If you are someone who identifies as male but prefers sweet dresses to sedate trousers, then you should give Sui a round of applause, because she was blurring gender on her runway before doing so was a political statement.
If you love grunge and got all worked up when Marc Jacobs reissued pieces from his 1993 grunge collection for Perry Ellis, it’s worth remembering that Sui’s 1993 grunge collection was pretty darn good. And, unlike Jacobs, she didn’t get fired for it, because she was running her own company.
In other words, Sui is one of those unnervingly prescient people who always seems to have been where everyone else is just arriving. Her influence isn’t simply everywhere; her aesthetic has become part of the fashion vocabulary from which almost everyone draws. She has changed the way you dress. And instead of bemoaning how others are now receiving praise and cash for an aesthetic she pioneered, she is as gracious as can be.
“So many years, it was, ‘Where is she coming from?’” Sui says. “I was lucky to be where I was in the beginning when it was kind of different and revolutionary. Now it’s about keeping my relevance.”
In recognition of Sui’s longevity and creativity, the Museum of Arts and Design is hosting “The World of Anna Sui,” an exhibition that runs through Feb. 23. It looks at the breadth of Sui’s ideas and their many organizing themes, from nomads to punks. While the exhibition looks back, it also speaks to what’s going on in fashion right now — from the role of feminism in women’s clothing to the conversations surrounding cultural appropriation and what it means to be an American.
Sui has spent her career pulling innovative ideas out of her imagination, drawing from history books and from her travels and then transforming them into fashion collections that exude cool. She has championed this city’s Garment District, surrounded herself with a loyal team of collaborators and become a lady mogul. Over 38 years, she has built a thriving independent business that she controls and that sells her clothes around the world at a price that is not cheap but not jaw-dropping either.
“I always stayed independent. And I was lucky to be able to do that by the way I organized my work and my business. I think it’s kind of unique that I don’t have a boss,” says Sui during an interview in the museum’s galleries.
The financial foundation of her business is built on an assortment of long-standing licensing relationships, including for cosmetics and fragrance, where another company pays to use her name and manufactures the product. “If you think about it, that’s how most designers survive — through the licenses. I was lucky enough to have good ones and ones where I have complete creative control.”
Sui grew up in the Detroit suburbs of Dearborn Heights and West Bloomfield in the late 1950s and ’60s. “We were the only Chinese in our neighborhood, and my brother and I were the only Chinese in our school,” she says. “I think we were just unique at that point. When more Asians were allowed to come, it was more of a threat.” Indeed, when the American auto industry began to feel economic stress from Japanese imports in the 1980s, two local autoworkers beat a young Chinese American man to death.
But when Sui was a kid, American culture was narrowly defined and suburbia was the universal dream.
“As much as I rebelled against Middle America, it’s all there” in the designs, she says. “The football jersey, the country club, the cowboy. It wasn’t my life, but I could play with it.”
After graduating from high school, Sui left Michigan for New York and studied at Parsons School of Design. Along with contemporaries such as Marc Jacobs and Isaac Mizrahi, she created collections that defied the 1980s power suits and masters of the universe who were seeking their fortune on Wall Street. Sui’s work was influenced by the rollicking, youthful creations of Betsey Johnson, the audacious independence of Norma Kamali, the extravagance of fashion editor Diana Vreeland and the bold prints of British designer Zandra Rhodes. Sui’s style also reflected her personal love of vintage fashion, antique furniture and music, such as grunge. Today, she’s especially inspired by the Raconteurs.
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Sui has been called a feminist because she reclaimed things such as schoolgirl jumpers and baby-doll dresses. But for her, it wasn’t a considered statement about the power embedded in girlish traditions; it was simply Sui refusing to be belittled for her love of dress-up and for her belief in the importance of escapism.
“When I was in seventh grade, I read ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and I did a book report on it. And my teacher gave me an A-minus because she thought I was too old for fairy tales,” Sui recalls. “I didn’t agree with her. I just thought no, this is an incredible book and it’s a lot deeper than a fairy tale. But I couldn’t argue with her in seventh grade.
“Escape is so important on every level,” Sui says. “Not just fantasy as a child. We need that as adults.”
When she showed her spring 2020 collection during Fashion Week here Monday, it was one full of pastel shades and soothing music. It was an expression of optimism and willful abandon. The models walked the runway in dresses that flowed gently and that were paired with anklets and platform shoes, bucket hats and colorful sunglasses.
“It’s so hard to come up with a concept every season. And so I thought, ‘What is it that I want right now? How is it that I want to feel?’ I don’t want the aggression anymore. I don’t want the overt sexuality anymore,” Sui says backstage after her show. “I just want kind of an idyllic moment. And I was trying to capture that with the music and the colors. I had [pictures of] cakes up on my wall. I had beautiful vintage floaty dresses on my wall. Usually I don’t have clothes on my inspiration board, but it was for the colors and the lightness. … Everything had a lightness and airiness.
“I think we need that right now,” she says. “We’re kind of suffocating in this nasty world.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Sui’s shows were among the hottest tickets during Fashion Week. Models such as Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista regularly walked the runway, fashion photographer Steven Meisel was a front-row regular and countless musicians turned up to watch the antics or to participate by providing a live soundtrack. It was a period when fashion and popular culture were still in their honeymoon phase and the combination of models, visual artists, actors and musicians seemed organic and volatile — not something stage-managed for social media.
Sui was known for her controlled mishmash of ideas. A family trip to Egypt resulted in a collection referencing hieroglyphics. A trip to Peru inspired the use of traditional knitwear. Her mood board of ideas could look like a travelogue. Ignoring minimalism, logo mania and a host of political sensitivities that were at odds with her aesthetics, she has stuck to her style. She continues to borrow and crib.
“I think we’ve always been inspired by travel, always been inspired by other cultures, always appropriated from other cultures,” Sui says, referencing the debate over who owns particular sources of inspiration. “If you look back at Napoleonic times, when they went to Egypt and did their exploration, it inspired the whole Directoire look. The jewelry, the tiaras, even the furniture was Egyptian.
“Part of what moved design along is that travel, is that interaction between cultures,” she says. “So I don’t quite get the criticism of that.”
Sui is an intentional designer. She can trace her ideas to particular aesthetic movements, to a film, to fashion history, to a particular place. She doesn’t invent. She reinvents. She connects disparate notions. Introduces oddball characters in her runway stories. She folds time.
Her career — long and fruitful — has withstood changing tastes and a changing industry. She hasn’t been patient or long-suffering. She has been focused. And now, the times have once again caught up to Sui.