New York-based Anna Sui creates a fantasy fashion world that merges psychedelic patterning, Americana and rock 'n' roll. Odessa Paloma Parker explores Sui's mad mix and the maverick approach that led to her summer exhibition at London's Fashion and Textile Museum
"Live your dream." These are the words printed on a receipt from Anna Sui's eclectic boutique in Manhattan's Soho neighbourhood. It's not hard to indulge in a lust for life while sifting through racks of whimsical, retro-tinged clothing and decadently packaged cosmetics in a space decorated with vibrant concert art and scored with a soundtrack that ranges from David Bowie to the psychedelic Aussie rock band Tame Impala.
This unwaveringly upbeat vision has endured since Sui's first runway show in 1991. In many ways, the designer's influence has only grown – in Asia today, her fan base is sated by 90 accessory boutiques and department-store concessions in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China – as she's maintained her brand's independence. And now, Sui (who won the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Perry Ellis Award in 1993) has become the first American designer to be the subject of a retrospective at a British museum. The World of Anna Sui opens this weekend at London's Fashion and Textile Museum and continues until Oct. 1. A new book by Tim Blanks coincides with the start of the show and is organized by recurring themes – from hippie to Americana – corresponding with the exhibition.
Sui first visited London during the punk era but the city has inspired her since childhood. "As a kid, I looked towards London as a really faraway place, seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or seeing pictures of Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Granny Takes a Trip and Ossie Clarke. Those were all my heroes and my idols, and what I aspired to," she says while sitting in her aubergine-hued showroom, located in New York City's midtown Garment District. "I think that in my adult life, I'm always trying to recreate that, because that was what interested me about fashion – I'm trying to recapture that excitement."
Sui studied fashion at the Parsons School of Design, and launched her brand in 1981 after designing sportswear for several other labels. She creates clothing for rockers and rockers at heart – those who fill their closets with embroidered baby-doll dresses, not austere sheaths. Though fashion's fickle favouritism swings from showy to subdued with each passing season, something about the Detroit-born designer's penchant for vibrant print work and more-is-more styling continues to capture the imagination, even when the style world is experiencing a more minimal moment.
Her show is a favourite on the New York fashion week calendar, attracting the likes of Iris Apfel and other maximalist style icons to its front row. "Some designers can get caught in what they think is trending, what they think people want," says model Coco Rocha, who walked in an Anna Sui show her first season modelling in New York. "That works for some and sometimes it doesn't because they lose their DNA. But Anna, she sticks to what she knows, believes and loves." Rocha is one of the many well-known models who have populated Sui's catwalk; her shows in the 1990s featured the decade's biggest names, from Naomi Campbell to Linda Evangelista. More recently, sister supers Gigi and Bella Hadid have starred in the presentations.
Sui's business savvy has led her to explore business opportunities beyond typical model and influencer associations to grow her brand. She recalls a recent stint she did on the Instagram shopping platform Shop Shops, a social media retail service that allows its audience to ask questions about items while women in the store are trying them on. "They are talking about the clothes, modelling [them] in a very excited way and you can see people responding, 'Oh, does that come in another colour? Does it come in another size? Can I get that with the matching shoes?' There's so much interest and within that – maybe it was half an hour – we sold, like, 44 pieces. That's a new way to shop," she says. Sui's products are available in over 30 countries.
Sui's popular fragrance and cosmetics lines have also attracted long-term attention. "Her perfume was the first thing that I remember ever knowing about her when I was in high school, and I loved the look of the bottle," says Toronto-based designer Hilary MacMillan, who shares Sui's penchant for wild patterning and a vintage vibe. "I bought it and I did a little more research into her clothing from there and fell in love with the prints and patterns." Sui has collaborated with brands from Coach to Opening Ceremony and Target, and this fall she'll launch a line of teen-oriented decor for PBteen, an offshoot of Pottery Barn.
"The beginning of your career is almost easier," Sui says now that she's spent the past few months reflecting on her accomplishments to prepare for her new exhibition. "It's sustaining that's hard. My last boss, everyday in Women's Wear [Daily], whoever was on the cover she was like, 'Let's see where they are in 10 years.' I've thought about that a lot." While many successful labels have been scooped up by luxury conglomerates such as LVMH or Kering, Sui has helped maintain her brand's cachet by remaining independent. MacMillan says that designers such as Sui are an inspiration to emerging labels striving to build their brands. "She doesn't have to answer to anyone or fit into their portfolio or have any limitations," MacMillan says. "It's kinda sad the way that it turned into these two huge conglomerates owning the majority of fashion brands. It's nice to see that you can do it your way and on your terms and be very involved. It can work if you put in the time and effort."
As Sui has watched other designers struggle to maintain a foothold in the saturated fashion market, she's quick to point out that, though her independence has been instrumental to her longevity, it has also presented its own challenges. "Fashion is one of the few creative fields where you have to be creative on schedule and you can't waver from that schedule because there's a certain time when your market opens and you have to do your show, sales and showroom," she says. "Not very many artists have that three or four times a year deadline, depending on how your business is set up."
"It's hard; it's really hard, especially when you have very, very big bosses with their thumb on you – that's even harder," she says of her designer peers who are backed by big investment firms. "Maybe it's easier for me…because I have my own business and I'm my own boss."
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