Reviews

Opening Shot from Spring 2012 Photograph by Thomas Lau Courtesy of Anna Sui

The World of Anna Sui – Museum of Arts and Design

More than most designers, Anna Sui is a complete experience. Her boutiques, clothing, accessories, collaborations and licensing agreements are all stamped with her unmistakable combinations of color, pattern, and whimsy, making her work instantly recognizable in the crowded world of fashion. In the mini retrospective The World of Anna Sui at The Museum of Arts and Design, we see how she began her career, the influence of New York City’s culture on her work, and her impact on American fashion over the last thirty-eight years.

Anna Sui Official Portrait Photograph by Jerry Schatzberg. Courtesy of Jerry Schatzberg

The exhibit has two sections: the fifth floor showcasing her youth in Detroit, education at Parsons School of Design, inspirations and heroes in fashion and beyond, and the start of her company. The fourth floor has displays of clothes, and a section devoted to her collaborators in accessories and licensed products. The show doesn’t give much information about actual dates, but essentially Anna Sui was not an overnight success. She worked many jobs through her twenties and thirties, and when she began her own line, she continued doing that for some time. Her focus was phenomenal: experimenting with cut and fabric, learning how to communicate her point of view while building a devoted client base, and staying consistent to her ideas regardless of fashion’s trends allowed her business to grow slowly and sensibly.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Photo by Jenna Bascom

Each collection’s creation begins with several reference points: famous people associated with the arts, culture, or time periods, archetypes of American culture, patterns and colors linked to various fashion movements, and artistic or historic movements. Sui has a voracious interest in international cultures and nearly all time periods although her favorite influences are rooted in the 20th century, especially the music and fashion culture of 1960’s Britain or those linked to an American region or time period, such as the East Coast preppie or 1940’s Hollywood glamor. She often combines what seems to be opposing interests or aesthetics to provide a contrast or to show a hidden similarity, often using a color palette that works well for all the influences. All her potential ideas and thoughts are pinned to a ‘mood board’, to be examined and discussed with her staff. Several of these boards from previous collections are on view, providing visitors with an extraordinary glimpse into the mind of this creative force.

Anna Sui Fashion Show Spring 1994

One of Sui’s many trademarks is her joie de vivre. She simply can’t be gloomy and sad – even in her punk collection she moved away from safety pins through body parts and distressed fabrics, to focus on lightening the mood with metallic leathers and brighter colors. Fantasy and storylines are another part of the Sui aesthetic. Each collection is linked to a narrative that may go from noir movies to comic books to romantic fairy tales, all mashed together and if not making much sense, at least making unusual connections to entertain her customers.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom

Another way Sui stands out in the fashion world is her enjoyment of detail. In a world increasingly about surfaces, her work insists on depth, with her clothes referencing multiple influences within pattern, cut, and stitching. By pouring on embellishment with a masterly sense of shape and color, embroidery, feathers, fringe, lace, and ruffles overwhelm the eye but also enhance the garment, to the point that removing anything would ruin the look. In anyone else’s hands it would be a disaster, but for Sui it’s perfectly normal. As for the accessories, her collaborators are completely in tune with her collections’ focus and produce memorable hats, costume jewelry, and shoes.

Installation view of The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom

The gallery color scheme is classic Sui with vibrant jewel-tones in one area and her signature purple and black in another. The general display of the clothes is very well done, with numbered mannequins standing on platforms and arranged for clear sightlines. There are no wall talkers for the clothes: touchpads are located to the side of each group of figures, and visitors can swipe through photos of each outfit and read about the collection, the ideas/inspirations, and a description of the materials used. General descriptions of several archetypes Sui uses in her collections are given near the groupings, such as Fairytale, Victorian, Grunge. There are also video clips of the runway shows so visitors can see how the clothes were presented to the public.

Interestingly, this exhibit originated at the Fashion and Textile Museum, London and curated by Dennis Nothdruft in 2017. It was an excellent subject for the museum since Sui has consistently referenced British music and fashions in her work as well as being a champion of patterned textiles. For MAD, the show was adapted by Barbara Paris Gifford, Assistant Curator with support from Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy, Assistant Manager of Curatorial Affairs.

Over 90% of the material on display comes from the designer’s archives but for a more objective show, it would have been better to try and source the clothes from other venues, such as museums or collectors. The few items from other institutions are interesting, such as the Diana Vreeland doll from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they don’t add much to the presentation. By essentially raiding the closet of the exhibit subject, the museums have given up a neutral approach to the topic. On the other hand, shows like this aren’t meant to be judgmental, rather they are a general survey of a designer’s career, like a 101 college course. If a visitor doesn’t know the work, it’s an excellent introduction but if they’re knowledgeable, the displays read as a greatest hits collection. Either way, the show is strong enough to appeal to both groups.

Despite these issues, The World of Anna Sui is a perfect match for the Museum of Arts and Design. Sui’s ability to process a huge variety of sources to create beautiful and original objects exemplifies the intellect, skill, and talent needed for successful design work. By choosing to focus on this aspect of the designer’s career, the museum has given visitors a different way to see her clothes and appreciate why she stands out in the fashion world.

