Anna Sui, Fashion’s Favorite Daughter, Gets Her Day in the Sun

With a museum retrospective that looks back at her four decades in fashion, the designer recalls the early influences in her storied career.

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CreditCreditGrace Rivera for The New York Times

Like some kind of industrious magpie, the designer Anna Sui has spent decades assiduously gathering up shiny oddments from the pop culture landscape and shaping them into a singular career in fashion design. Her deeply researched collections — 84 of them to date — exploit a welter of tweaked archetypes (surfer meets Kawai schoolgirl) and the giddy mash-ups of incongruous archetypes (pirate encounters pre-Raphaelite) that are her specialty.

Though she has not, perhaps, radically altered the face of American fashion, she has become one of the industry’s durable presences, a designer overdue for the fresh appraisal provided by “The World of Anna Sui,” a retrospective that curators at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York adapted from a 2017 exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London.

On a recent morning, Ms. Sui walked a reporter through an exhibition of 75 looks and hundreds of related objects — dresses, shoes, jewels, mood boards, wardrobe items from famous friends, videos and backdrops from her storied fashion shows — drawn from an archive that Ms. Sui, 67, has maintained since arriving in New York from her hometown in Detroit nearly a half century ago.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The retrospective opens with a photograph from the 1960s of you as a child visiting New York for a family wedding. While everyone else in the picture is focused on the bride, you’re staring straight out of the frame.

I always said it was that visit that gave me the idea to be a fashion designer. I didn’t even know what kind of job that was. But I just looked around at the city and decided that, when I grow up, I’m going to be a fashion designer and move to New York.

Your parents were first-generation immigrants from China who met at school in Paris and immigrated to Michigan for your father to pursue a master’s degree. How did they react to your plan?

My parents said, “Why would you want to be a dressmaker when you can be a doctor or lawyer?”

But you were determined.

I had a baby sitter who read Seventeen. In the back of the magazine I discovered these ads for Parsons School of Design, and from that point on I geared my whole curriculum toward getting into Parsons. New York seemed so far away then. I would go once every summer and would get my one glimpse of what I thought was fashion. I’d visit the Biba boutique at Bergdorf Goodman, and it was the first time I’d ever seen all those incredible colors: dusty rose, charcoal, plum, teal — murky colors that I’d never seen before.

You have said that newsweeklies provided a cultural lifeline for you and used Life magazine pages to demonstrate your response to its reports on the “counterculture.”

I remember seeing an article on Mia Fonssagrives and Vicky Tiel doing the costumes for “What’s New Pussycat?” and I was obsessed with the sketches they ran. Many years later I went back and read it again and realized that Mia was Irving Penn’s stepdaughter.

How did those early influences ultimately inform your work?

In the opening section, there’s a coat belonging to Baby Jane Holzer, who was a Warhol superstar and one of my idols who later became a close friend. I knew who Baby Jane was from Life. They ran a story about underground fashion and there she was in some incredible dress and the most incredible hair. Diana Vreeland loved her and gave her this column in Vogue where she would cover the new boutiques. That was Jane’s assignment — to shop. For the show, we borrowed this purple fur coat of hers that I’d seen in an exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art in Florida called “To Jane, Love Andy: Warhol’s First Superstar.” It’s the coat she wore to the Frazier-Ali fight. She wore it with a pair of Chelsea Cobbler boots and hot pants underneath. Jane was never the type to wear a plain mink coat.

But how did you meet?

Steven photographed her and told me she was at the studio and for some reason invited me over.

You mean the fashion photographer Steven Meisel?

I’ve known Steven since we were both at Parsons School of Design. In those days, design students were not allowed to go to the school lunchroom because we weren’t supposed to mingle with the art school riffraff. But I would sneak down, and Steven would be holding court. A friend was talking to him and mentioned that they were all going out dancing and that I should come, too. I went with my boyfriend to Tamburlaine and saw Steven with his entourage and he said, “Ditch the boyfriend. Come sit with us.”

Did you?

Of course. I kept the friendship with Steven. In those days, I had an apartment in the city, and Steven grew up in Queens and was still in school, so my place became club central.

When he took up fashion photography, did he become an important conduit and connector for you?

Steven was so important in introducing me to a lot of my idols. That’s how I met Twiggy. That’s how I met Jane. That’s how I met Veruschka.

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CreditJenna Bascom

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And Keith Richards’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, whose striped Lurex Biba pantsuit is in the show?

