Criticism
Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

Fashion and Comfort After Punk: Anna Sui at MAD


The World of Anna Sui at The Museum of Art and Design

September 12, 2019 – February 23, 2020
2 Columbus Circle, W. 58th St at 8th Ave
New York City, madmuseum.org

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Photo by Jenna Bascom

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Photo by Jenna Bascom

“The World of Anna Sui” is exactly what is delivered through the excellent curating and exhibition design that clearly articulates both the process of Sui’s collections, the inspiration behind her oeuvre and the collaborative methods behind the designer’s practice, runway shows and design studio. This exhibition is an adaptation of the 2017 version at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London.

Sui emerged in the late 1980s as an ambitious, driven, and indefatigable figure that deftly navigated the intricacies of the fashion landscape from her early days working for Seventh Avenue sportswear companies. Sui quickly learned the importance of satisfying the retail market by appealing to department store buyers in designing wearable and thus saleable garments. From her early days as a fashion stylist associated with Steven Meisel and Franca Sozzani, she honed her talent of putting together forceful fashion statements by combining clothing and accessories paired with the work of top hair stylists, make-up artists, and models. No less important was her presence on the NYC Club scene, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Likewise, as Sui absorbed trends in cinema culture, avant-garde fashion, as well as Karl Lagerfeld’s robust reshaping of the House of Chanel, those resources fueled her creative process. Against this backdrop, Sui has forged an immersive, highly imaginative style that transfers her aesthetic obsessions culled from contemporary culture into wearable designs for a youth focused market.

The fifth floor gallery at the Museum of Art and Design is dedicated to Sui’s influences highlighting examples of fashion luminaries such as Zandra Rhodes, Norma Kamali, Betsy Johnson, Diana Vreeland, and Biba (as worn by Anita Pallenberg) that are equally notable as highly influential female role models; against this formidable backdrop Sui’s fashion narrative emerges. The trademark Tiffany-style pendant lamps and glossy black Victorian furnishings that serve as fixtures in her boutiques amplify the mood of the Sui universe within the exhibition design. A wall of rock ‘n roll band posters sets the tone for both Sui’s internal soundtrack and that of her fashion shows.

Anna Sui Fashion Show Fall 1993. Photograph by Roxanne Lowit

Anna Sui Fashion Show Fall 1993. Photograph by Roxanne Lowit

If the spirit of the times stretching from the 1990s to the present could be encapsulated by a fashion exhibition, this presentation hits it out of the park. The show cogently identifies a uniquely American brand of fashion designer that, unlike her European counterparts, is indebted to the functionality of wearable sportswear that channels contemporary culture to a youth market. Sui’s influences – such as the vintage revival, rock ‘n roll, punk, grunge and surf culture – are displayed in imaginative tableaux reflecting a set design befitting each theme. Thus, a lush tropical backdrop completes the presentation of surfer motifs from Spring 2004, 2016 and 2019. Additionally, there are panoramic projections of video footage from associated collections throughout that bring each runway show and fashion moment to life.

Notable are the exhibition portions illustrating the creative process such as mood boards. For example, one board references the recent Warhol exhibition at the Whitney Museum, including his early commercial shoe illustrations and iconic celebrity paintings, fashion illustrations, various fabric swatches, and passementerie. Video footage of key Sui collaborators such as Pat McGrath (make-up), Garren (hair), and Thomas Miller (studio head), indicate both Sui’s long-term creative relationships and reveals the highly imaginative and collaborative work methods associated with her output.

European designers of this generation such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Romeo Gigli and John Galliano created fantasy statement-based collections whereby wearablity came as a second thought. Conversely, Sui’s output is grounded in stylistic functionality. Sui notes, in a 1999 profile in the New York Times, in reference to vintage designs, that, “You have to bring it back so that a person can walk down the street and not look like she walked out of a costume epic or a time machine. It’s got to fit how people dress today.”

Sui, as an aficionado of pop music and the associated fashion looks of the punk movement, such as the shock fashion designs of Vivienne Westwood and the anarchistic impresario motives of Malcolm McLaren, nonetheless puts a positive spin on their punk negation and revolt tactics by transforming the rejection of the status quo into bold and fanciful fashions – perhaps as a reflection of American positivism. In a similar vein, the disheveled thrift-store look exemplified by Kurt Cobain and the grunge movement is channeled, not as an affirmation of heroin chic, but rather, by Sui as readymade ensembles for those connected to the grunge aesthetic rather than the actual decadent and ultimately destructive image of the rock star lifestyle.

Sui’s persona and design outlook are best mirrored in the dichotomy of the pirate and the fairy princess as both figures appear in several collections. The pirate ensemble worn by Naomi Campbell (Fall 1992) replicates a swashbuckling outlaw in full seafaring regalia. Sui often transmits the fantasy of the romantic Bloomsbury era with diaphanous florals exuding a nymph-like aura. Likewise, both the Fairytale and Nomadic collections contain several pixie-like designs, such as Icelandic princesses and fairies. Sui’s muse, Keith Richards. is often associated with the pirate archetype with an androgynous bent – that is equally a Sui touchstone. The hyper-feminine girlish tendencies are shot through many of Sui’s collections as in reference to the schoolgirl and surfer girl looks. Her longtime friend and associate Steven Meisel remarks, in a catalog essay, “Anna is extremely feminine and her femininity translates into her fashions… She’s all about dresses – slip dresses, tunic dresses, smock dresses, baby doll dresses.”

Anna Sui Fashion Show Fall 2016. Photograph by Thomas Lau

Anna Sui Fashion Show Fall 2016. Photograph by Thomas Lau

The trademark 19th Century Aubrey Beardsley-style Art Nouveau graphics paired with dark gothic Victorian-style and lavender backgrounds appear in Sui’s interior store designs as well as in the packaging of her cosmetics and fragrances. Sui, throughout her career, embraces rigorous branding associated with these visual elements, which evolved over the years through her serious interest in graphic design, interiors, flea markets, and thrift shops.

Also notable within the presentation of “The World of Anna Sui” is the robust public programming that accompanies the exhibition. Panel discussions with fashion world luminaries such as hair stylist Garren and make-up artist Pat McGrath bring the creative influencers to the stage. Likewise, screenings of films such as Marie Antoinette (2006), including a conversation with director Sofia Coppola, showcase the visual media that had lasting impact on Sui’s designs while highlighting key contemporary cultural figures within a dynamic public forum.

Lastly, Sui’s runway productions – which began in 1991, jump-started by model friends Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington – added a supercharged endorsement to her debut show situated in an offbeat Chelsea warehouse. Later runway incarnations, such as a performance by rock band Elastica “in concert” with models strutting the stage perimeter, demonstrate her dedication to indie rock and the performative gesture within a fashion context.

One need not be a bohemian, a rock star, a surfer girl or a hippy to dress the part and touch the magic all the while going about one’s everyday life. Sui designs enable an idealized fantasy version of oneself all the while navigating a contemporary urban landscape, a suburban environment, or a rural outpost. One can dress in a Sui design, and thereby transform into version of a Sui fashion trope, be it a rock star, boho, punk, or a surfer chick. Once engulfed in the magical world of Anna Sui, one finds all that is cool and edgy yet safe to wear both at home and at work. Creative and alternative lifestyles embody fashion looks, and Sui translates such visual statements magically into classic wearable designs.

Anna Sui Fashion Show Spring 1994. Photograph by Raoul Gatchalian

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