Anna Sui comes to London

London’s Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, is hosting Anna Sui‘s first retrospective this month.

Anna Sui London

Interestingly it will also be the largest retrospective of an American designer in the UK to date. Sui may not sound like the obvious choice but we all know her style and its indelible links to ’90s ‘grunge bohemia’ that also marked the rise of the supermodel. Sui has indeed cast her mate Naomi Campbell in all of her catwalks since her first runway show in 1991– which also featured a blonde-bobbed Linda Evangelista. For Fall 2017, Sui inveigled the Hadid sisters and Jamie Bochert into her swirly world of velvet, paisleys and Goth romance. She’s still got it and make no mistake: everyone knows how to spot an Anna Sui design which is why she has stayed the course as an independent fashion designer (ie she’s always resisted the allure of a fashion conglomerate takeover, even though she’s had the chance).

For her first ’91 show, the looks were inspired by Carnaby Street in the ’60s: lots if miniskirts in patent leather, Mary Quant-style coloured tights and shiny Baker Boy caps. You can watch a very shaky video of the show here – which sort of adds to the retro nostalgia of the experience.

Sui’s style has always drawn from colourful cultural sources – every show is a mishmash of a multitude of influences: from Pre-Raphaelite art and Texan cowgirls to Courtney Love and most recently the 20th century  interior designer Elsie de Wolfe for AW17. The Detroit born designer loves old movies, books and the heroes of modern design. Her catwalks reflect her story-telling tendencies, especially through pattern which also borrows from idols such as Zandra Rhodes (who set up the Bermondsey museum) and Thea Porter.

Surprising Sui started out as a stylist, or rather she worked as one to make ends meet before launching her boutique in SoHo New York in 1992 . She studied at Parsons but she didn’t complete the course – she was hired by a small label called Charlie’s Girls in her second year as a junior designer.  Sui subsequently designed for a number of US-based brands but found her place in Europe. The late Franca Sozzani recognized her eye for design and gave her lots of styling gigs during her early career. She befriended Marc Jacobs who is still a close confidante and Steven Meisel, through who she met all the Supermodels.

“Steven and I would go to dinner. Back then the fashion was the power suit – head to toe Versace and Chanel. But the summer before my first show [in 1991]  remember all of a sudden it all changed”, remembers Sui today.” I think it was Naomi. She had on this beautiful vintage camisole with jeans and platform shoes and one of the other models was making choker necklaces and I thought, ‘Oh maybe there is a chance for me now!’. They are starting to dress differently. Linda Evangelista bought a lot of dresses from me and she was wearing them that summer, I started getting phone calls from all the other models asking me for dresses.”

Anna Sui London

Sui’s little SoHo boutique was already iconic in New York. It was different from anywhere else at the time: a dark Romantic haven full of black lacquered furniture, butterfly motifs and papier-mâché dolls heads that she had made along with some friends on a shoestring budget. These design makers  became the emblems of her brand and today Sui still has one of the most lucrative beauty brands in the business.

“I applied to get a lease and it was an artists’ building. It took more than a month for them to decide to see if I would get the space or not. Meanwhile I bought all the furniture at the flea market and my friends and I made those papier-mâché dolly heads for displays. We were busy painting the furniture every weekend! Then I got the lease and then it was kind of the best business thing ever.  It was kind of when SoHo caught fire again, when people started shopping there again. It was such a prime location.”

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You could say the rest is history but Sui had to graft hard in the early days to break even. It was only by the mid-’90s that she really felt she had arrived. Her catwalks were flamboyant and fun: make-up was by Pat McGrath or Francois Nars; jewellery by Erickson Beamon;  hats were by milliner-turned-designer James Coviello. “ I  have always worked with the same collaborators” says Sui who has ensured this ‘family’ aspect is highlighted in the museum showcase.

Now over 25 years on from her seminal catwalk show, everyone knows Anna Sui, be it through her cute handbag perfumes (still a teen favourite) or via her fanciful designs which could be described as forever maximalist. Has sticking with a clear aesthetic ever held her back?

“I mean of course it’s worked against me too. Not falling into the whole minimal thing; not falling into that whole trend. But I still had my loyal customers and who always liked my aesthetic. I think that a lot of designers lose their identity when they try to jump around and change so much.”

So what was the best part of exploring her own archive for the upcoming retrospective?

‘I think because my schedule is so rigorous, I don’t really go back and look at my collections. This was really the first time that I did and it was very nostalgic. I think that’s what came out in my latest [AW17] collection, things that I had not thought about in a really long time.”

Expect a fun and romantic walk through time with plenty of flashbacks into the 90s!

The World of Anna Sui exhibition is at the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey, London from May 26 to October 1, 2017. The accompanying book by Tim Blanks is published by Abram.


Anna Sui London
Backstage with friends Shalom Harlow and Carli Bruni in SS93