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Living her best life; Anna Sui on fashion and interior design

By Jackie Mallon


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Anna Sui photographed at home and a caftan ensemble from her fall 2012 runway Ph. FashionUnited

In the art of living our best life fashion and interiors are complimentary mediums. Anna Sui understands this better than most which is why the Museum at FIT scheduled a talk that was open to the public in the school’s Katie Murphy Amphitheatre between the designer and Patricia Mears, curator of the exhibit Designing Women: Fashion Creators and Their Interiors, which is entering its final weeks. The exhibit, which explores famous female fashion designers and couturiers within their intimate home environments is a celebration of the intersection between these profoundly influential and perennially beloved disciplines.

Garments and photos from FIT's exhibit Designing Women: Fashion Creators and Their Interiors Ph. FashionUnited

On April 28, Anna Sui sat down with MFIT's deputy director Patricia Mears who revealed that Sui was the muse behind the exhibit. They reflected on how Sui’s penchant for reimagining historic textiles and vintage clothing carries over organically into how she curates her unique self-designed home. Her Greenwich Village pad which has been featured in Vogue is inspired by legendary interior decorators and period styles from Victoriana to Art Nouveau to the decadent rock and roll scene and bohemian eclecticism of the 60s and 70s.

Home is where the designer heart is

“Designing a room is very similar to designing a collection,” Sui told the audience. A short video showed Sui wandering through the rooms talking to the camera about some of her favorite nooks and crannies and indeed the aesthetic of her runways makes its presence felt in the maximalist fusion of velvets, silks, color, pattern and print. “The most talked about room is my bathroom” she said, describing it as the perfect selfie spot due to its mirrored walls. Striking jewel tones compliment the graphic black and white statements; there is a silver living room next to a red sitting room for TV watching and reading. Pride of place within the latter is a chinoiserie style cabinet filled with bound volumes of Vogue magazine from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Lucile dresses and photo of the designer's Rose Room Ph. FashionUnited

In the exhibit what fills the home is more important than the location or architectural style of it. While Anna Sui has examples of stained glass scattered about her home, parallel images included in the exhibit depict the bedroom of early 20th century couturier Jeanne Lanvin decorated in rich blue silk inspired by the cobalt glass of medieval cathedrals. The color became known as Lanvin Blue and Lanvin's actual sleeping quarters, filled with objets by Jean Dunand, can be visited at the Musèe des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Meanwhile in Greenwich Village, frosted wallpaper, an antique fireplace adorned with tinsel art, framed vintage collections of butterfly wings, and so many other myriad treasures, or what Sui described as her “objects of affection,” all form the back drop for one of Anna Sui’s most prized possessions: a caftan worn by Elizabeth Taylor. Back to the exhibit and next to a caftan ensemble from Sui’s Fall 2012 runway, is an image of the designer at home beside her impressive book shelf as photographed for Elle Decor.

“I’m like a magpie, I see something shiny that attracts me and off I go,” said Sui, who pins layers of research onto the walls of her design studio at the beginning of each collection. Her walls at home are nonetheless intriguing. One is decorated with little birds wearing pearl necklaces, another features peacock wallpaper by de Gournay, in still another room, a mural designed by the illustrator of the Eloise series of books, Hilary Knight. When she fell in love with a wallpaper in an old photo of a room owned by Rose Cumming, her magpie eye was caught by a similar one at NYC’s Carlisle Hotel and she promptly went to the front desk to try and track it down. Currently what attracts her eye includes anything by designers Coco Chanel, Ozzie Clark, Bill GIbb or Zandra Rhodes; rock posters from the Fillmore; art by Aubrey Beardsley, pottery and tiles by William de Morgan and cabinetry by James Mont. “The more obscure something is the more special it is,” she said, “and something becomes more precious if there is a historical element, a story behind it.”

Artwork by Bil Donovan Ph. FashionUnited

A consistent aesthetic carries through from runway to home to retail design

The retail environment joins fashion and home to make a mighty triumvirate. The exhibit’s images of retail spaces, from Sui’s downtown Manhattan store, which occupied a spot in Soho’s Greene Street for 20 years, to Schiaparelli’s Paris perfume boutique, demonstrate that the same creative impulses behind room decoration fuel store design. Sui spoke of the profound impact of 60s London phenomenon Biba, how it influenced the design of her flagship store. Founded by Barbara Hulanicki, the Biba store, frequented by members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles who were waiting for their girlfriends to finish shopping, is featured in the exhibit as the epitome of the second wave of British design influence. It is perhaps no surprise that Hulanicki, who received an OBE for services to the fashion industry, left fashion in the mid-70s to become an interior designer.

70 items from FIT’s permanent collection, from peignoirs to tea gowns and evening capes are situated within the decor of their era, and the interior spaces featured range from luxe, professionally-crafted salons and apartments to modest, self-decorated ateliers and homes. Other creatives featured include Lucile, Jeanne Paquin, the Callot Sisters, Madeleine Vionnet, Coco Chanel, Bonnie Cashin, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Tracy Reese. The exhibit is enhanced by several large-scale custom illustrations by artist Bil Donovan who skillfully merges beautifully crafted dresses with impeccable decor in his distinctive watercolor style. This more than a century’s worth of items is described in the press release as “an unsurpassed blend of art, craft, fantasy, comfort, and kitsch.” But Sui put her approach to living her best life in simpler terms: “I think a lot of what I do is camp.”

Designing Women: Fashion Creators and Their Interiors, is on view at the Museum at FIT until May 14 and admittance is free.

Anna Sui
Museum at FIT