The World of Anna Sui

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London's Fashion and Textile Museum host a retrospective of the iconic NY fashion designer.

Anna Sui is an American fashion designer whose far-reaching influence can be seen in many of today's major brands and labels. Since her 1991 debut catwalk show, her signature style - a blend of sixties pop and counter-culture with gothic elements - has come to define an era. The World of Anna Sui charts her career to date, gives cultural context to her work and features interviews with long-term collaborators and fashion commentators.

In the Summer of 1952, whilst attending her uncle’s wedding, an ambitious four-year-old Chinese-American girl from Detroit called Anna Sui decided she was going to be a fashion designer. Naturally she didn’t know exactly what being a fashion designer entailed, but had been so enthralled by everyone’s outfits that she knew a career in the garment industry beckoned. Sticking to her word, Anna proceeded (via a degree from Parsons School of Design) to launch and build her own eponymous global fashion brand - one she still runs to this day. Her life and work are currently the focus of a major retrospective at London’s Museum of Fashion and Textiles - the first UK exhibition dedicated to a living American designer.

Anna Sui ©Fashion and Textile Museum

The World of Anna Sui opens with a dark scrapbook-like installation that explores teenage Anna’s inspirations and obsessions, although as she points out in an overhead audio commentary: “unlike thousands of girls my age, I never kept scrapbooks, instead I had a box full of pages ripped from magazines”. Three monitors beam a continuous loop of vintage British Pathé documentary footage, hailing from a section of their archives presumably labeled ‘The Swinging Sixties’. We see the Beatles making their debut arrival in the US, Mick Jagger strutting and swaggering on stage and an effortlessly chic young woman in a fragile-looking paper dress emblazoned with the face of Bob Dylan. We’re in the throng of the Kennedy Era - “such a jubilant time”, muses Anna - and yet most of the material here is quintessentially British; a glass cabinet displays a selection of late-sixties garments from influential shops and designers such as Biba, Ossie Clarke and Zandra Rhodes (who, incidentally, founded this museum and resides in a penthouse on the roof). It’s a startling reminder of just how much of an influence 60’s London was on the preceding decades of American pop culture and fashion in which Sui would make her mark.

With only a fraction of the space enjoyed by bigger institutions such as the V&A and Barbican, the curators have opted to follow this brief introduction by throwing us full-thrust into Sui’s entire oeuvre, rather than a chronological, dress-by-dress account of her career - and as a result it’s a lot more fun. Gangs of exuberantly dressed mannequins perch together in the main space on their own archetypal turfs: ANDROGENY, GRUNGE, AMERICANA to name but a few. As disparate as these themes are, there is an underlying ‘Anna Sui’ vibe to each of the outfits - try to imagine a gang of fun-loving Woodstock hippies gatecrashing a late Victorian literary salon and you get the gist. The space is a recreation of her famous New York flagship store, which was in turn a recreation of her thrift-store inspired apartment. Black lacquered furniture is set against deep purple walls - each of them plastered with Aubrey Beardsley prints and rock ‘n’ roll posters; a cave of wonders more in tune with a teenage goth’s bedroom than a Greene Street flagship.

The World of Anna Sui © Fashion and Textile Museum

Sui’s influence on today’s young designers is clear. The pieces on display have such a current and contemporary feel about them, despite the fact that many of them are at least 25 years old. Sui was doing ‘gender fluid’ before that became a buzzword; a male mannequin wearing white leggings and a matching top, over which he sports a Victorian girl’s pinafore dress, continually draws the attention. A set of goofy cuddly toy hats from 1994 is reminiscent of Jeremy Scott’s current kitsch pop-culture parade over at Moschino, but the clothes Sui will always be remembered for come from her debut grunge phase: “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.” Military-looking combat gear is adorned with butterflies and bright flowers (surely a nod to the Vietnam War and it’s mass of flower-power protestors) whilst a pair of red flares with black buttons is a cheeky reworking of a Manhattan power-woman’s Armani suit.

Isetan Mitsukoshi Ad for SS12 © Anna Sui

Upstairs we are introduced to many of Sui’s friends and long time collaborators, who also happen to be the crème de la crème of the fashion industry: make-up artist Pat McGrath, jeweler Erickson Beamon and fashion photographer Steven Meisel (famed for shooting every single Vogue Italia cover since the late 80s) all of whom have worked on some aspect of the Sui brand. A video booth at the far end plays an extract from a sorely missed MTV show called Fashionably Loud. Its simple premise involved a hip, of-the-moment band juxtaposed with a equally hip, of-the-moment fashion designer; in this case we’re treated to a full Anna Sui show with a four-song set by Elastica (the Cool Britannia of the 90’s taking over from the Swinging London of the 60’s). Sui, now at the forefront of a fashion scene her childhood self would have emulated, saunters out for the finale donned in her own grunge aesthetic and a pair of shades, the show’s host telling her “you’re the prom queen”.

A recent VOGUE article by Steff Yokya described Sui as “one of the nicest people in fashion … she really is one of our best”. That same article rounded off with a mention of this exhibition, hoping (praying in fact) that it’s success will bring Sui a much-deserved renaissance back home. London’s only too happy to help - but can we please have our own Anna Sui boutique in return?

The World of Anna Sui runs at London's Fashion and Textile Museum until October 1. Tickets are £9.