by Andrew Bolton
Publisher: Chronicle Books
No one would mistake me for an extra from the set of “Sex and the City,” but there is at least one fact about me that is straight out of your average chick lit novel: I have a crocheted, two-tone blue Anna Sui tank top that I bought on the cheap at a vintage shop in SoHo. I wore it once while shopping for an occasion dress and the clerk said, “That top says all I need to know about you. I’ll be right back with some dresses!” And you know what? He nailed it (a strapless hot pink sateen A-line with an oversized rosette at the hip, thanks for asking!). The accuracy of his stylistic intuition – assessing a garment made of yarn with a pop-pom drawstring and translating it into shimmery partywear – had everything to do with the fact that Anna Sui’s designs communicate. Sui is not only a designer but also an historian, scenester, critic and above all else storyteller; she narrates her collections through the language of textiles and for 20 years, everyone from fashionistas to rock icons to, well, regular girls in SoHo thrift shops have never tired of reading her aesthetic.
Sui is preternaturally cool, the proof of which is in this season-by-season review of her collections from 1991 to the present named, appropriately enough, Anna Sui. Sui has her mainstays: floral prints (often poppies or peonies), windowpane plaids, cobweb sweaters, underwear-as-outerwear, patterned tights and perhaps most influential of all, the babydoll dress. But far from being repetitive, these elements are re-imagined over time as Sui latches onto her newest motif. That is to say, the Courtney Love-inspired kinderwhore white organza babydoll of 1994 is a very different dress than the French costume red, white and black “buccaneer punk” babydoll of 2007. Dress, suit, romper, coat, handbag; you are never looking at the same thing twice, even when it is the same thing.
Perhaps as fascinating as the designs included in the book is the commentary from Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, delineating Sui’s whimsical, hyper-intellectual and often schizophrenic inspirations for each collection. Bolton, supported, when all else fails, with explanatory quotes from Sui herself, deftly connects the dots when otherwise there seems to be only the faintest of discernible connections. For example, in her Spring/Summer 1995 runway show, Sui cited the following as her influences: pulp comics, Esther Williams’ swimming costumes, disco fashion, fetishized Minnie Mouse platforms, the Duchess of Windsor’s sweater sets, name-tagged waitress uniforms, a particular dress she saw on Bianca Jagger and… cherries. Your eyes are flicking between the text and the photos and if you don’t think too hard about it, the entirety of the process from imagination to execution almost zooms right into sharp focus. This coalescence of disparate influences is at the same time disorienting and conceptually exciting.
Though Bolton and Sui lead us through her creative labyrinth intra-exhibition, there truly is little rhyme or reason to the collections from year to year. 2002’s Spring/Summer collection, inspired by Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Aubrey Beardsley illustrations that appeared in a certain edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the loss of proportion that pervades Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a scene from Cartoon Network’s “Dexter’s Laboratory,” was followed by 2003’s Spring/Summer collection that found its muse in the primary colors of country club sports such as golf, sailing and tennis. This retrospective, then, functions as more of a chronological arrangement of dissociated snapshots than as a layout of one artist’s linear progression, development or maturation. That’s the thing about Anna Sui: she’s always been a star; you’re just not sure what part of the sky you’ll find her in next.
Though the writing is concise, the volume and specificity of references can prove vexing. It’s not just that Sui’s eye was drawn to a particular film, it’s that she was drawn to a particular gesture of a particular actress in a particular scene of a particular film. And unless you can visualize that scene by its very suggestion (chances are you can’t), it involves some secondary research on the reader’s part to flesh out the connection. The photos contained in this volume are primary to Sui’s work only, which is a drawback considering the extent to which she calls upon obscure cultural allusions. Perhaps by oversight, Bolton at times refers to certain pieces within a collection and yet those pieces are not represented in the accompanying set of photographs – an omission that could annoy those who are looking to follow Sui’s artistic pathology.
Still, with over 400 photographs (all color, many full page, including images of Sui’s inspiration boards), painstakingly researched commentary, a foil-stamped jacket and lavender gilt edging, the superior quality of the book itself recommends its purchase. It’s beautiful enough if you just want to look at pretty pictures, but this is much more than a vanity photo essay. Easily classified as an art reference book, Anna Sui is a vivid academic study of one of America’s spunkiest living icons.
by Stacey Pavlick