Anna Sui & Me
The World of Anna Sui, The Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey, London (May 26- October 1, 2017)
This is the first time a retrospective of an American fashion designer has been held in the UK. Which seems strange when American designers have contributed so much to “everyday” fashion both here and everywhere. Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of American fashion, however, that has kept these designers out of British institutions. Does fashion as a subject worthy of a museum require that we are able to view it from a revered position of “art” rather than through ordinary prism of daily dress? Anna Sui designs fashion that can be worn by all of us; well at least that’s how it feels to me. I have never purchased an Anna Sui garment, yet her vision of “daily dress” as a manner of performing who I want to be and how I want to be perceived by others has influenced my presentation of myself through clothes. My feelings about this exhibition are embellished by the personal connections I experience when I walk around what is described in the exhibition press release as the “glamorous and eclectic world of one of New York’s most beloved and accomplished designers.”
I cannot untangle my emotional response to this Anna Sui exhibition—namely, the fact that upon entering her interior world via her extensive body of work, I began to revisit my own past—without reflecting on my own need to communicate with fashion both personally and professionally.
The show opens with a small side room that communicates Sui’s influences; she came to love the particular aesthetic that is a constant in her designs when she was a young girl in Detroit and made the decision to “focus on her dreams” and move to New York to go to Parsons. Hearing Anna tell this story I could still feel the drive that made that passion come alive. In person, Anna’s positive emotions are contagious; you sense her need to break out of American suburbia and enter the exotic world that she reads about in Vogue. This first room expresses the world I inhabited in my head as a seventeen-year-old fashion student in London in the early ‘80s. Zandra Rhodes, Biba, Lee Bender, Kensington Market all mixed with the Punk of Vivienne Westwood and the New Romantics; music, fashion and subculture created an antidote to my real life in the suburbs. I too experienced that intense desire to become, to make a montage of others’ way of being and try them on for size.
There is something that I feel we need to take from this time of community creativity that is very relevant to the homogenous feelings prevalent in fashion right now. Nostalgia for the energy that London (and Sui’s New York) exuded in the 1980’s makes me wonder if rediscovering this world of anachronistic irreverence for mainstream consumption could contribute something that is currently lacking; I want to hark back to fashion as fun rather than fashion as a mandated consumption practice. Is the time right to view Anna Sui—and those of her ilk—as a way forward for positive fashion that is good for us as opposed to fashion that dictates we conform to a pre-cast mould?
Anna Sui’s influences became a part of who she was—and still is—as a designer. The rock and roll ethos of totally immersing oneself in an idea is manifest in her expansive list of inspirations: from Aubrey Beardsley, Art Noveau and the fabrics of William Morris to Andy Warhol and the music scene of New York in the 80’s, she has managed to create a holistic lifestyle from these disparate sources. She says that research is her “thing.” This is obvious in the attention to detail that her label portrays, for you can she her working out ideas in the mood boards that are on display upstairs. She has a way of pulling together ideas that are dissimilar but, at the same time, are harmonious. She is able to develop an analogous concept from the most unlikely sources. She mixes everything up, but out comes a sensuous and desirable collection of personality traits portrayed in fabrics, textures and colours.
Sui’s is a world were anything and everything works. It is inclusive and non-judgemental in its celebration difference. This exhibition allows us to see the immense possibilities in accepting and appreciating divergent aesthetics, clashing garments rubbing shoulders with the “ordinary,” as a way to generate both individual psychological wellbeing and healthy social connections. I sense that wearing this idea would certainly produce conversations. We were all strangers walking around a show in central London at 9am but we soon connected as we shared our response to what we were experiencing. The thrill, love and all-encompassing curation of the displays made for a social experience which encouraged sharing.
This exhibition is arranged in themes such as Retro, Grunge, and Americana; however, I think that the garments in the main rooms share the interior process of Sui’s particular mood. Her way of working through an idea in order to understand what she is feeling lays bare the fact that she tells the consumer, me, what is going on in her life through every dress she makes. This may well be the case for many designers; indeed, I have always felt like that with McQueen, for instance. Unlike McQueen, however, Sui doesn’t purport to change the world with her clothes; above all else she is a retailer. Hers is a commercial enterprise and she is down to earth in that very American way of doing fashion.
This is not art; this is a day-job. And yet we are invited to view this world as though it were an experiential science of joy-as-dress. For me the exhibition taken as whole is more like reading her diary than discovering how she has made a brand. There is something so raw about the manner in which the clothes are displayed that I found myself moved to tears as I walked around the garments; I wanted to touch them, to be their friends, to hear their stories. I asked Dennis Nothdruft, the exhibition’s curator, how he had made the choices of which outfits to show and he conceded that it was an emotional experience and one to which he felt personal connections. Dennis, too, was a child of the suburbs desiring the bright lights. I feel that one of the reasons that Anna Sui has such a cult following is this intense emotional connection she is able to create with her clothes. These outfits generate love and fun and playfulness as does this clever exhibition.
Sui is somehow able to make you feel safe and included in her wonderful playful world of make-believe. This is a fairy tale existence that you can purchase with her label but that you can also manufacture for yourself by “reading” her looks and buying from thrift stores and jumble sales. Her lifestyle is aspirational but inclusive; we can all have this good time. Sui offers us all the chance to join in, for there are no outsiders in her world. In hearing her talk us through the exhibition I felt that I belonged to this cool gang, this crowd of all-knowing girls who could change the world by dressing without caring what anyone else thought. And I was that girl once, living in Los Angeles, all sex-and-drugs- and-rock’n’roll—a wild child who lived the life that Anna Sui reflected when building her brand in the ‘90s. I suppose that is why I had such an emotional resonance with the clothes displayed here; every look was one I personally had tried on for size when I was working out who I was in my twenties. There were moments when I was all androgynous, men’s suits and short hair, times when tea dresses were my thing and months when I was glam-rock, sparkles and platforms.
The upstairs part of the exhibition highlights the collaborations of Sui’s work and shows her design process. She is the most authentically generous mainstream designer I have ever encountered, be that in her manner of working with others or the way in which she has shared so much of herself in this show. Here is a woman who cares, and shares—for whom being part of a bigger vision is a natural extension of her being. If I were to state the central theme of this entire show it would be summed up by the word generosity, this show gives a lot for its entrance fee. It packs in loads of clothes, lots of ideas and extensive imagery to fashion the World of Anna Sui as one we can all inhabit, a world where boundaries melt, good times are available to all and we can care and share with compassion. This show is fashion as a positive force for good in the world. And that is why I love Fashion. Thank you Anna Sui and the Fashion and Textile Museum for brightening my world.
Thumbnail Image by Raoul Gatchelian (1994). Courtesy the Fashion and Textile Museum.