Museum of Arts & Design Visits “The World of Anna Sui” with a Studio Tour

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In anticipation of her retrospective “The World of Anna Sui” opening this coming September during NYFW at the Museum of Arts and Design, the designer graciously led a tour of her studio for a group of high-level MAD members on Tuesday evening.

Sui, who staged her first fashion show in 1991, is one of the last significant designers still manufacturing and designing out of her garment district headquarters making this a rare opportunity to see where the sausage, or rather the clothing, gets made.

According to MAD Curator Barbara Gifford, Sui was “really captivated” by the museum’s 2017 exhibition “Counter Couture.” “I visited it four times,” said the Detroit native who decided as a young girl to attend Parson’s School of Design (after seeing an ad in the back of her babysitter’s Seventeen Magazine) and become a fashion designer in New York.

Through her friend Ralph Pucci who had a 2015 mannequin exhibition at MAD featuring one of Anna’s dolly head mannequins, she ended up meeting Gifford during “Counter Couture”.

“Anna is a fashion, art and music historian. She told me so much more about my exhibition than I ever knew,” said the curator. “At this same time Anna’s exhibition was in London — we discussed it coming here.

It was a pinch-me-please moment. Since then the exhibition also went to Japan. We plan to revise it a bit to be more New York focused. After all, Anna’s been in the garment district since the ‘90s. Her whole career is here.”

Of her success, Sui remarked “A dream just takes you further than anything. You have to have this unattainable dream, and you have to focus on it.” Fostering the dream was an article that Sui remembers in Life Magazine: “It was about two young ladies who went to Paris, and Elizabeth Taylor opened a boutique for them.”

Sui later found out that one of them (Mia Fonssagrives) was the daughter of Irving Penn so they may have had some connections to fall back on. The other one, I was quick to point out, was Vicky Tiel who made it big on her own.

Meanwhile, Sui told her famous story about how she and Steven Meisel, (in Paris attending the Jean Paul Gaultier show), stopped off to pick up Madonna (as one does, lol). Unbelievably, the “Material Girl” surprised Anna by revealing that she had chosen one of her dresses once she got to the show and removed her coat.

Another amazing thing about Anna’s long run in the fashion industry is that she’s used the same team for 30 years: Garren for hair, Nars and Pat McGrath for Makeup, James Coviello for hats, Erickson Beamon for jewelry and Frederic Sanchez for music. “I want to celebrate this team. It’s not just the name on the label – it takes a whole team,” she said.

While the designing goes on here (follow her on IG to learn more about that process) and the first samples in muslin are then cut into fabric, these are really the only garments that exist for her shows.

“We try to keep as much of the production here in New York, but many things have to be sent off to other countries to be made – embroidery to India or China, and sweaters. Through the Clinton years, everything got off-shored. The industry changed, and the factories closed,” she explained.

While cottons or velvets used for garments may be in stock, Anna’s prints are all custom made. “Eighty to ninety percent of what goes down the runway is all produced here,” she added.

Looking around the entrance room, you can see the image and spirit of the brand in abundance, of course through the clothing and accessories, but also the décor. The dolly head mannequins which Sui used to craft of papier mache, the black wrought iron rococo furniture first bought at a flea market as well as the packaging on the perfumes and cosmetics transport you to another place.

“Mermaid” is her newest “fantasy” fragrance; the shell jewelry and Kismet movie themed Spring 2019 collection share the sea theme. (Am I the only one who remembers the song “Stranger in Paradise” from that film)? “Anna is very much a storyteller which is unusual for an American designer,” says Gifford. “She carries the whole idea all the way through.”

The tour finally departs for a look around the workspace including the work tables, inspiration board with vintage swatches and artwork, and influences – some of these influences such as the rock and roll vibe, are constant – others are for a particular collection.

Girlfriends of rock bands such as The Beatles who bought their clothing from Biba, Zandra Rhodes, Ossie Clark, and Bill Gibb are a longtime London influence while Betsey Johnson and Baby Jane Holzer are two New Yorkers who will be featured come September at MAD.

When we get to the final room containing Anna’s office and the eye-popping 1960’s inspired mood wall for her Fall 2019 collection “Poptastic” which just walked the runway at NYFW, we collectively stop and gawk. “Every collection starts on this wall,” she said. “This shows what I am obsessed with.” She explains why each is placed there; from the early Andy Warhol shoe sketch – “I had just seen the Warhol show at the Whitney,” to the Antonio Lopez black and white drawings which were reproduced from a 3-D collage (“I remember something, and then I search for it online”).

The colorful storyboard renderings of Disney’s Mary Blair who created “It’s a Small World,” are there along with Victor Moscoso’s psychedelic Fillmore East handbills as well as Martin Sharp’s concert posters for Bob Dylan, Donovan et al. displayed at the London “Granny Takes a Trip” Kings Road boutique.

Sui shows how she groups the images by color and by release for Fall 1, 2, 3 and 4 (which comes out in November for holiday). Swatches of printed fabric are expected to keep the original inspiration.  “One month before this, there is no collection,” she laughs.

Sui is asked for her take on the global fashion world now. “With the European shows which just ended, you can see the seriousness of the economics in Europe. Everything was very business, lots of gray flannel. Mine collection is escapism – going back to a happier time.”  What does she think about covered up versus sexy? “I believe there’s an anti-Kardashian reaction. Prairie dresses and calicos are all over Brooklyn. This is what I do well,” adding that people of all ages can wear her clothing from her mother to her nieces to Sui herself, perhaps choosing different pieces.

As far as retail/department store malaise: “Designers lease the space in department stores probably with a certain minimum otherwise they get charged for keeping items on the floor that don’t sell – it’s called markdown money. Department stores used to be more directional and innovative, now it’s just about real estate,” she said.

Interestingly, I actually own (and still wear) a few pieces of what I believe was her first collection circa early ‘90s at Bloomingdales. What I wore was a (slightly) more recent item purchased from her Broome Street store – a fringed denim, tapestry and lace barn jacket style from her 2015 “American Pop” collection. “That’s one of my favorite jackets!” she exclaimed. Okay, I’m not Madonna, but I still think designers get a kick out of seeing their pieces on a customer.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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