Anna Sui embodies so much of what the world worships about America; extravagance and optimism is in everything she touches, and the dreamer inside has been loud and proud at each stage of her 30-year career. Often described as the greatest storyteller in modern fashion, she is currently telling the tale of the United States through a series of collections heavily laced with American symbolism.
Sui’s spring-summer 2017 show at New York Fashion Week was especially patriotic. Titled Americana, it opened with Gigi Hadid in a rose-appliqué cowboy jacket produced by South Paradiso, a Californian company that dressed American icons of the 1960s, including Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Beach Boys. Moments later, models reimagined as cowboys, cheerleaders and even Pennsylvania Dutch emerged to dance around a giant papier-mâché slice of apple pie to the beat of the Mamas and the Papas.
A joyful celebration of her roots, yes. However, in a time when patriotism and nationalism are easily muddled, this optimistic all-American message can appear almost confrontational, particularly against the backdrop of a liberal, outward-looking fashion industry that’s overwhelmingly opposed to President Donald Trump.
“I’m American. I was born in suburban Detroit and raised on American pop culture,” says Sui, over coffee at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. “But this is a difficult time to love America and I felt my best response to everything was to celebrate my country and my roots. This is my reaction against the politics of the time. My longing for that dream America – the craziness of cowboys and cheerleaders – all went into my work. Instead of coming out and saying, ‘Not my president,’ this was a way of responding, to celebrate.”
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As the daughter of Chinese immigrants from Shanghai and Tahiti, Sui’s reaction to Trump’s isolationist message is understandable. Her parents, who met in Paris as students in the late 40s, moved to Michigan to raise their family in the land of the free. And while Sui speaks eloquently about the complex nature of identity in her newly published book, The World of Anna Sui, it is clear she feels American.
“We were the only Chinese family in town, but I don’t know if I particularly thought at this point about being Chinese, about being so different in that context,” she writes in The World, which was produced in collaboration with fashion journalist Tim Blanks. “I guess because it was just us, we were a novelty, not a threat.”
However, Sui also remembers being mercilessly teased about her appearance while watching football games in other school districts. And, as an adult, she has wondered whether her prodigious ability to create other worlds in which to immerse herself was an escape from the constant sense of “otherness”.
“From a very young age, I learned to define myself outside the culture,” she says.
And so Sui’s hugely successful career fits even more closely with the American dream; an immigrant girl done good.
Fittingly, it all began with Sui reading an article in Life magazine about two women who had studied at the Parsons School of Design, in New York, and who, on graduation, were given a boutique by actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The schoolgirl was entranced.
I was always the outsider in the New York fashion scene. I didn’t look the same, I didn’t present the same, I didn’t have a boss so I didn’t have to answer to the commerciality of it all
“All I could be sure of was that this gorgeous subculture existed. I wanted in and Parsons was the ticket,” she says. “Although, as an adult, I went back and re-read the article, and one of the young ladies’ fathers was [American fashion photographer] Irving Penn, so you don’t get that as a kid.”
Sui, by contrast, had parents whose most fervent wish for their children was that they would become doctors. But she wielded that famous determination, got into Parsons and, on graduation, received more than just a boutique: she won a place in the heart of 70s New York, where her dedication to her own outfits was a prelude to her famously imaginative collections.
In the late 80s, with just US$300 to her name, Sui launched an eponymous brand from her kitchen table. Before long she had become part of a movement of young, edgy designers who were remaking American fashion and shifting the definition of style away from European design. Peers, colleagues and friends on the party circuit included Marc Jacobs, Cynthia Rowley and Betsey Johnson.
“Even though I was at every party, I never let myself get swallowed up by the scene,” says Sui. “I was too busy thinking about my work or getting inspired by something or other to ever really immerse myself in that world.”
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But while fiercely ambitious New York has served her well, it is in Britain – a country that has no bearing on her family background, personal life or much of her career – that Sui has found the majority of her inspiration. Her ardent Anglophilia has manifested itself in a love of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Mary Quant, Biba, Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes, and this iconic, easily recognisable aesthetic has always competed with cowboys and cheerleaders for dominance in her collections.
Which makes the fact that her first retrospective is currently taking place at the Fashion and Textile Museum rather apt.
“I think I have been inspired and moved by London
for many years now,” says Sui, who still lives in New York. “Certainly more than any other place outside of the US. Even when I was working in Italy, I came up every weekend, simply because I found the music and fashion so inspiring.
“London is a showcase of all my idols.”
The museum, an eclectic and very English establishment just south of London Bridge and founded in 2003 by Rhodes, has not previously showcased an American designer, but it is a perfect place for Sui – who fizzes and bubbles with energy – to hold the retrospective, particularly given the years of research she has put into fabric design.
It is the day before her exhibition opens to the public and Sui seems touchingly thrilled by the entire undertaking.
“It has been really emotional,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve really looked at these clothes again and seen the whole outfits all together. It has made me excited and proud but also nostalgic for another, simpler era when everything seemed that bit easier.”
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And like so many pivotal moments in careers, this retrospective – which has led to a book deal and kick-started a collaboration between Sui and retailer Opening Ceremony – happened by chance.
