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Anna Sui: A Kaleidoscopic Compendium at the Fashion & Textile Museum

In the first UK retrospective of an American fashion designer, the Fashion and Textile Museum delves into the colourful archive of punk and print maverick Anna Sui

Having the supermodel of the moment walk in your catwalk show is what every designer strives for, and no mean feat if achieved. Indeed, in some cases such a coup is as important, if not more, than who’s sitting where in the notorious FROW; a Chanel show, for example, is never without Karl Lagerfeld’s flavour of the month, from Stella Tennant to Cara Delevingne  and, more recently, Lily-Rose Depp.

But for Anna Sui – the New York fashion designer who built her sartorial empire on a love of music, print and colour – it was the supermodels who convinced her to do her first show, and they weren’t just any supermodels, either.

“My friends Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista  helped me, and sure enough they pulled it together,” the designer tells me, nonchalantly. “The 1990s were the height of Versace and Chanel; they had these huge productions and money behind them, and I thought there was no way I could compete. Steven Meisel introduced me to [hairstylist] Garren and [makeup artist] François Nars, Naomi and Linda helped me get the other models, and I did my first show.”

“My friends Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista  helped me, and sure enough they pulled it together"

Rewind another decade and Sui was a budding designer working for a commercial fashion brand; in her spare time, she’d design clothes to sell at rock boutiques and struck gold when her five-piece collection caught the eye of the fashion director at Macy’s, earning her a spot in the Christmas windows and an ad in The New York Times. It was a key moment in her career, but the achievement didn’t go down well with everybody, least of all her employers. “I got fired!” She laughs. “It was terrifying in the moment.”

In 1991, Sui hosted her first runway show during New York Fashion Week, aided by her fashionable friends-in-the-know, and quickly became the designer to watch. “It just escalated from there,” she recalls. “Suddenly, everybody was interested in New York designers.”

Now, she’s celebrating the opening of her first retrospective at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, where visitors will see Sui’s eclectic collections together for the first time. The World of Anna Sui opens with a gallery of images shot by the likes of Steven Meisel and starring Kate Moss and Sofia Coppola, which leads to the main attraction: a complete compendium of the designer’s work. “And just like in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, you’re in the world of Anna Sui,” she announces gleefully as she takes me through the archway into a room brimming with colour and print.

Inside, purple plinths support row after row of manikins sporting Sui’s design archive, from the original 1991 tweed ensembles to her more recent S/S16 Tahiti-inspired collection. The show is divided thematically and the collections mixed, but what’s striking about Sui’s work is that a cheerleader jacket from the late ’90s could just as easily have been a part of her latest S/S17 American Pie collection.  

“Throughout my career, we’ve overlapped things and repeated things"

“Throughout my career, we’ve overlapped things and repeated things, so you have mod, punk, grunge, fairytale, nomad, Victorian; these are just the things that I linger on and crossover,” she explains. “There are always new discoveries while we’re working on new collections and that’s my favourite part: learning something new, going down a different avenue, or understanding what inspired what.”

Certainly, there’s a diverse mix of motifs scattered throughout the exhibition, from Egyptian-inspired sandals and androgynous tailoring to Mick Jagger-style flares and embroidered blazers. Her most iconic look, she says, is a red and white striped dress from her 2007 collection that has an unusual back story. “This is a collection I was working on when my friend Sofia Coppola was making Marie Antoinette," she explains. “I went to Versaille and watched her film the ballroom scene, but I’d also just seen an exhibition about the pirate Barbarossa, so I decided to do pirate Marie Antoinette!”

It’s these kinds of stories that sum up Sui; every outfit in the exhibition has a story, whether it be a teddy-bear hat that was inspired by a grunge band and designed in collaboration with James Coviello or a dress to match the ones worn by Billy Corgan and James Iha in a Smashing Pumpkins video. The exhibiton will accompany a book of the same name, in which the designer reveals the inspirations and influences behind her numerous collections, as told to fashion journalist Tim Blanks.

Putting the exhibition together, she says, has been the highlight of her career so far. “Who would have thought? I never imagined I could have an exhibit of my clothes, let alone in the UK; so much of my inspiration was from here. “Initially, I came here because of the music and saw bands like Bow Wow Wow, but then I got to know all the boutiques and different trends,” Sui continues. “It was always just fun to come and see what people were wearing on the streets and what was available on Portobello Road.”

It’s no doubt a “pinch me” moment for the designer who set her sights on a career in fashion at the ripe old age of four. It would certainly come as a shock to her younger self to learn that not only would she become a globally famous fashion designer, but one with whom the world’s stars have and still are clamouring to work: she names Twiggy, Cher and Mick Jagger among her fan base.

But what’s most surprising about Sui is that she still owns and maintains control over her company – a rarity in today’s fashion world. “I don’t have a huge backing and I’ve stayed in business all these years, but maybe that’s part of the reason; I don’t have a boss or a financer that I have to satisfy,” she says. “The losses are mine and the gains are mine.”

She recognises that she’s an anomaly in the industry and worries about the future of fashion, but has high hopes for the next generation who, she says, are striving to remain independent, as she has done all these years. The industry has changed dramatically since she started, but she’s excited to see where it will go next. “I love fashion and seeing what the new shows and trends there are every season” she tells me.  “I always pick my favourite show and  focus on what outfit I’m going to buy.”

More than three decades into her career, the designer’s passion is still palpable – but does she ever wonder what she would have been had her four-year-old dreams not come true? She grins: “Rockstar.”

The World of Anna Sui by Tim Blanks is out now, £30, www. abramsandchronicle.co.uk
The exhibition is on until 1 October, £9, Fashion and Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, SE1