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Inside the World of Anna Sui at London's Fashion and Textile Museum

Picture of India Doyle
Updated: 8 June 2017
American designer Anna Sui is celebrated at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the first major retrospective for the designer in the UK.

The new fashion exhibition offers audiences a total survey of the world of Anna Sui, and as the first major retrospective in the UK, it doesn’t disappoint.

Anna Sui: a quick biography

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Anna Sui headed over to New York to study at Parsons during the 1970s. It was a time when the city was a locus of creative, bohemian spirit, and the designer was quick to immersive herself in the scene. Parsons was also where Sui met one of her longest-standing collaborators, Steven Meisel. It was from Parsons that Anna Sui launched into the fashion circuit, cutting her teeth at the hippie hang-out Charlie’s Girls. She never finished her degree, yet went on to launch her own label in 1991.

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Sui is one of the great American designers of our times. Along with the likes of Marc Jacobs, she has shaped and re-shaped contemporary style, consistently folding in new references that draw on music, art and design. Yet her status as an iconic designer has been relatively underreported, and this new exhibition at Fashion and Textiles Museum is sure to help change that.

The World of Anna Sui review

It’s an exhibition that truly captures Anna’s world. The first room offers a general introduction, locating Anna’s design style within the aesthetics of the times and illustrating the silhouettes, colours and sense of energy that bubbled within contemporary culture at the time. A narration from the designer of her earliest memories of fashion, featuring a trip to a department store with her mother to see Jean Shrimpton, heightens the sense of excitement. Instantly, you feel at home in her world.

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But that’s nothing compared to the towering displays of Anna Sui’s mannequins arranged around the corner. As with the accompanying Tim Blanks book, the exhibition is arranged not in terms of chronology, but in recurring tropes and influences in her work. Mannequins revive gorgeous velvet designs inspired by the Victorian era, tiers of bright stripes pay homage to grunge references, while Peter Pan collars and cropped suits are a nod to androgyny.

The effect is to offer audiences an inspired overview of the full scope of Anna Sui’s work, and locate her rich canon within a wider cultural context, showcasing how fashion both embodies and drives experimental new styles. As Curator Dennis Nothdruft noted, ‘Anna Sui helped define the look of Generation X. As young creatives rediscover and reference the 1990s, it is time to explore the original designs in a critical context… The exhibition will showcase a fashion designer who, contrary to the stereotype, is not only highly creative and entrepreneurial, but also playful and positive.’

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Upstairs, the world expands beyond the clothes to highlight the vast range of collaborations that Sui has embraced during her career. From the aforementioned Steven Meisel, to models such as Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington, artist Pat McGrath and jeweller Erickson Beamon. A cabinet of Anna Sui-related curiosities evokes a mini-world within the world, and one can’t help but marvel at the array of perfumes.

Alongside the clothes themselves, these collaborations also speak of the way in which Sui has always sought out like-minded creative figures. The impact of music is especially evident: whether it was bands such as The Smashing Pumpkins lining the front row at her shows, or the way in which punk, grunge and rock ‘n’ roll all directly influenced collections. Highlights include the seminal grunge collection in 1994, where Sui walked organza baby-doll dresses, still much talked about today. ‘It was my moment,’ says Sui. ‘If grunge music was an alternative to stadium rock, the kind of clothes I designed were my alternative to power dressing.’

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A final photo of Anna wearing a tee-shirt that says ‘Save the Garment Centre’ – a call to preserve local craftsmanship and be sustainable – locates Sui’s legacy within the larger context of the way in which fashion changes, and the challenges it faces in the future.

Taken as a survey, the exhibition is immersive and refreshing – a true tribute to the inventive, collaborative and dynamic spirit of Anna Sui.

The World of Anna Sui at Fashion and Textile Museum, May 26 – October 1, 2017