“I’ve never really looked back,” Anna Sui says, sitting in the first room of “The World of Anna Sui,” a retrospective exhibition on the designer that opened at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum this week. The show, the first-ever retrospective of an American fashion designer held in the U.K., brings together over 125 complete outfits, all of which include the accessories worn during their runway debuts. They range from the ensembles worn by Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell in Sui’s first runway show in 1991 to those modeled by Gigi and Bella Hadid during her latest spring/summer 2017 Americana-themed collection.
“You’re always trying to meet deadlines and think about what the next thing is and try to come up with the inspiration, so it’s mind-blowing for me to walk into the room and see everything together,” says the 52-year-old designer. “We haven’t put those outfits together since they were shown. It’s incredible and it’s very rewarding to have the opportunity to have this reflection. It helps me realize how much work has been done, because I’ve never realized it. It’s one after another after another, always on to the next show. It’s very rewarding. I never realized I did so much work!”
Nearly every piece comes directly from Sui’s own archives. Curator Dennis Nothdruft arranged her work thematically rather than chronologically, revealing archetypes that reappear through Sui’s work. You see her ongoing obsessions with punk, Americana, Victorian and school girl throughout the rooms.
“Dennis thought of it that way, which was really brilliant,” Sui says. “I realized, ‘Oh yeah, I do always go back to similar themes.’ I always try to figure out a different way to express it, but there’s a lot of similarities.”
Two things stand out immediately: First, Sui’s clarity of vision, which extends even to rock music played throughout the museum; second, her prolificness. Sui has been in the business for decades now and she’s collaborated with dozens of brands, always maintaining her signature sensibility. She owns the rights to her own name, which is rare for fashion designers, and her colorful cosmetics line is popular worldwide. You may think of her in reference to ’90s fashion, but the Anna Sui brand remains vibrant today. How has she managed this kind of longevity?
“Besides luck?” she laughs. “I think there are several factors. I own my own company, so what else am I going to do? I have to keep going. And I think the fact that I have such an identifiable brand has given us so many things to draw from. Part of the success of the license products, like the cosmetics and the fragrance and the accessories, is that they’re so recognizable. We use the fashion lines to inspire those, so you have the black packages, you have the butterflies, you have the carved roses. You have the aspiration things, like ‘love’ and ‘sweet dreams.’ The latest one is called ‘Fantasia.’ I talk about that all the time – fantasy. There’s that much focus on identifiable things and it has helped a lot. That’s always my advice to new designers: You have to come up with an identity. It has to be a recognizable product.”
I own my own company, so what else am I going to do? I have to keep going.
Fantasy is an important aspect of Sui’s work. While some designers are scattering political and social messages through their pieces and shows, Sui remains devoted to the idea that fashion is a positive escape. It’s empowering, in the most heart-felt way possible.
“I’m not really political,” she says. “I like adornment. I like dressing up. I like creating a fantasy with how I’m put together. It’s very emotional. You can be rebellious about it, but you don’t have to write ‘Woman’ on your shirt. It’s a secret vocabulary you can use rather than being so blatant about it by printing it on your chest.”
That sort of feeling may explain why Sui’s models are constantly smiling during her shows. She doesn’t believe fashion has to be super serious or elusive. Instead, Sui is all about having a good time and expressing yourself.
“I think they love the clothes,” she explains. “When I first started I remember it was supermodel time. They all loved the clothes. They felt like it was clothes for them – it wasn’t Mommy’s clothes. They were so used to being put together in this head-to-toe lady look and they were kids. All of a sudden they related. I think that spirit has always come through – they can relate to the clothes. They feel like they can wear them. It’s not like they’re putting on another identity. I think also there’s always a sense of humor in what I do. There’s a vibrancy to the color and the prints. I just like that energy. I want to entertain people. I want them to be transported and dream and have a fantasy about it all. I think the models feel it.”
I want to entertain people. I want them to be transported and dream and have a fantasy about it all.
“The World of Anna Sui” is open May 26 through October 1, 2017. Tickets are £9.90 for adults and £6 for students. Tim Blanks’ book The World of Anna Sui, which features a foreword by Naomi Campbell, is available in accompaniment to the exhibition for £30.00 and will be available beginning May 30.