One of the many joys of an Anna Sui
collection is the intro it gives you to worlds you know nothing about. This season's show was a passport to the American Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, bleeding into the Art Nouveau that has been Sui's default position for years. I'd never heard of the furniture designer Charles Rohlfs, but Sui could produce a weighty coffee-table book devoted to his work. As it was, she designed an embroidery based on a Rohlfs' chest of drawers, which Agyness Deyn wore in the show. That sounds academic, which is totally selling short the straightforward pleasure in fashion that animates Sui's work. She may very well wear her influences—Biba dolly birds, Rolling Stones girlfriends—on her bell-shaped sleeves, but every season she brings a fierce-some amount of research to bear on prints, fabrics, and the decorative elements that give her clothes a distinctive richness. Here, it was the dévoré on the stained-glass border of a dress or jacket or the gold pomegranate design printed over a floral jacquard. Sui hunted down the place where Roycroft tiles were manufactured during the Arts and Crafts years and had them reproduced to be used as pendants (the Erickson Beamon jewelry in the collection was outstanding). The swirling Art Nouveau patterns on a little twill dress were duplicated in its accompanying tights—as Biba a moment as a revivalist could wish for.
But if the mood of these clothes was vintage bordering on antique, the overall impression was curiously un-retro. That's because Sui, who once worked as Steven Meisel's stylist, knows how to weigh the whimsy: a flat boot, a big cable-knit cardie, or a fur bolero helped to make her most hippie-princess looks real-world-ready. And, because the backroom boys and girls don't always get their due, it's past time to credit Pat McGrath's makeup, Garren's hair, and Frederic Sanchez's music. At some point in the future, those elements will all be part of the most wonderful museum exhibition on New York's most underrated designer.