Fashion convergence, xoxo: Anna Sui, Target, and Gossip Girl

So, before I go into my post about Anna Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired Target collection that launched last summer, I’d like to first announce something totally superfluous but strangely encapsulating. I am down to the dregs of my Anna Sui Dolly Girl perfume. My mom bought it for me several birthdays ago and it is a delightfully flirty fragrance that I only wear when I need to feel publically sexy. If I went to your birthday party, going-away party, theme party, house-warming, wedding, or any other BIG EVENT, this is what I smelled like before I got sweaty and/or drunk. Priced at $35 and lasting over several years, it has definitely served me well.

Anna Suis Dolly Girl; image courtesy of fragrancex.com

Anna Sui's Dolly Girl; image courtesy of fragrancex.com

Delightfully flirty and publically sexy seems to be Gossip Girl‘s chief M.O. The CW teen drama, created by O.C. mastermind Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, is now in its third season and based on the popular tween book series of same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. It focuses on the soapy, bitchy, frothy excesses of a gaggle of teenaged haves and (to a lesser extent) have-nots and their parents in New York City. Importantly, its wardrobe is in essence a principal character, largely due to costume designer Eric Daman’s keen eye for established and emergent talent in contemporary fashion. The show has launched once-fledging talent like Blake Lively, who has appeared in pictorials for Vanity Fair and on the cover of Vogue. It has also scored previously unknown actresses like Leighton Meester into a spokeswoman deal with Reebok

Vogue cover girl Blake Lively, February 2009; image courtesy of bryanboy.com

Vogue cover girl Blake Lively, February 2009; image courtesy of bryanboy.com

The show has proven itself bit of a taste-maker. How else to explain why this “silly” teen soap (with a considerable hip twentysomething following) got the coop of having Christian Dior’s Miss Dior Chérie advertisement air for the first time during the “Bonfire of the Vanity” episode? Oh, and let’s not overlook who directed the spot — Ms. Sofia Coppola, herself a hipster icon, fashionistaerstwhile clothing designer, sometimes design collaborator, and friend to folks like Marc Jacobs and, yes, Anna Sui.

BTW, I remember this really interesting feature Seventeen did back in 1993 with Sui, Coppola, and friends Zoe Cassavettes and Donovan Leitch, but cannot find it on the Interwebz. If curious, please contact your local library. When you find it, note the crocheted shawls, chokers, matte lipstick, and other hallmarks of early-90s fashion they’re wearing that are now making a comeback. 

Bringing publications like Seventeen into the discussion make inevitable the show’s fanbase and target audience, who tend to be pre-teen and tween girls. Thus, there’s probably a fair amount of aspiration that can be marketed toward (a euphemistic term for “exploited”). And while I feel kinda icky about the proceedings, especially since Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired togs tend to be mid-range ($30-$70), I at least can recognize that these clothes are more affordable than, say, Louis Vuitton, or even some of the garments sold at mall retailers like Express, Banana Republic, and The Limited. 

The market-driven desire to dress like a gossip girl suggests a particular cultural power, perhaps one not since seen since Carrie Bradshaw became a game-charging sartorialist (and Sarah Jessica Parker became her). The Gossip Girl cast’s on- and off-screen wardrobe (and, in Taylor Momsen’s case, the merging of the two) has also provided fodder for fashion blogs like Go Fug Yourself, much in the same way that producer Josh Schwartz’s name-making franchise The O.C. Gossip Girl has even taken its fashion-plate status toward self-reflexive ends. In the season two episode, “The Serena Also Rises,” a fashion show seating chart appears on screen, with Fug Girls Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks’s names on it

Thus, the show, like other Schwartz-helmed programs, is known for its intertextuality. So it seems fitting that a television show — particularly one as creative as marketing and distributing itself in an increasingly digitized and convergent media climate that young women have been especially adept at traversing, would try marketing its show through clothes. It’s a move with a bit of recent history (Grey’s Anatomy for New York & Company) and a bit of current cross-promotional play (Mad Men for Banana Republic, which Jonathan Gray has critiqued).

But having Sui team up with Target to design for Gossip Girl it is interesting, and smart in terms of the show’s investment in fashion, both as an industry and as a bridging cultural practice. Like Gossip Girl, Sui’s work has been characterized by her ongoing interests in popular music. Gossip Girl‘s music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas defines the show by its of-the-moment “indie” sound, which in turn gets referenced, idolized, and critiqued at length by the show’s characters in much the same way it was on The O.C.. Likewise, Sui is often inspired by popular music — particularly 60s garage rock, 90s Britpop, riot grrrl, and mod culture — and incorporates the attitude and aesthetic into her designs. 