On view: September 12, 2019 – February 23, 2020

Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Hours: Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun: 10-6, Thur: 10-9, General Admission: $16, Seniors: $14, Students: $12, Members: Free, Children aged 18 and under: Free (accompanied by an adult), Persons with disabilities and their caregivers (must show ID): Free. On Thursdays from 6 pm to 9 pm: admission is pay-what-you-wish.

Vera Inc. logo, c. 1960s. Courtesy VNIP Holdings.

Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann – The Museum of Arts and Design

It takes a lot of effort to create a successful business in the fashion industry, with a daunting list of things that need to happen: have a designer who can create fresh looks for each season, a manufacturing partner that stays true to the designer’s vision, a promotional and sales force who sell the products to stores and consumers, and an accounting department to keep the costs low and the profits high.

Vera Neumann, c.1960s

Most entrepreneurs don’t get all these things right, but one who did was Vera Neumann. Starting in 1942, she designed, licensed and sold her artwork on everything from scarves to dresses to home goods. By using a varied color palette, patterns based on natural forms, and a distinctive painting technique (along with a simple two-color trademark on each item) Neumann’s work stood out in the retail environment. Add to this an insistence on a specific price point for all her product, and it’s no wonder the Vera brand was one of the most successful companies in America.

Vera Neumann, Cats and Dogs, 1963. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 30 inches. Courtesy Susan Seid. Photo: Steven Meckler.

In Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann, curator Elissa Auther, the Windgate Collections and Curator (with Alida Jekabson, MAD Curatorial Assistant, Rachael Schwabe and George Tiger Liu) present Neumann’s work with an emphasis on its appeal to consumers and place in mid-century design and aesthetics. As a rule, there would be many institutional sources contributing objects but curiously for a museum show, the bulk of the items come from the company archives and Susan Seid, who owns the original artwork of the commercial designs. The reason for this is simple: Vera designs were always so popular that most women or households used the products until they were worn out, making it more difficult for an institution to collect or display objects in good condition. Even now on websites selling vintage goods, it can be difficult to find a favorite pattern in good or excellent condition, even though there were thousands of items made at the time.

Installation view of Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (August 8, 2019–January 26, 2020). Photo by Jenna Bascom

The exhibit space is divided into four viewing areas that allow visitors to move easily from background information about the company to examples of retail product. The gallery is flooded with natural light, complimenting the display and giving a strong sense of how these items looked in real world conditions. It’s easy to see the commercial appeal of these bright, simple designs that were affordable and suited a wide range of people. The scarf displays are especially eye-catching, using a two-sided vitrine to maximize the importance of this accessory to the brand. As a clever touch, visitors can take a brochure reprinted from a 1968 ad campaign exploring the many ways to tie scarves of different sizes. A wall of Neumann’s paintings, along with a film clip showing her working techniques helps in understanding the journey from image to product. Her loose brushstrokes, using the Japanese sumi-e ink painting technique, were as much a part of the Vera look as her color choices and signature ladybug trademark. There is also another excellent film in the exhibit showing the full process of design and manufacturing, providing insight on the company’s success.

Installation view of Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (August 8, 2019–January 26, 2020). Photo by Jenna Bascom

The display area of home goods showcases the many Vera items available to consumers, from place settings to table linens. An iPad display scrolls through scanned pages from old catalogs of F. Schumacher, a home goods design company, with a wonderful range of patterned upholstery and wallpaper selections still in demand by consumers, more than 50 years later. Other objects include sample fabrics and photographs of rooms done with the full Vera treatment from sofas to curtains. It’s impressive to see the range of her influence on popular taste, and even more notable to feel the rooms don’t seem all that dated.

Vera Neumann, Mexican Paisley, 1971. Watercolor on paper, 24 x 24 inches. Courtesy Susan Seid.

One area that seems out of step with the general tone of the exhibit discusses the influence of global cultures on Neumann’s work. Although it was unusual for a designer to openly give credit to non-Western or non-American societies as a source of inspiration, the exhibit frames the artist’s study of other countries’ craftworks as a form of cultural imperialism. This gives a specific 21st century view to the pieces on display and although making a valid point, imposing it seems to detract from the overall message of a company determined to show that art can be sourced from anywhere and from any culture. Neumann’s ethos and the resulting products seem to clearly show her interest and respect for other ways of seeing and expressing beauty, in a way rarely done before or since by a designer. It’s worth remembering that her work, her company, and her customers were better for it.

On view August 8, 2019 – January 26, 2020

Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Hours: Tue-Wed and Fri-Sun: 10-6, Thur: 10-9, General Admission: $16, Seniors: $14, Students: $12, Members: Free, Children aged 18 and under: Free (accompanied by an adult), Persons with disabilities and their caregivers (must show ID): Free. On Thursdays from 6 pm to 9 pm: admission is pay-what-you-wish