There are few designers who weave autobiography into their collections as effectively as Anna Sui. The gloss of her show tonight was the work of the French interior-decorating legend Madeleine Castaing—chintzes, shades of blue, leopard as a base—but the guts were Sui's own years as a habitué of London's and New York's punk underworlds. The connection between the two was chaos. Castaing loved the style of the Second Empire in France, the mid-nineteenth-century period that followed the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic upheaval. Chaos and late-1970s punk? Goes without saying.
It might read as fiercely academic on paper (and the whole subject is, in fact, about to be the focus of the Met Costume Institute's next extravaganza), but when Karlie Kloss opened Sui's show in a zippered, brocade, Clash-meets-Castaing jumpsuit, the designer's internal logic started to make raw physical sense. Her love of vintage casts her as a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, but there are few youth cults as riven by romance as punk, so Sui was simply bringing about a union that was written in rock 'n' roll's stars. Her touchstone was the late Mirielle Cervenka, sister of singer Exene, whose effortless blend of Victoriana and ripped-and-torn was one of Sui's early inspirations. What said that better than a lace cape scored with rose-gold zippers? Or a floral chintz dress layered over cropped, multi-zipped pants?
When people write books or make music in this style, it's called steampunk. But this show's punk aspect was ultimately less significant than Sui's own ardent attachment to the spirit of idiosyncratic style. A biker jacket in neoprene, a jaunty hat shaped after cat ears, a contoured chambray dress dripping with pearls…none of that was necessary, but all of it was irresistible.