I met Anita because my roommate at the time was Walter Lure. He was in that band [The Heartbreakers] with Johnny Thunders, and they spent a lot of time in London. He knew Anita from London and when she was in New York she would hang out. I remember her telling me that if she didn’t have the life she did, she would have become a fashion designer. Eventually she went to Central Saint Martins and we reconnected when she came to do an internship with Marc [Jacobs].

It seems that your friendship with Meisel had another dividend: access seemingly to every top model and new face.

Even before I started doing shows, because I was friends with Steven, I knew Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. When the time came to do a show, Steven said Linda and Naomi will help you get all the girls. People by now know my association with Steven and he helps with the castings every season. We’ve gone through many phases — the Belgians, the waifs, the Brazilians, the Russians. But nothing else ever had the electric effect the supermodels had.

I can still recall gasp from the crowd when Naomi hit the runway in your fall 1992 show wearing chaps with nothing underneath but a thong.

She also had a rose tattoo on her behind.

It is cliché to say, but does New York feel different now from the city of your youth, when the fashion world was much smaller?

It’s the economics. I mean, No. 1, in the ’70s, you could be poor. You could shop in a thrift shop and look like a movie star. People thought I only wore Saint Laurent for a while — when he did the petticoats underneath fitted ’40s jackets. I had a ’40s jacket and I would get these bright petticoats in vintage stores. I got some from a place where you could bring a grocery bag and fill it with as much as you wanted for $5.

Your shows have always drawn on music and you’ve known many of rock’s more louche personnel — the Stones, the New York Dolls, Billy Corgan and James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins. Did you live a rocker sort of life?

Mick Jagger was my first men’s wear customer. I met Keith through Anita. I used to go to the Dolls rehearsals. I was always really into rock ’n’ roll, so I would see all these people and meet them, but I really never was into drugs or rock as a lifestyle. I was too determined. I had to get up in the morning. I couldn’t indulge.

When designers claim rockers as their reference point, I always wonder which rocker — is it Bowie, the Monkees, Iggy Pop? How did your connections to musicians inform your designs?

When I was listening to the New York Dolls a lot, I was thinking about how everyone in those days wore black and white stripes and roses. So I used that by making a print with roses on black and white stripes. When I was listening to a lot of punk music, it seemed natural to use androgyny as part of a grunge collection.

Is that the collection where you sent a man and a woman out in matching baby doll dresses?

I was so caught up in that. Was it the cover of Spin or maybe the Face that had the famous Davis Sims image of Kurt Cobain in a dress? I was obsessed with that image. There was also another famous video of Billy and James [of Smashing Pumpkins] wearing ’30s dresses on an ice cream truck.

Those pictures don’t look particularly shocking now. Were they at the time?

Not really. It’s funny but the show’s curator told me that what shocked her is that visitors to the show think androgyny is a new concept. They’d never seen it before. We know better.

You pay homage to many women — Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali, Zandra Rhodes, the Disney artist Mary Blair — but do you think of yourself as a feminist?

At all my first jobs, everyone was male. But then, little by little, women started getting head designer positions. They started moving out of the workrooms. I was lucky in that I was a product of my time and had these role models like Norma and Betsey to show me the way. The fact that women’s liberation happened in the period when I was growing up made everything much more possible for me, but, no, I never considered myself a feminist.

Still, I would not be the first person to see sexism in how long it took the industry to appreciate your work.

Do you think?

How emotional was it to take this long retrospective view?

For so many years, I never looked back. You don’t have time when you’re designing all these collections. And I found the sad thing about putting together the exhibition was that when I looked at all those clothes, what I thought about is how all these companies that made them are gone. The garment district has disappeared. There used to be so much within a couple of blocks of my office on 39th Street: the trimmings people, the buttons people, the zippers guy plus all the patternmakers and contractors. It was heartbreaking to see that all the fabrics we were using were made in America. We had the most incredible textile industry, and so much of it is gone.

Didn’t the garment industry also function as a creative resource?

I used to walk around and ask the fabric stores to let me go into the basement to look for old stock. There was a company, Plitt Segal, that had been around since the 1940s. They made velvet, but it was very stiff. So I once asked the owner, Jules Segal, why he didn’t sell velvet that was limp and soft like old-fashioned velvet. “We call that coffin velvet,” he said. “What we have to do is wash it.” So I took some home and washed it in the washing machine. They still make it, though he’s long gone.

Did the internet replace all that?

Yes and no. You can never replace the garment district. But for our last show, I wanted these anime wigs that I saw kids wearing online. We Googled them, and another whole world opened up.


The World of Anna Sui

Through Feb. 23 at the Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan; 212-299-7701, madmuseum.org.


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