Discovering ‘The World of Anna Sui’

Entrance to the Fashion and Textile Museum.

May 2017 will stand out in designer Anna Sui’s memory as a month full of successes and landmarks. As well as receiving an honorary degree from Parsons School of Design, the designer and her influential career became the subject of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum’s latest exhibition. Entitled ‘The World of Anna Sui,’ the show takes visitors on a journey through the Chinese-American designer’s inspirations, obsessions and most iconic moments, which formed her style and established her as one of the key figures of 90s American look, alongside names such as Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi.

A view of the entrance to the exhibition space.

The title of the exhibition could not be more accurate – as soon as one steps into the first gallery, Sui’s vision becomes unmistakable and overwhelming. Her voice beams out of the speakers as she describes how she came to be interested in fashion, proclaims her love for Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, and explains how her own style developed in her teenage years, despite strange looks from her peers. As the visitors listen to Sui’s narrative, archive videos of The Beatles, celebrity culture, markets at Portobello and Carnaby, and scenes of boho youths frolicking in the park bring into forefront the environments and mentalities within which Sui grew up, capturing her imagination, and eventually manifesting themselves in her designs. With the understanding of her background, Anna Sui’s exhilarating universe is ready to be explored.

A photograph of Anna Sui’s first boutique at 113 Greene Street in Soho, New York, which opened in 1992.

The main gallery space almost teleports the visitor into one of Sui’s boutiques, a photograph of which is featured in the corridor between the different rooms. Entering through a grand, black lacquered door, groups of mannequins clad in Sui’s extraordinary garments, arranged according to their clique (nomads, punks, mods, surfers, rockstars and schoolgirls all make an appearance), lure the spectator deeper into the space, in an almost hypnotic state. The colours, patterns, textiles and surfaces are otherworldly, creating a kaleidoscope of all the characters one can become in Sui’s fashions. With vitrines in which shoes, make-up, sunglasses, hats and other Sui paraphernalia are showcased, the gallery space is almost a treasure chest in which anyone and everyone can find something to lust over. Completing and complementing the exhibits are purple walls, red platforms and Sui’s signature pattern with which the space is decorated. The curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibitions designer Beth Ojari transformed the relatively small space of the Fashion and Textile Museum, with great success, into an enchanting and intriguing environment.

A view of the ‘Fairytale’ section.

Installation of the ‘Punk’ garments.

The ‘Rockstar and Hippie’ group with Sui’s signature patterned wallpaper.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ is unlike any other recent fashion exhibitions. While the space is limited and a lot is packed in, it is never to the detriment of the clothes on show. There is something reminiscent of Diana Vreeland’s multi-sensory exhibitions at The Met’s Costume Institute in the London show. Unsurprisingly, the designer loved Vreeland’s stories for Vogue and The Met. Consequently, Sui’s perfume is pumped into the rooms of the Fashion and Textile Museum, corresponding to the message the garments are relaying. As such, ‘Sui Dreams,’ a perfume described as “inspired by independent women who follow their hearts and exceed their own expectations” provides the scent for the first gallery, that of Sui’s influences and childhood dreams. The main space, where the iconic Anna Sui garments are on show, fills one’s nose with ‘Fairy Dance,’ offering “an escape into a mystical garden where fantasy lives. A happy, whimsical place filled with sunlight and the enchantment of the fairy world.” Not much can be more appropriate for Sui’s story-filled collections. Elsewhere, Nirvana cries out from the speakers, while visitors can study Sui’s design process through the installed mood boards, or find out about the figures she collaborates with on her shows, such as make-up artist Pat McGrath, milliner James Caviello and photographer Steven Meisel. The exhibition is all encompassing, rich, informative, joyful and optimistic. An absolute must-see this summer! And don’t forget to visit the gift shop – you can take a bit of Anna Sui away with you in the form of her fabulous make-up, a scarf, or Tim Blanks’ new coffee-table book on the designer published in conjunction with the exhibition, also titled The World of Anna Sui. And one last tip – leave yourself a lot of time to peruse the exhibition, you will not want to leave!

A cabinet filled with an array of sunglasses and other accessorues from Sui’s shows through the years.

An example of Sui’s research board for a collection – here, Hawaii is on her mind.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum until October 1, 2017.

Making a Scene at the Fashion and Textile Museum: Thoughts on the exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age Fashion and Photographs

Mannequins welcome visitors to the film-inspired exhibition space. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The not so inconspicuously pink and yellow/orange painted Fashion and Textile Museum on London’s Bermondsey Street is just about to wrap up its current exhibition 1920’s Jazz Age- Fashion and Photographs. So, on a cold, rainy Saturday two of us Documenting Fashion MA students (that’s you Jamie!) set out to catch it before it was too late – as did many other Londoners, it seems. It was great to see the exhibition so busy, interest in fashion history bubbling about the place.

A collection of Gordon Conway illustrations begins the exhibition. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Film room from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Presented over two floors, the show, which was curated by the Fashion and Textile Museum’s Dennis Nothdruft and guest curated by Cleo and Mark Butterfield and Terence Pepper, covers a variety of aspects of 1920’s fashion, including fashion for different occasions, its representation in cinema, magazines and photography and as illustration. Furthermore, accessories are included on the second floor including make-up, stockings, and jewellery. In addition, an entire room dedicated to the photography of James Abbe, who photographed show-girls and film stars, also formed part of the exhibit. Every bit of space in the museum has been utilised for 1920’s material, films and wall decals, providing a range of objects to be discovered and lusted over.