“I was at the Thea Porter exhibition here last year,” says Sui. “I was in the gift shop and Celia Joicey [who heads the museum] walked in and we ended up having coffee. By the end of the conversation, she asked me if I wanted to have an exhibition. She was just the first to ask.”
An immersive, comprehensive tour through Sui’s oeuvre, the exhibition isn’t chronological but instead grouped into “Anna’s Archetypes”, with themes including Victorian, Mod, Punk, Fairytale, Nomad, Grunge, Androgyny, Americana, Surfer and Schoolgirl.
“We decided to group it around recurring themes, which has been such an interesting way for me to look at my work,” says Sui. “As a creative person, I was so happy to order it around the fantasies and inspirations I have always had. If you look at the categories, you will still see so many similarities. It has made me see my entire career in a new light.”
And there is certainly something Narnia-esque about the exhibition, which begins with an unmarked wardrobe-like door that opens onto a riot of colours, prints, patterns, sequins and glitter. Mannequins sporting floor-length emerald-green crushed-velvet gowns vie for space with those in gold flapper-girl fringe dresses, military capelets, worker’s overalls and 60s floral micro-minis, while Hendrix and Rolling Stones posters dominate the walls.
Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the exhibition, chose to place the mannequins on scarlet podiums in a room that mirrors Sui’s first New York boutique, which opened in 1992. It has red floors, purple walls and black lacquered Victorian furniture, which Sui has been collecting for decades.
“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,” Nothdruft has said of the exhibition.
Vibrant, forthcoming and naturally warm, the only time I see Sui bristle is when I ask why her work is so often associated with the 90s.
“My career has extended far beyond the 1990s,” she replies, quickly. “So I can never quite understand that. If anything, people relate more to my storytelling and the over-the-top-ness of my extended world than a specific decade out of three. That is what has been the success of my career – the ability to have so many licences and do so many collaborations and to stick very much to one aesthetic throughout it all.”
And there is something timeless about the exhibition – although most of the clothes were made 20 to 30 years ago, there is a modernity that suggests the kilted miniskirts and velvet jackets wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of contemporary London, Hong Kong or New York.
“A lot of people say my clothes are as current now as they always were,” says Sui. “I guess I don’t like tricky clothes. I like to have a classic design behind whatever I make. If you really pare it down, I do clothes the old-fashioned way. All the other things make it over the top, but if you take each piece apart, they are simple, good pieces. The best compliment I ever received was when a woman said, ‘I bought a dress of yours 15 years ago and, each time I’ve worn it, my husband says I look beautiful.’”
Sui has never followed trends, something that must have required a strong sense of self during the minimalist years of the 90s, when her career took off, given that her lavish aesthetic was so at odds with the baggy jeans and Calvin Klein strap dresses of the decade.
“You have to remember, I was always the outsider in the New York fashion scene,” she says. “I didn’t look the same, I didn’t present the same, I didn’t have a boss so I didn’t have to answer to the commerciality of it all, and I certainly didn’t fit in when the movement went very minimalist. It took a lot of confidence to stick to my aesthetic but I had no choice, that’s just how my brain works, so why fight it?
“Thankfully, I always had an audience that appreciated my work in China and Japan.”
Asked why that part of the world embraced her aesthetic, Sui says, “The fact that I am of Chinese heritage plays a part, although a lot of people think I am Japanese because of all the cosmetics I have sold. Once they know I am Chinese, I guess there is this dream that if I could succeed in the West, they could succeed.”
But what this exhibition illustrates more than anything is Sui’s multilayered approach to her work. She is known as a storyteller because she weaves poems, books, films, fairy tales and pop iconography into her work, and each dress, jacket or skirt is imbued with memories from her childhood or with the essence of a rock star she has spent weeks researching. Music in particular has wielded a powerful influence over the designer and every collection is associated with a song or album.
“I feel that when I’m doing a show, it’s important to transport your audience and tell them a story,” she says. “You need to take them along the way in all the details, from the mood of the models, the hair and make-up, the music. Not everyone has the budget to buy a dress, but they can afford a lipstick or a perfume, and that’s why we put so much into the packaging and the box – so there’s a special quality about it.”
This approach has allowed Sui to grow her brand into a huge fashion and beauty business, with a presence in more than 50 countries. But despite her success, it is easy to see why it is only now, in 2017, that the industry has dubbed this “The Year of Anna Sui”.
“It’s been an incredible year,” Sui says, with a wide smile. “Working on the book and the retrospective has really made me see my career clearly, and I just got an honorary degree from Parsons. All these things just happened at once, which has been totally unexpected. It’s thrilling, and so appreciated. I never looked back as I was constantly planning ahead, hoping a fabric would happen or something like that. But this year has made me realise I don’t take stock. I never do.”
Though approachable and unfussy, Sui – like so many creative people – also comes across as highly sensitive and moved by her surroundings. As I turn to go, she presses my hand and – referring back to a conversation we had about politics – she says, “You know, my whole career has been optimistic and joyful. I am the most optimistic person I know. I always think everything will turn out OK, [though] at times I have doubts and at times I am dark like anyone else. But I have to believe it will all turn out OK. And I think maybe we all do.”
Stepping out into the dazzling London sunshine, after a morning spent tapping Sui’s gloriously untamed imagination, I am inclined to agree.
“The World of Anna Sui” exhibition will run at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until October 1.