‘The World of Anna Sui’, currently showing at the Fashion and Textile Museum, is fascinating. Like anyone who loves clothes, I was aware of Sui and her work, but I knew very little about her personally and had no idea, until today, of the many different passions and influences which inspire her.
I particularly liked how the exhibition demonstrates how Sui’s childhood and teenage years inform her sense of style. Born in a suburb of Detroit, to first-generation Chinese-American parents, Sui says that she “always knew” she would be a fashion designer. Growing up, she saw bands like Iggy Pop & the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper in concert. She also listened to underground radio stations and pored over rock magazines; music has been a constant source of inspiration.
The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the various people and cultures which have influenced Sui: photos of models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, and glamorous icons such as Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as a captivating video of Sui talking about these early influences in her life and career. Also on display are clothes by Ossie Clark, Biba and Zandra Rhodes, all of whom Sui admires – the 1960s and ‘70s vibe shines through loud and clear and when you see Sui’s own clothes, later on, you understand how much those designers’ dramatic use of colour informs her work.
After school, Sui moved to New York to study at the Parsons School of Design, where she met Steven Meisel, with whom she would form a life-long friendship. Throwing herself headlong into New York City life, Sui became a regular on the club circuit and cites the punk scene and clubs like Mudd as a major influence.
After graduating from Parsons, Sui designed for sportswear labels and also worked as a stylist. Soon, she was designing and making clothes out of her apartment. By the late 1980s, Sui had moved her clothing line into Annette B, gradually gaining a global, if cult, following.
Then, in 1991, came a pivotal moment: Madonna wore an Anna Sui dress to a Jean-Paul Gaultier show in Paris – and the ensuing headlines launched Sui well and truly into the spotlight. This high-profile endorsement led to Sui holding her first fashion show, later that year; the first Anna Sui boutique opened in Soho, New York, soon after.
At this stage in the exhibition you arrive in an incredible lobby containing dozens of mannequins dressed in Anna Sui clothes. The impact is immediate; I wasn’t the only person who stopped, entranced, in the entrance way. The room itself has been made to look exactly like an Anna Sui boutique – complete with purple walls and red floors and furnished with black-lacquered furniture and Tiffany-style lamps. The effect is stunning – and showcases Sui’s work perfectly.
Oh, to be able to fill my own wardrobe with designer clothes like the ones I saw today. The blend of colours, fabrics, jewels, textures, beading and sequins was extraordinary – a visual assault on the senses. These are not just clothes; they are works of art – each with its own story to tell.
And the attention to detail is second to none. Every buckle, stitch and button plays its own vital role – you could look at the same item of clothing over & over again and each time find something different to treasure.
I did, eventually, manage to drag myself away from the Boutique to see the final section of the exhibition, where Sui’s other products are displayed. Over the years, she has added many strings to her bow: fragrances, Hush Puppies, cosmetics, luggage…even Ladurée chocolates and macaroons. Examples are dotted around the Museum and each, unsurprisingly, is as beautifully constructed as an Anna Sui garment. Even the bottles of nail varnish are exquisite and would grace any shelf.
As you can tell, I was bowled over by this exhibition. It was my second visit to the Museum and on both occasions I’ve come away having loved what I’ve seen – and learned from it, too. Definitely a contender for my favourite museum in London.