Window display of accessories in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Magazines featured in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

The predominant layout chosen for the presentation of fashion in the main exhibition hall are “scenes” reminiscent of movie sets. These consist of a collection of mannequins in different poses situated on set-like areas corresponding to a theme. In “In the Boudoir” for example, mannequins wear corresponding clothing and the set’s back wall depicts an elaborate bed with curtains, as well as candlesticks and ornate pillars. To reinforce this notion of a quasi-movie set, artefacts such as stage lighting, a typewriter and a director’s chair are placed in between the first two “scenes.” As an idea, the scenes work well as an exhibition display, not only grouping clothing with a particular purpose together, but also, letting the viewer imagine how a room full of women might have looked in the 1920’s. Seen from the angle of our MA, the chosen layout raised some questions: How do the colours, patterns and designs compare and contrast and how would the women have perceived each other? What sense of identity did they take on depending on the cut, style and purpose of their clothing? How was fashion presented and disseminated through the media, show-girls and celebrities? How much did this influence the wearer in their own perception of fashion and lifestyles? The exhibition supports such questions, justifying the inclusion of photographs and illustrators in the show as highlighting “…the role of photographs and magazines in promoting the 1920s look”.

‘In the Boudoir’ scene from 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

Props in 1920’s Jazz Age. Photo: Sophie Assouad.

1920’s Jazz Age was, to be frank, really great fun and seemingly lovingly created. It is an excellent show for an introductory glance at the changing fashions, photographs, illustrations and magazines of the period. It could be faulted for trying to incorporate too many items and mediums at once or for being too busy with various films, magazine cases, wall decals and hangings. However, this is precisely what makes it accessible. The viewer can dip in and out of any area as they please. They can take as much or as little information from it as they like. Essentially, the show reflects how the 1920’s themselves are often perceived; it is busy, hectic, full and enjoyable to the brim due to its light and playful presentation.

Further Reading

https://www.ftmlondon.org/ftm-exhibitions/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-photographs

http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/fashion/the-fashion-and-textile-museum-jazz-age-fashion-photographs-exhibition-3779

http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/1920s-jazz-age-fashion-and-photographs

Auratic presence and mass manufacture: a review of ‘Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol’

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

“New Fabrics Put Modern Art in Fashion,” article published in Life, November 1955

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

Salvador Dalí, Classical Armour, Screen-printed headscarf, Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc., New York, c. 1946

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Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

Claire McCardell for Townley Frocks Inc, New York 1955 using ‘Fish’ by Pablo Picasso for D.B. Fuller & Co. Inc., New York, 1955, roller-printed cotton

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Dress history students in London are spoiled for choice when it comes to exhibitions, with numerous institutions and galleries catering to fashion-related interests. The Fashion and Textile Museum is one such organisation. Their current exhibition, Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol (21 January-17 May, 2014), showcases textiles and clothing produced by key figures of twentieth century art and design. Focusing on Britain and the United States, it explores the relationship between the aura of the artist and the ubiquity of mass-manufactured objects and the way in which artist textiles disrupt the binary of high art and popular culture.

Looking at artist signatures featured on a number of exhibited textiles, it is difficult not to think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the auratic presence of unique works of art. This is especially relevant to the many scarves featured in the exhibition. Mounted like canvases, they invite the visitor to study them as they would paintings. Dali’s designs for Wesley Simpson Custom Fabrics Inc. encourage this mode of viewing, transforming the flat fabric surface into a dream-like three dimensional plane. His headscarf ‘Classical Armour’ (c. 1946-7) depicts a derelict urn and suits of armour whose contorted shadows stretch across a nondescript landscape. Cracks along the illustration create the illusion that the scarf was made of a heavier substance than the silk it was printed on. With its many recognisable Dali tropes – drooping forms, melancholy landscapes, sardonic humour – the scarf seems to blur the boundary between art and design, transforming the wearer’s body into a mobile site of display. Furthermore, by drawing attention to the artist’s signature, in this case shown on the lower right-hand side and as a broken coin in the foreground, viewers are encouraged to forget that they are studying a mass-produced object.

Such examples displayed in the exhibition indicate that collaborations between artists and fabric manufacturers proved a lucrative endeavour, targeting audiences that were keen to gain cultural capital by acquiring textiles that featured well-known modernist designs. Instead of destroying the cult status of artworks then, such printed fabrics reinforced the aura of the artist genius and played an important role in familiarising a wide audience with the modernist canon. Although these objects may be viewed with academic suspicion due to their commercial appeal, the exhibition aims to dispel such concerns by focusing on how artist textiles allowed people to engage with modern art in their everyday lives. Wall texts, advertisements and magazine excerpts convincingly suggest that these fabrics served as an interface between high art and popular culture. At the same time, it would have been beneficial to learn more about how the displayed objects were worn and perceived by an enthusiastic public.

Although the exhibition predominantly focuses on the collaboration between artists and textile manufacturers, examples from the work of designers, such as Adrian and Claire McCardell add an exciting variety to its scope for audiences interested in fashion history. Commissioned by Fuller Fabrics to produce garments from their ‘Modern Masters’ range, McCardell used Picasso’s ‘Fish’ print (1955) to create a dress that featured some of her signature trademarks, which included the use of natural fabrics – in this case cotton – and details that accentuated the wearer’s body, such as belts and gathered pleats. Fuller Fabrics’ decision to hire McCardell indicates that some ready-to-wear designers were becoming increasingly influential in America during this period. Viewed within the context of the exhibition then, this dress points to the crucial role that mass-produced fashion played in twentieth-century material and visual culture by disseminating ideas and ideals of modernity.