By Elyssa Goodman
“The World of Anna Sui” began with a cup of coffee. Well, the exhibition did, anyway.
Anna Sui, an iconic American designer who’s been running her own label for nearly 40 years, was visiting an exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum when she bumped into Dennis Nothdruft—the museum’s curator at the time—along with the former museum director. They adjourned with Sui to the museum’s café and proposed the possibility of an exhibition, a retrospective of her work. Two years later, “The World of Anna Sui” arrived and has been touring the world since. After stops in Shanghai, Tokyo and New York, the exhibition will arrive at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale on February 28 and will be on view until September 19.
Sui’s collection began in New York in 1981, but she wouldn’t have her first show on the catwalk for several more years. The timing was right for Sui’s ascendance then: Long inspired by rock ’n’ roll, Sui was among the first designers to put grunge on the runway for the spring 1993 season, moving the famed Seattle sound from America’s ears to its fashion magazines. Nothdruft began working in fashion around that time and was heartened to see youth culture entering the field’s stratosphere.
“Fashion felt so much newer, and it was clothing for people my age,” Nothdruft says. “Not that I didn’t love Bill Blass and all of those more traditional designers, but it was great to have something that felt like it was our kind of clothing. It was answering what we as a generation were interested in.”
Sui now has over 50 boutiques worldwide. She’s also the recipient of the 2009 Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and has an unofficial position as a noted icon in her field. Her point of view and design sensibilities have been not just consistent but consistently stylish and edgy while remaining distinct.
“In the grand scheme of fashion history, I think it’s easy to focus on haute couture,” says Nothdruft, who curated the Sui exhibition. “But I also think there’s a place to look at how people dress. Anna is not just about runways and editorial. I think her bottom line is that somebody somewhere needs to wear fashion; that’s how it lives. She doesn’t make things that people don’t wear.”
The wearer has always been central to Sui’s design aesthetic and construction: The first people she wanted to design for were rock stars and rock stars’ girlfriends, though her audience later expanded to people going to rock concerts.
“There was very much that rock ’n’ roll element throughout my career, but I was also an avid follower of fashion,” says Sui, a Chinese American born in Detroit. “I loved magazines and fashion history, so you can see how all those influences played into all those collections throughout the years.”
Her work has been inspired by everything from art movements to music to literature to her own experiences. “It’s not just what’s going on in my life but also what I’m discovering, what I’m excited about and what I want to show people,” she says. “It all filters through my brain and becomes Anna Sui in one way or another with the influence of my taste and what my fantasy is about the inspiration.”
Organized by the archetypes that have presented themselves over time in Sui’s work—like the surfer, the nomad, the punk, the schoolgirl and the rock star—the exhibition will highlight the entrepreneurial designer’s ongoing creative process and vision. The lineup for the original Sui exhibition, which featured over 100 garments from Sui’s archives, has been edited for the tour. The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale edition will feature additions from the archives of Miami resident Barbara Hulanicki, a key inspiration for Sui and the founder of Biba, a beloved boutique from the 1960s and 1970s. Jane Holzer—former Warhol superstar, current Palm Beach resident and another Sui muse—will also be contributing apparel for the show.
“Sui is extremely knowledgeable and very conscious of what she’s doing from a sociological point of view as well as from an artistic and a design point of view,” says Bonnie Clearwater, director and chief curator of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.
Part of Sui’s careerlong focus on the idea of wearability comes from making clothes as a woman. When she started, the design world was dominated by men. “We wear the clothes ourselves so we can feel the comfort, we can feel the discomfort, we can feel what makes us feel pretty or feel empowered,” Sui says. “I think in many cases for men it’s more of a fantasy… You can see that since women became a force in design, the comfort level has changed a lot.”
The show highlighting Sui’s achievements in design comes on the heels of an exciting development at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale: the addition of four board members, all of whom are female. Ming Chan, Suzi Cordish, Barbara Fosco and Joan Levien Robertson joined the board of governors, which is also chaired by a woman, in October. Amplifying women in the arts has always been a focus of the museum, Clearwater says. “We have an emphasis on women and artists of color, especially in the contemporary work in the collection, and exhibitions reflect that,” she says.
For new board member Cordish, the museum’s mission in this regard hits close to home: Her mother was a working artist, and she saw firsthand how difficult it was to craft a life in such a space, from logistical challenges to encounters with sexism and bias.
“I have great affection for not only young female artists but also those who have been able to stay artists throughout their entire lives,” she says. “I’m always happy when women are in charge. It makes for a safer, kinder world.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020-2021 Issue.