“Creating something new out of something old.” That, Anna Sui said in her program notes, is the essence of what she does as a designer. While Sui’s work always charms, it registers with particular poignancy in her spring collection titled “Heartland.”
Like just about all of us, Sui’s been spending a lot of time at home, and her confinement has led to musings on its existential and practical components, the comfort, the safety, the memories, real and embellished. Did mom really bake pies or is that enticing scent an invented memory?
Unlike most of us, Sui had to come up with a fashion collection during quarantine, and she started to integrate those personal mental meanderings with far-flung references, artifacts of which make her huge mood-board wall a treasure-hunt adventure. This time out, interest piqued at a documentary about the painter Berthe Morisot, who was painted by fellow Impressionist Édouard Manet. Sui considered as well the painter Charles Burchfield, who put a mystical spin on landscapes, and rewatched the 1966 surrealist Czech film “Daisies.” Thoughts swirled, references converged and clashed, and Sui made a swift shift from her previously envisioned pop palette to a pretty murkiness worthy of the Heartland handle.
In the resulting lineup, witty eccentricity settles in at the junction of Dust Bowl, grunge and street, with drive-bys of beach and bats in the belfry. Sui offered a little geek, a little chic and a lot of fantastically imagined, deftly realized shenanigans. “It’s my idea of DYI, where you can adapt things,” Sui said during a weekend visit to her studio, that notion presaged by the delightful press packet she’d sent in advance: a fabric-covered box filled with paper dolls, paper-doll clothes and real fabric swatches in an array of prints and intricate textures.
Those swatches are the stuff of a major focus on dresses. Sui loves a vintage vibe, and a Thirties-Forties-Nineties fusion prevailed, often styled with arty cool-girl indiscretion. Many of the looks derived from aprons and were frilled, embroidered or otherwise embellished. Yet Sui is a prolific creator and clever pragmatist, and thus integrated every type of sportswear piece imaginable into her lineup, though nothing in its most basic form.
To that end, Sui’s fashion embodies “it takes a village.” She has sought out collaborations since long before they were a thing, partnering not necessarily with the famously gifted, but with skilled craftspeople who can realize and advance her multitiered vision. She’s taken to scouring Instagram and reaching out when something strikes her. For spring, Sui enlisted Philadelphia-based design studio Riverside Tool & Dye for the prettiest pastel tie-dye treatments you’ll ever see; Seattle-based artist-activist Stevie Shao whose positive messaging adorns Ts and jackets, and Birdiepurl, a knitwear studio that Sui enlisted to crochet handbags from old T-shirt stock. And speaking of old, some looks were finished with beer-can hats from a company that makes updates on the retro chapeaux.
Now, back to pie: Sui shot her pleasures-of-home film against a dollhouse backdrop painted by Oliphant Studio. In the planning stages, she happened upon the work of artist Karen Freidt, who during lockdown turned her creative talents to baking. Turns out, not all pie crusts are visual equals, and Sui couldn’t resist working one of the exquisite desserts into her narrative. You can’t wear Freidt’s blueberry miracle, but boy, is it photogenic.
WATCH: Anna Sui’s Spring 2021 Collection