Discovering ‘The World of Anna Sui’

Entrance to the Fashion and Textile Museum.

May 2017 will stand out in designer Anna Sui’s memory as a month full of successes and landmarks. As well as receiving an honorary degree from Parsons School of Design, the designer and her influential career became the subject of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum’s latest exhibition. Entitled ‘The World of Anna Sui,’ the show takes visitors on a journey through the Chinese-American designer’s inspirations, obsessions and most iconic moments, which formed her style and established her as one of the key figures of 90s American look, alongside names such as Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi.

A view of the entrance to the exhibition space.

The title of the exhibition could not be more accurate – as soon as one steps into the first gallery, Sui’s vision becomes unmistakable and overwhelming. Her voice beams out of the speakers as she describes how she came to be interested in fashion, proclaims her love for Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy, and explains how her own style developed in her teenage years, despite strange looks from her peers. As the visitors listen to Sui’s narrative, archive videos of The Beatles, celebrity culture, markets at Portobello and Carnaby, and scenes of boho youths frolicking in the park bring into forefront the environments and mentalities within which Sui grew up, capturing her imagination, and eventually manifesting themselves in her designs. With the understanding of her background, Anna Sui’s exhilarating universe is ready to be explored.

A photograph of Anna Sui’s first boutique at 113 Greene Street in Soho, New York, which opened in 1992.

The main gallery space almost teleports the visitor into one of Sui’s boutiques, a photograph of which is featured in the corridor between the different rooms. Entering through a grand, black lacquered door, groups of mannequins clad in Sui’s extraordinary garments, arranged according to their clique (nomads, punks, mods, surfers, rockstars and schoolgirls all make an appearance), lure the spectator deeper into the space, in an almost hypnotic state. The colours, patterns, textiles and surfaces are otherworldly, creating a kaleidoscope of all the characters one can become in Sui’s fashions. With vitrines in which shoes, make-up, sunglasses, hats and other Sui paraphernalia are showcased, the gallery space is almost a treasure chest in which anyone and everyone can find something to lust over. Completing and complementing the exhibits are purple walls, red platforms and Sui’s signature pattern with which the space is decorated. The curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibitions designer Beth Ojari transformed the relatively small space of the Fashion and Textile Museum, with great success, into an enchanting and intriguing environment.

A view of the ‘Fairytale’ section.

Installation of the ‘Punk’ garments.

The ‘Rockstar and Hippie’ group with Sui’s signature patterned wallpaper.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ is unlike any other recent fashion exhibitions. While the space is limited and a lot is packed in, it is never to the detriment of the clothes on show. There is something reminiscent of Diana Vreeland’s multi-sensory exhibitions at The Met’s Costume Institute in the London show. Unsurprisingly, the designer loved Vreeland’s stories for Vogue and The Met. Consequently, Sui’s perfume is pumped into the rooms of the Fashion and Textile Museum, corresponding to the message the garments are relaying. As such, ‘Sui Dreams,’ a perfume described as “inspired by independent women who follow their hearts and exceed their own expectations” provides the scent for the first gallery, that of Sui’s influences and childhood dreams. The main space, where the iconic Anna Sui garments are on show, fills one’s nose with ‘Fairy Dance,’ offering “an escape into a mystical garden where fantasy lives. A happy, whimsical place filled with sunlight and the enchantment of the fairy world.” Not much can be more appropriate for Sui’s story-filled collections. Elsewhere, Nirvana cries out from the speakers, while visitors can study Sui’s design process through the installed mood boards, or find out about the figures she collaborates with on her shows, such as make-up artist Pat McGrath, milliner James Caviello and photographer Steven Meisel. The exhibition is all encompassing, rich, informative, joyful and optimistic. An absolute must-see this summer! And don’t forget to visit the gift shop – you can take a bit of Anna Sui away with you in the form of her fabulous make-up, a scarf, or Tim Blanks’ new coffee-table book on the designer published in conjunction with the exhibition, also titled The World of Anna Sui. And one last tip – leave yourself a lot of time to peruse the exhibition, you will not want to leave!

A cabinet filled with an array of sunglasses and other accessorues from Sui’s shows through the years.

An example of Sui’s research board for a collection – here, Hawaii is on her mind.

‘The World of Anna Sui’ runs at the Fashion and Textile Museum until October 1, 2017.