Actress Emma Stone wearing Suis mod babydoll dress, designed with Blair Waldorf in mind; image courtesy of thestarnews.info

Actress Emma Stone wearing Sui's mod babydoll dress, designed with Blair Waldorf in mind; image courtesy of thestarnews.info

Both the show and designer have a preoccupation with the 90s — for the show, it is an era that commercialized alternative rock and, for hip dad and former rocker Rufus Humphrey, it is an albatross. Sui might feel similarly about the era, which was her zenith period and was not repeated in the 2000s when peer designers like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and Stella McCartney made the career move to be house designers for Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Chloé, respectively. Sui instead followed in the footsteps of designers like Betsey Johnson and continued to cultivate her brand from a slightly lower tier, opening boutiques around the world and continuing to create new collections, but largely outside of the elite world of haute couture. Likewise, Gossip Girl is not a big player on television with colossal ratings. It’s not on a big-four network or on a prestige cable channel like HBO.

(Note: Obviously, if one wants to read into Sui’s professional position her marginalized status as one of the few Asian American female clothing designers, there is ample room for this. Admittedly, I have not done so here, but would be very interested and encouraged by what others might have to say on the matter.) 

But both designer and show have cultivated their kitschy, hip brands toward less-travelled though no-less-populist ends. Thus, it makes sense that Sui would link up with Gossip Girl (apparently, her favorite television show), and that they would link up with Target, a big box chain with affordable prices, a cooler and more ethical socioeconomic reputation than Wal-Mart, and a relationship with designers like Isaac Mizrahi, as well as M.I.A.’s former roommate Luella Bartley and Michelle Obama’s go-to guy Thakoon Panichgul who, like Sui, have created limited edition collections for the retailer.

Now, having already discussed the problematic nature of fixing a price range and marketing a clothing line toward an intended audience in such a blatant way, I’d like to close by casting a critical eye toward the clothes themselves.        

A dress for Blair, Jenny, Serena, and Vanessa; image courtesy of mahoganyglam.com

A dress for Blair, Jenny, Serena, and Vanessa; image courtesy of mahoganyglam.com

One issue I have with the collection is how focused it is on dresses and skirts. While supposedly each outfit is designed with a particular gossip girl style in mind (specifically Serena’s boho chic, Blair’s classic glamour, Jenny’s runway punk, and clearly cast-aside Vanessa’s vaguely ethnic intellectual look), all of these items can easily be paired together because of their overt, unproblematized femininity.

Another issue, and one that Target faces with all limited collections, is whether big-name designers cater toward in-between or fat body types. The clothes’ sizes range from extra-small to extra-large, leaving out women and girls who are bigger. What is more, while these clothes appear to be well-made, many of the designs in Sui’s collection seems to principally flatter a long, lean body type. As a short, curvy girl who wears a size four (which, if we recall The Devil Wears Prada, is the new size six), I would have to belt pretty much all of these dresses so they wouldn’t look like gunnysacks on me (that is, the ones that aren’t so short that they would fail to flatter my thickly proportioned thighs). And don’t even get me started on how stumpy I’d look in a pair of checkered, bowed pedal pushers. NEXT!

I reject the pedal pushers on the right; image courtesy of fashionlooks.onsugar.com

I reject the pedal pushers on the right; image courtesy of fashionlooks.onsugar.com

So, while interesting in many other ways, I feel like Sui’s collection suggests that only certain shapes and classes get to be gossip girls when it comes to fashion. I don’t think we needed Target to tell us that, but I hope it inspires other women and girls to either make the styles their own or, better yet, start picking up the needle and thread and putting their own outfits together.

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3 comments

  1. Alaina Smith

    Hi Alyx,

    Like your post. I often find myself thinking that Gossip Girl is really terrible, and yet I keep watching it. I know a lot of people label it the “new Sex and the City,” which I think does a huge disservice to the latter. But, I totally agree that fashion (and New York City) are a character in both. But, I would argue that if anyone associated with GG is the new Pat Fields, it’s Alex Patsavas. Have you written about her? I think she’s a pretty unique woman in her field.

    Annie has written about how the CW uses a “which character are you” tactic in its cross-marketing of products on its website — and Sui’s collection seems to follow this tactic. Which, as you point out, is problematic, but certainly appeals to young girls’ desire to assume identities while they are still discovering their own.

    And speaking of young girls and identities, can we talk about Jenny Humphrey and her real-life band/slide into Lohan-world?

    PS — isn’t that Emma Stone?

    • Alyx Vesey

      Thanks, Alaina! I’d like to read Annie’s work on the show’s cross-marketing (hint, hint). And yes, we can and should talk about Jenny Humphrey/Taylor Momsen, her band, and her tabloid life. I’ll keep thinking about this.

      I’ll also keep thinking about Patsavas. I discussed her a bit in terms of her involvement with her work on “Rockville, CA” but need to just go ahead and write about her career as its own post. It is on my radar, but thank you for bringing it up. Also, the idea of a music supervisor being akin to another show’s costume designer is fascinating. Hmmm.

      Also, you’re right — it’s Emma Stone. I got her name right in the tag, but not the post. I will correct the caption. Thanks for the catch.

  2. Pingback: Alexandra Patsavas: Music supervisor « Feminist Music Geek

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