouse marketing machine has fully converged this year for a man who, during his life, “became as well-known for his rapid ascent in the fashion industry as he did for his failure to gain a strong foothold in the retail marketplace,” as Roger Padilha writes in his introduction. Like other too-much-too-soon designers, Sprouse at times fell victim to his own hype. Though he was well-received by the fashion press and found a fan in Andy Warhol—his artistic godfather who loved Sprouse’s clothing so much that he was buried in one of his suits—in the beginning, Sprouse struggled to translate his vision into something that was commercially viable. He was ahead of his time in the sense that people knew he was doing something innovative—they just didn’t know whether they wanted it.
"For someone so deeply accepted by the fashion community, he remained an outsider throughout his life,” said Philip Guichard, a musician who knew Sprouse toward the end of his life. “His work was never so firmly glued to any ephemeral trend as to date the work beyond that of a phase in his visionary and varied idea cycle.”
The Stephen Sprouse book—which features rare images and reproduces ephemera from the Sprouse family’s archive and anecdotes from friends, supporters and business associates—reads like a corrective love letter, explaining what Sprouse was like before he staged his most recent comeback and became popular with today’s youth.
Kanye West’s new candy-colored kicks for Louis Vuitton owe a debt to Sprouse as well—after all, he paved the way for the intersection of music and fashion.
“At the time he passed away [at 50, in 2004], he was in the midst of another comeback,” Roger Padilha told The Daily Beast. “He’d done the collection for Louis Vuitton, painted the outside of the Bryant Park fashion week tents after 9/11, done a collection for Target, and one for Knoll. So when he passed away, this comeback is really what they focused on, and it overshadowed 25 years of stuff he’d done before that. I think a lot of kids are learning via our book what Stephen had done and what he was all about before Louis Vuitton. People are seeing that what they’re wearing nowadays is rooted in something.”
If there’s any doubt that Sprouse’s aesthetic continues to influence fashion and pop culture, just witness the endless spate of New York-in-the-'80s references in fashion, especially the don’t-worry-be-happy DayGlo color palettes of the Spring 2009 runways. Kanye West’s new candy-colored kicks for Louis Vuitton owe a debt to Sprouse as well—after all, he paved the way for the intersection of music and fashion that we take for granted now when he started designing clothes for Debbie Harry in the late '70s. He also set the pace for high-low designer and mass retailer collaborations with his all-American red, white, and blue collection for Target in 2002.
“Sometimes I think, what would Stephen think about iPod ads or American Apparel, seeing his work filtered down into our consciousness?” mused Roger Padilha.
Though the timing of the current Sprouse revival is coincidental to the dour economic atmosphere pervasive in the fashion world right now (“We’d been planning our book for four years,” said Mauricio Padilha), Sprouse’s devotion to DayGlo pop kitsch intermingled with a grittier DIY punk ethos is a welcome reminder of the kind of innovation that springs from harsher realities, both public and private.
“In the times that we are living right now, we need color and we need art and excitement,” said Mauricio. “The time is perfect to have Stephen around. One of his collections was even built around the American obsession with Black Monday.”
That collection launched in 1987, and was the first Sprouse had done since declaring bankruptcy in 1985. Considerably darker compared to what he had been doing previously—Sprouse favored the '60s and space-age looks—it featured gloomy imagery and styling and prints of hardcore bands that were layered over the American flag. At the show, models looked beat up and had blood dripping out of their mouths, and staggered down the runway like wasted, apathetic teenagers. Sprouse even made silver belts with a big buckle that said “Black Monday.”
“Art and music and design benefits from a recession,” said Roger. “People start getting a little more creative when they’re on edge. It gets a little more interesting. I think people need things like what Sprouse did. It’s not so much a trend but it’s something that they need and want to have around them.”
Renata Espinosa is the New York Editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."