Fashion Designer Anna Sui Finds Inspiration at the Freer Gallery

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Smithsonian exhibits travel to museums across the country. Smithsonian scientists conduct research the world over. And Smithsonian magazine is delivered to the doorsteps of two million loyal subscribers.

There’s no doubt that the Institution has a commanding presence. But Smithsonian on the runway? That’s a new one.

Last Wednesday, during New York City’s Fashion Week in Bryant Park, American designer Anna Sui unveiled her fall 2010 line. In it is a T-shirt inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s elaborate Peacock Room in the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Sui, a graduate of the Parsons School of Design in New York who staged her first show in 1991, is known for her self-described good-girl-meets-bad-girl style (think: military jacket with lace trim). Her fall collection continues in this same vein, but also employs an American “Arts and Crafts” theme. It was while Sui was studying this turn-of-the-20th-century art movement that she zeroed in on Whistler’s Peacock Room.

Whistler, an American-born artist, designed the ornate, blue and gold Peacock Room (aptly decorated with peacock feathers) in 1876 and 1877, when it served as the dining room in the home of English shipping magnate Frederick R. Leyland. (The story is steeped in controversy. Apparently, Leyland was not pleased with the outcome and never paid Whistler in full for his work.) Collector Charles Lang Freer purchased the room in 1904, and in 1923, it was put on permanent display at the Freer Gallery. The room is one of the museum’s biggest draws.

"I had always been familiar with the Peacock Room from photographs, and considered it to be the ultimate Art Nouveau interior," says Sui. She was equally fascinated with the feud between Leyland and Whistler and visited the Freer Gallery a couple years ago. "It was such a treat to finally see the Peacock Room in-person. I can't wait to see it again after its current restoration! I understand that details from the original room that had darkened with age are now revived to their former brilliance and clarity."

Sui teamed up with artist Sara Schwartz, whose work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post and various teen magazines, to create the T-shirt. Schwartz’s cartoon-like illustration is a view of two of the room’s walls. Whistler’s painting, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-64), hangs over the mantel and pieces of blue and white vases and dishes line the shelves, just as they do in the actual Peacock Room.

The T-shirts—black, with the image in silver—were given to 250 V.I.P. guests, mostly department store buyers and fashion reporters, at the show. But the public will be able to buy the shirts, in more colors, through the Freer and Sackler galleries’ shops and Web sites, Sui’s showrooms and Web site and some retail stores starting in September. Proceeds will go toward the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries and their mission to support the study and appreciation of Asian art and culture.

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