Anna Sui poses with mannequins at her new exhibition at London's Fashion and Textile Museum.
(All Photos: Courtesy of The Fashion and Textile Museum)
Could there be a more appropriately girly place for Anna Sui's first retrospective to have landed than the Fashion and Textile Museum in London? Bright orange on the outside, the museum in Bermondsey Street was founded by Zandra Rhodes, who still has her incredible aerie of an apartment above, and she's one of the many British idols who've formed the psychedelic swirl of Sui’s encyclopedic memory for subcultural It-people and fab times. Sui may be a New York designer, but London's Biba, Kensington Market, and Portobello Road are as firmly patch-worked into her identity as her formative years spent running with Steven Meisel and the Parsons gang at the Mudd Club and CBGB in the late '70s.
The inside of the museum is now painted purple, and The World of Anna Sui is inside. Just as the serried ranks of her collections in the central atrium were being given the final tweaks before the exhibition's opening, she stood back, and let the associations wash over her. "I haven't seen all of these clothes since the shows! I look at them, and see the girls in them—Linda, Christy and Naomi, the Trinity in those white baby-dolls; Kristen McMenamy in that one from the grunge collection, when we were going out watching Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins; Michelle Hicks in that bias cut velvet one from the 'Nannies and Babies' collection..."
What's really striking is the coherence of Sui's work, her eye for intricate accessorizing, and the timelessness of it. For all the disparate references that recur—rock stars and punks, fairytale princesses and '40s vamps, cheerleaders and surfers—all of it looks as relevant now as it did when she started re-spinning her vintage obsessions into collections. Maybe it's because she's always been more motivated by channeling a collective vibe that girls can relate to, or fantasize about discovering in a market, than by breaking design molds--a distinct feeling she traces back to her school days at Parsons. "I was there at a weird time. They had produced Norman Norell, Calvin, and Donna. It was old-school. I knew I would never have the best 'hand' for making, but I did know about all these prêt-à-porter people in Paris, like Kenzo and Emmanuelle Khanh, and I wanted to be like that. I always wanted to make things accessible."
Still, as always at fashion school, it's the other students you meet that really count, and Steven Meisel was studying fashion illustration in the year above. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and the flash point that began a creative movement. "We were discovering people, dressing them up, Steven taking photos, going to Max's Kansas City, and seeing Donna Jordan, David Bowie, or Andy Warhol walk in." Pictures in the exhibit show that Anna was always the girl with the right clothes. There she is, on a rooftop at dawn after a night out at wearing her favorite red lipstick (long instituted now as her bestselling #400) with a baby-blue fur stole nestled over a jeans jacket, a '40s gold vintage necklace, and a tulle bow as a topknot. "All from thrift shops!" There she is, a bit later in her first job as a junior designer at Charlie's Girls, snapped by Bill Cunningham on 57th Street, wearing "a Martine Sitbon tailored jacket and a Gaultier hobble skirt, with a corsage by Comme and Peter Fox shoes." In 1981, on a trip to London, she went straight to Vivienne Westwood's, bought herself an outfit from the Pirate collection, "and went to see Bow Wow Wow that night." No detail of clothes, bands, music, or provenance slips her memory.
Her forensic ability to research and fluently remix the history of fashion and film, coupled with knowingness about how to infuse everything with the essence of cool bonded Sui and the image-making Meisel into a close gang with the likeminded young Marc Jacobs, the hairstylist Garren, and the stylist Paul Cavaco. By the turn of the '80s into the '90s, their talents were about to make something big happen in New York City. "There was something changing. All the girls would hang out at my apartment. I remember, in the late '80s, Linda and Christy would come over in full Versace and Chanel looks. Then I saw Naomi in a vintage lingerie top, bell-bottoms, clogs, and a choker some model had made. It wasn't top-to-toe anymore."
What it was, of course was grunge, but also a huge surge of generational positive energy, running counter to the corporate executive fashion then ruling Seventh Avenue. Sui's exhibition generously maps this out, showing photographs from all her peers' shows of the early '90s: Todd Oldham, Isaac Mizrahi, Stephen Sprouse, Marc Jacobs. She first took to the runway for Fall 1991.
The show is generous in another sense, too, as it traces Sui's beginnings and lays out her research and development practices, from her moodboards to her fabrics, shoe and jewelry collaborators, through makeup packaging, set design, graphics, and invitations in a way meant to encourage any young visitor to see how creativity starts, how many skills it spans, and how far it can take you in life. Right at the beginning of the show is a vitrine with the copy of the Life magazine Sui pored over as a little girl in Detroit. The spread shows two groovy American girls, "who went to Paris and designed What's New Pussycat? I thought, 'Okay, that's what I'll do!'"
Already switched on to fashion, teenaged Anna started turning up at high school in maxicoats, boas, and pinafores, making clothes and adapting patterns on her mom's sewing machine, once inveigling her to take her to see the ‘60s model from London, Jean Shrimpton, make an appearance on a promo-tour. Perhaps Sui's Anglophile bent started right there. "I'd never seen anyone so tall and so thin. And her hair was this long, cool, straggly mess." She laughs. "And this was a time when we Americans were all about Breck!"
Sui's mom did try to dissuade her from studying fashion. "She said, ‘why do you want to be a dressmaker, when you can study to be a lawyer or a doctor?’” There was no stopping her, of course. With a sketchbook full of pages of space age minidresses (also featured in the exhibition) she followed her heart and her instinct for what girls want, and ultimately it was girls who made her. "Right at the start, Linda took a bunch of babydoll dresses to wear at couture, and suddenly all the girls wanted to have one." What will excite the next generation? Well, Sui's not wasting time finding out. "Something's going on, I'm sure" she declares. And as of Friday morning, she'll be off again at Portobello Market, searching out exactly what it might be.