If you were a teen in the '90s or '00s, you surely remember the unmistakable allure of the Anna Sui beauty counter. Anyone who claims to have resisted the pull of a black lacquered rose on a nail polish, or a painted Russian doll-shaped lipstick is just a bold-faced liar. For many of us, Sui defined our formative years and catered to every whim of our personality or sartorial phase, from punk, to grunge, to princess, to bohemian vintage.
And therein lies the beauty of her brand — an ever-evolving narrative with unmistakable staying power. In recent years, Sui may not have been at the forefront of the "street style" modern aesthetic, but she is always in our hearts, in our younger selves, and in the Harajuku layering experts we wish we were.
Yes, at first she seemed a surprising choice for the first-ever retrospective exhibition of an American designer in the UK. Sui isn't known for the cut of a suit, for expert tailoring, or Comme des Garçons-levels of avant-garde design. But the exhibit, which opens this week at the London Fashion and Textile Museum, immersed us fully into "The World of Anna Sui" and reminded us why she has 50 stores worldwide, an army of loyal fans, and helped define a generation of American fashion.
Opening with a gallery of Sui's '90s contemporaries — Betsey Johnson, Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi — it contextualizes the birth of her brand during an explosion of new talent: New York club kids rebelling against the lofty, aspirational nature of their predecessors Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. Her famous friends, including Sofia Coppola and Zandra Rhodes (founder of the Fashion & Textile Museum) are peppered across the walls, evoking the lighthearted nature of the time. As curator Dennis Nothdruft put it, "Anna was actually living this lifestyle. She was designing for this movement, but she was also a part of it. In the clubs, in the gatherings at her house, she was living this free-spirited time and bringing it to the masses."
A recreation of her first boutique in New York sets the scene for over 150 full looks, jostled together under Tiffany lamps, among psychedelic posters and Aubrey Beardsley prints. There is no stark museum feel, no glass partitions, no chronological journey. It's made for a more immersive feel — like the designer's shows, which often feature live performances and models improvising their own choreography. It's a cacophonous, all-encompassing experience (exactly like her clothes), a thousand inspirations in one, all eclecticisms expressed through layering. Victoriana, punk, retro, hippie rock star, mod... they're all here, commanding their own corners and assuming every personality of the Anna Sui girl's many phases.
Her longtime collaborators have a dedicated room, for Sui's colleagues are as much a part of the brand as she. Steven Meisel, whom the designer met as a student at Parsons, has been shooting her campaigns since 1991. Garren has styled the hair of every show since the brand's inception, and the makeup has been directed by François Nars, then Pat McGrath — but no others.
As you might imagine, Sui herself is as charming as her clothes, and embodies her own label in a way that few other designers can. This has no doubt helped the longevity and success of the brand, which to this day remains privately owned. This is an especially interesting study in a time when many designers, such as Nicholas Ghesquière, are speaking out against the pressure from investors and corporate owners to conform commercially and churn out "It" bag after "It" bag.
By retaining control of her own brand, Sui has kept an impeccable eye on the details. As she told us regarding her beloved makeup line, "Some people don't have the lifestyle, the budget or even the accessibility to [buy] an Anna Sui dress, but they can have the nail polish or the lipstick. So I feel that I have to put as much of my dream and my fantasy into that tube of lipstick as I do into an Anna Sui dress, or my job's not well done." As the public focus shifts to greater accessibility to fashion, she couldn't feel more relevant.