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Stephen Sprouse Show in Indianapolis Gives a New York Darling His Due Back Home

INDIANAPOLIS — Music by the Rolling Stones blared from speakers at the Ritz nightclub on East 11th Street in Manhattan 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.

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

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

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 Ms. 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 that Ms. Harry wore in Blondie’s 1979 “Heart of Glass” music video and a polyester-and-metal-button dress worn by the 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, the 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.

“Mom really wanted to give it to the I.M.A. because she knew they’d take good care of it and lots of people would have the chance to see it,” Bradford Sprouse said of the collection in a phone interview.

“I mean, look at Warhol,” he added, referring to the decision to open the Andy Warhol Museum in the artist’s hometown, Pittsburgh, in 1994. “There’s not a whole line of other museums down the block.”

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 3-D glasses); two leather jackets by Sprouse that were hand painted by the Italian artist Stefano Castronovo in the mid-1980s and depict a young Warhol and Ms. 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 Ms. Pollien said initially perplexed curators because they couldn’t 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, Ind., about 45 miles southeast of Indianapolis, his parents weren’t 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.

After his father took him New York when he was 12 to meet the 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,” Dennis Christopher, 79, a friend and fellow former Halston assistant, said in a phone interview. “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 Ms. 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.

He had a color Xerox machine the size of a refrigerator in his apartment, on which he would enlarge images of rock stars and newspaper headlines until they became distorted before reproducing them with paint on canvas. His bedroom twinkled Day-Glo blue under black lighting (one of his favorite sayings was “Does it glow?” recalled Jamie Boud, his longtime assistant).

He had a number of eccentricities that were both exasperating and endearing to his friends: He served his guests Bloody Marys in measuring cups — he didn’t own glasses — wrote phone numbers and addresses on his arm with a felt marker he kept in his pocket, and often drew on his friends’ shoes.

“Watching him draw was like when you see a Japanese artist doing calligraphy with a brush,” Ms. Harry said. “It had that flow and the beauty of the movement. One of my favorite things to do was just to sit and watch Steve sit down and casually doodle on a piece of paper.”

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, Mr. Christopher said — and disregard for his bottom line led him into financial trouble when he couldn’t 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,” Ms. Pratts-Price said. “He would’ve had so much fun designing for today’s world.”

At the Indianapolis exhibition, true to Sprouse’s love of all things punk, the vibe is that of a rock concert. Visitors to the exhibition will hear a playlist of the music Sprouse used in his runway shows as they take in his bombastic colors and bold graphic prints.

Bradford Sprouse, who was in Indianapolis this month to see a preview of the exhibition and attend a punk concert the museum hosted to celebrate the opening, said he hoped it could serve as introduction to his brother’s work for Midwesterners, many of whom don’t realize the designer, who spent the last 33 years of his life in Manhattan, was from Indiana.

“My hope is that they’ll go in there and they’ll get an education, an appreciation and an understanding of who he was and what he did,” he said. “That they come away feeling good about an Indiana artist.”

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