By Sandra Schulman
Downtown New York City designer darling Anna Sui hit town at just the right time.
Born in the suburbs of Detroit, Sui was drawn to New York’s cultural underground at an insanely creative time in the 1970s, where fashion, photography, art, music and design were all going out clubbing every night.
She joined the party with her first collection in 1981, sold to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and had her own runway show and boutique store by 1991. A major retrospective and book of her work is now touring the world. A current stop at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale through Oct. 3 has some exclusives of art and vintage fashion curated by Bonnie Clearwater.
The exhibition looks at Sui’s artistic journey through her creative process, collections, interiors, and collaborations. Her clothes look like her apartment, her apartment looks like her store, and her exhibit looks like all of them on a grand scale.
With more than 100 jaw-dropping looks, The World of Anna Sui explores the glam and eclectic world of one of New York’s most beloved and accomplished designers, and lets viewers inside Sui’s vivid imagination to discover her creative process and the diverse influences that contribute to her signature aesthetic. The World of Anna Sui is organized by the Fashion and Textile Museum of London and is curated by Dennis Nothdruft.
She loves purple and black, embroidery and velvet, butterflies and lacquer. Since her first catwalk show in 1991, Anna Sui has become known for updating vintage fashion and pop culture of rock music, the American West, preppies, grunge and Victorian. The exhibition ranges from early looks – such as the exuberant Carnaby Street schoolgirl outfits worn by supermodels Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell in the first runway show in 1991 – to the cowgirl and cheerleader modeled by Gigi and Bella Hadid during the spring/summer 2017 Americana-themed collection.
“I’m primarily a curator and a storyteller. NSU Art Museum’s exhibitions explore the full range of visual culture as expressions of contemporary life,” said Clearwater, the NSU museum’s director and chief curator, in a statement. “Anna Sui shares with other artists of her generation a renewed interest in storytelling and an exploration of societal archetypes. Throughout her career Sui has inventively blended global art history, music and popular culture for each new collection. Her designs are inspired by extraordinary and creative women and her embrace of collaborations across disciplines keeps her at the forefront of fashion, art and design.”
Clearwater was a downtown 1970s NYC girl herself, living on Great Jones Street and hitting all the fashion and art hot spots.
As exclusive additions Clearwater added art by Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley from the museum’s collection to highlight the connection between Sui’s style and art history. She nabbed a vintage 1971 striped Biba suit owned by the late Rolling Stones muse and actress Anita Pallenberg, as Biba was one of Sui’s major inspirations. There is an ornate orange pantsuit with fur collar that was Baby Jane Holzer’s and is now owned by Sui. Newly commissioned drawings of Holzer and Sui by Barbara Hulanicki are on display with the outfits.
Thematically arranged as opposed to chronologically, the exhibition explores Sui’s lifelong fascination with an array of “archetypes” including the rock star, the schoolgirl, the punk, nomads, and surfers — motifs that repeat throughout her work. From fairy tales to fables to Victoriana, Sui researches her cultural obsessions in minute detail to tell a different story with each collection.
Hallmark outfits include Sui’s “Silver Peruvian Ensemble” and iconic sequined silk organza “Babydoll Dress” from spring 1994. Featured looks are displayed in context with the original hand-painted backdrops used in Sui’s art-filled fashion shows.
Sui is known for rich printed textiles, with complex layering and mixing of patterns, texture and colors. She makes the most outrageous, gorgeous, detailed shoes and boots and purses to go with each collection. The show highlights Sui’s own textiles as well as those created with high-profile partners Ascher Studio, Zandra Rhodes, Jeffrey Fulvimari and Hulanicki.
The exhibition has mood boards with photographs, sketches, runway shots, and cultural ephemera. She has collaborated with models Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell, make-up artists Pat McGrath and Francois Nars, jeweler Erickson Beamon, knitwear designer and milliner James Coviello and hairstylist Garren.
A major music lover, Sui gives loud nods to rock and grunge and punk and surf music that is played as soundtrack to the show, and can be listened to separately on YouTube. The Grunge collection is displayed with a full wall of Kurt Cobain photos, her most obvious inspiration.
More Sui fun awaits in the The World of Anna Sui pop-up shop in the lobby, which features limited editions of mens and womens fashions, accessories like lacquered mirrors, sunglasses, and beauty products along with the deluxe hardcover book, The World of Anna Sui.
Sui will be in Florida to appear at the show in October with special guests Barbara Hulanicki and Warhol superstar Holzer, both of whom live in South Florida and have clothing and art in the exhibit.
It’s Anna Sui’s world, but we can play dress-up in it.
The World of Anna Sui is on display through Oct. 3 at the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; the museum is closed Mondays. Admission is $12. For more information, call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.