A new Anna Sui retrospective in London’s Fashion and Textile Museum showcases the New York designer’s unparalleled exuberance and style
Although Anna Sui was aware of her calling to be a designer from the age of four, it was only in her teens that she was 100% sure. The Detroit-born Sui had read an article in Life Magazine about the achievements of Mia Fonssagrives-Solow, who graduated from Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and then moved to Paris where she opened a boutique with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Sui then left her comfortable home in Detroit, which she shared with her French-educated parents, and moved to New York so she could attend Parsons herself. Moving to and living in New York in the 1980s shaped her inimitable sense of style, which has remained to this day. Her collections take you on a creative journey that is unparalleled in the world of fashion. Mixing vintage styles with her current cultural obsessions, she effortlessly makes hip and exuberant original clothes.
Whether Sui’s inspiration is Victorian cowboys, Andy Warhol, superstars or Finnish textile prints, her depth of cultural knowledge is always apparent. A constant search for new ideas and challenges keeps her ahead of her time, and Sui has established herself as a true trendsetter to whom stylists and editors look for direction. The boundless energy and creative ingenuity of her runway presentations always make her shows a high point of New York Fashion Week.
This eclectic and bold creative spirit is the subject of a comprehensive retrospective exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. Indeed, The World of Anna Sui is the first-ever retrospective of an American fashion designer to be held in the UK. It runs until Oct 1.
The exhibition ranges from early looks — such as the exuberant Carnaby Street, schoolgirl outfits worn by supermodels Lin- Capitalising on their focus on a living designer, the museum got Sui (top) to lead selected tours when the exhibition first opened. For those who missed that chance, a book based on interviews she did with fashion journalist Tim Blanks (below) will have to do. da Evangelista and Naomi Campbell in the first runway show in 1991, to the cowboys and cheerleaders modelled by Gigi and Bella Hadid during the recent spring/summer 2017 Americana-themed collection.
“Anna Sui helped define the look of Generation X,” observes exhibition curator Dennis Nothdruft. “As young creatives rediscover and reference the 1990s, it is time to explore the original designs in a critical context. Through The World of Anna Sui, we hope to highlight a fresh cultural perspective on the so-called ‘slacker’ generation. The exhibition will showcase a fashion designer who, contrary to the stereotype, is not only highly creative and entrepreneurial but also playful and positive.”
Thematically arranged, the exhibition explores Sui’s lifelong engagement with a dizzying array of archetypes, including the rock star, the schoolgirl, the punk, the nomad and the surfer — motifs that are featured in all her work. From fairy tales and fables to Victoriana, Sui researches her current cultural obsessions in minute detail to create a different story with each collection.
The influence of music is seen throughout The World of Anna Sui, from her continuing love of bohemian chic to her seminal 1994 grunge collections, including the infamous organza baby-doll dresses. Sui says of this time, “It was my moment. If grunge music was an alternative to stadium rock, the kind of clothes I designed were my alternative to power dressing.”
Sui is especially known for the richness of her printed textiles, combining a complex layering and mixing of patterns, textures and colours. The show highlights both her own distinctively graphic textiles as well as those created with high-profile partners such as Ascher Studio, Zandra Rhodes, Jeffrey Fulvimari and Barbara Hulanick.
In addition, the exhibition explores Sui’s design process through moodboards, photographs, sketches, runway shots and cultural ephemera. A section on collaborations documents her long-term creative partnerships with the first generation of global supermodels as well as with makeup artist Pat McGrath, jeweller Erickson Beamon and knitwear designer and milliner James Coviello.
A recreation of Sui’s sensational New York shop provides viewers with a sense of her distinctive interiors and design style. The shop — with its red stained floors, Tiffany lamps, purple walls, ornate black mirrors, black lacquered furniture and Aubrey Beardsley prints — perfectly represents Sui’s punk, thrift-store design aesthetic.
The remarkable range of different styles on display emphasises her consistent design approach as she incorporates her passions into every garment. The exhibition provides not only a fascinating guide to the history of American pop culture but also a powerful inside look at the creative process and unique world view of this iconic New York designer. The World of Anna Sui celebrates both American fashion and the distinctive vision of Sui, whose daring and experimental approach to design has become a mainstay of the international fashion scene.
Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia
This article appeared in Issue 794 (Aug 28) of The Edge Singapore.