If you visit The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, you’ll come across a gallery space decorated to evoke Anna’s boutiques (and her apartment), with black lacquer dressing tables and cabinets lavishly stocked with boots, handbags, jewelry, and yes — perfumes.
I really wished I could have opened that cabinet and sampled some of the fragrances while viewing the show! Of course, as a museum person, I understand why that’s not possible…but I couldn’t help playing a mental game of matching the fragrances to various looks and “archetypes” in the exhibition.
Here, I’ve paired a few of my photos from the show with quotes from Anna Sui herself and some of her branded perfumes. Read on for my thoughts…
1. “California was definitely a fantasy when I was a kid. I saw all the beach party movies. Then, when I was thinking about a surf collection, I went back and watched them all again.”
The Surfer section of the exhibition brings together garments inspired by board shorts and bikinis, rash guards and hula skirts, against a backdrop from Anna’s Spring 2016 runway show. Gidget never had it so good.
Surfer perfume pairing: This is an easy one! The fruity-woodsy Fantasia Mermaid (the follow-up to 2017’s Fantasia), launched in early 2019, would fit swimmingly (hah) into any of Anna’s “Beach Blanket Bingo” visions.
(I reviewed Fantasia Mermaid for Now Smell This last spring.)
2. “I’m not sure whether the Victorian era was necessarily repressive, but the reaction to it certainly inspired an outpouring of emotional and artistic extravagance.”
Anna Sui has been incorporating elements of nineteenth-century art, design, and culture into her clothing since her Autumn/Winter 1993 collection (if not earlier), and the exhibition’s Victorian grouping summarizes this fascination. (That black-and-white outfit from Autumn/Winter 2009 is one of my favorites in the show.)
Victorian perfume pairing: Anna Sui’s first fragrance (simply named Anna Sui) was launched in 1999. Its bottle matches the décor of her boutiques — black and purple, with plenty of elaborate trim and a rose motif or two.
The scent itself, a powdery, vintage-y rose blend, would pair perfectly with anything from Sui’s earliest 1800s-inspired designs to her Spring 2020 “Victorianna” collection.
3. “I am a storyteller. Which is why I love fairy tales…”
This Fairytale corner is populated with characters from fiction and fantasy: Anna’s unique take on pirates, princesses, and snow maidens, with enough gingerbread-cottage handbags to go around.
Fairytale perfume pairing: Once upon a time — in 2005, to be exact — Anna Sui Secret Wish appeared and became a top-seller for the brand. Its bottle is topped by a wee winged fairy like something out of Arthur Rackham (or Cottingley). The scent is a light citrus-floral composition.
4. “There’s always a bit of mod on my mood board.”
Since the start of her career, Anna has repeatedly looked back to the mods and “dollybirds” of London’s 1960s Youthquake, reworking this inspiration in garments from sharp-tailored suits to smocked babydoll mini-dresses.
Mod perfume pairing: Dolly Girl (2003) is a perfume fit for the London mods and dollybirds of Sui’s memory and imagination. Its pink box and bottle echo some of Anna’s mod ensembles, and its bottle reminds me of Twiggy and other Youthquake beauties.
5. “For a long time, my goal was to design for rock stars and people who went to rock concerts.”
Anna was combining patterns and textures with (skilled) abandon long before the term “maximalist” came into circulation, and the exhibition’s Rock Star / Hippie platform is a perfect spot to study her magpie-like technique.
Rock Star / Hippie perfume pairing: On a similarly eclectic note, Anna Sui’s Flight of Fancy (2007) has a bottle worthy of Janis Joplin. It deserves to stand on some bohemian rock goddess’s vanity, in a dressing room decorated with tapestries, beads, velvet cushions, and real peacock feathers, where it can spread its fruity-musky aura.
6. “Innocence is an eye to the way things should be. Good morning, little schoolgirl.”
Schoolgirl perfume pairing: Cardigans, scarves, Peter Pan collars and laced-up boots — this is the show’s Schoolgirl section, with looks inspired by school uniforms and birthday-party dresses. They’re sweet and smart and always a little surprising.
These outfits call out for retro-chic handbags, so here’s Sui Dreams (2000) saying, “Can I come home with you?”
I remember sniffing this vanilla fragrance in a Douglas store in Philadelphia in 2001-2002 and admiring the purse-shaped bottle with its lily motif. (I did eventually buy a bottle.)
(I reviewed Sui Dreams on Now Smell This a while back, too.)
I’ve heard that the next Anna Sui perfume will be released in Spring 2020. I’m already curious — will it fit another of Anna’s “archetypes”? In the meantime, I’m going to continue enjoying this exhibition as well as my own mini-collection of Sui scents.
Related reading: 5 Fragrance Facts from Anna Sui.
All Anna Sui quotes from Tim Blanks, The World of Anna Sui (New York: Abrams, 2017).
Images: all exhibition photos are mine.