"The World of Anna Sui" at NSU Art Museum Explores the Work of a Fashion Icon

Photo courtesy of NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale
In the 1995 cult classic film, Clueless, Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, is confronted by her dad, Mel, before a date at the urging of her ex-stepbrother, Josh, who asks him, "You're not letting her go out like that, are you?

Mel, who sees his daughter wearing a tight, strappy white dress, commands her to “get in here" before asking her bluntly, "What the hell is that?”

"A dress,” Cher says.

“Says who?” her father retorts.

“Calvin Klein,” she replies matter-of-factly.

While not as iconic as the yellow plaid, the Calvin Klein dress is still memorable — and understandably so. The wardrobe is just as much a star in Clueless as Silverstone.

But the white dress wasn't designed by Calvin Klein. It was the work of a then-emerging designer named Anna Sui.

Now, almost 30 years later, Sui's name and aesthetic are sufficiently recognizable that her work is on display at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale in the touring exhibition “The World of Anna Sui." On view through October 3, the show is a major retrospective of the Chinese-American designer's work, featuring more than 100 looks. The exhibition, curated by Dennis Nothdruft, was organized by the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, where it was first displayed in 2017. Before its stint in Fort Lauderdale, the show traveled to Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York.

While you likely won’t find the dress from Clueless among the collection, you will find some of Sui's other hallmark looks, like the “silver Peruvian ensemble” and iconic sequined silk organza babydoll dress from her spring 1994 show. The exhibition also explores Sui's design processes through mood boards, photographs, sketches, runway shots, and cultural ephemera.
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Photo by Jenna Bascom; courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design
The exhibition puts the viewer in the front row at one of Sui's arresting fashion shows. Set against the original backdrops used in the designer's shows, the looks are arranged thematically, exploring Sui's lifelong engagement with an array of archetypes, from the rock star to the schoolgirl to the punk to nomads and surfers.

“I think that when people talk about Anna Sui, they always talk about how feminine it is, how there’s always a touch of nostalgia, a little bit of rock 'n' roll thrown in,” Sui says by phone on a crisp, winter New York morning. “There’s always an ambiguity: Is it a good girl or a bad girl? There’s all those elements that play into that signature Anna Sui style."

"The World of Anna Sui" is only the latest example of a traditional museum celebrating contemporary fashion as art. In the past 20 years, fashion retrospectives at such institutions have exploded. Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Oscar de la Renta, Martin Margiela, and Jean Paul Gaultier all have received the curatorial treatment. While not as recognizable to mainstream audiences, Sui is no less deserving of the honor.

Sui rose to fame in 1991 after she held her first-ever runway show in New York at the urging of her supermodel friends Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista. The trio took Sui's Carnaby Street schoolgirl-inspired clothing as payment for walking in the show.

Though not a household name like Calvin, Versace, or Tommy, Sui basically created the ‘90s style. If you’re thinking of a blend of grunge and feminine frills, look no further than her babydoll dresses and slip dresses over T-shirts. Her pieces, both eclectic and glamorous, unite extremes for a new kind of woman, one who knows herself enough to know that she likes feeling both innocent and dangerous.

"When people talk about Anna Sui, they always talk about how feminine it is, how there’s always a touch of nostalgia."

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This Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Lifetime Achievement Award winner still has an enthusiasm and zest for what she does that’s palpable. She seems excited by every aspect of her career, and she can often be heard giggling and endlessly thanking people for the simplest of compliments. But that’s what makes her and the “Anna Sui girl” so intriguing.

Despite the pandemic and its drastic effects on the fashion industry, the Anna Sui brand is as popular as ever, thanks to a resurgence of '90s aesthetics.

“We really had to change our way of thinking,” Sui says. “I’ve done shows for 30 years. It’s kind of my favorite thing.”

Sui went through a rethinking process to develop a new way to showcase her pieces over the past few seasons, working with her nieces Jeanie and Isabelle to conceptualize and produce videos that illustrate the collection differently. Unlike some of her competitors, Sui continues evolving. She constantly looks to technology to discover new collaborators.

“The artists I worked with for this collection are people that I came across on Instagram and kind of followed, then put them together into the collection,” she says. “It’s just fun discovering people and actually getting to know them and work with them.”

Sui loves doing research. That’s what inspired her, along with a little-known 1968 Jane Birkin film, Wonderwall, when it comes to not just her Fall 2021 collection but also a positive outlook on the pandemic.
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Photo by Jenna Bascom; courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design
“I was thinking about how we’ve kind of been on pause and not able to participate,” she explains. “In New York, the restaurants were closed, theater, movies. We had such a limited amount of activities we could participate in. And I was kind of feeling down about it. And then I thought, ‘Oh, this kind of reminds me of that movie Wonderwall.’"

In the film, scientist Oscar Collins finds himself living a dull existence, just going from home to work and back. One day, he notices a crack in the wall of his apartment. When he peeks through, he sees his next-door neighbors, a model and a photographer, living an exciting life of parties and photo shoots. For Sui, looking through the wall is the perfect image for the anticipation everyone's experiencing at this moment.

"I thought, ‘OK. That’s going to be on the other side. We have something to really look forward to,’" she says. "I thought it embodied how we’re feeling right now.”

The Fall 2021 collection is an interesting mix of juxtapositions: heartland, goth, ladylike hippie — but it works. And much like her exhibition, “The World of Anna Sui,” it tells a story of holding back and giving in.

Sui doesn’t hold back when it comes to who she collaborates with, however. Her namesake prints have been featured with brands like Target, Victoria’s Secret, Hello Kitty, Barbie, and even Starbucks. Many of these collaborations are on view at the exhibition.

“I’m a consumer,” Sui says. “I love all those products. I love decorating. I love objects. So it’s always fun to have that challenge to design into a different medium and be able to produce things. I’m limited as far as what I can make here within my own office and neighborhood in New York. But to be able to work with all these artisans is so much fun. It’s great to be able to design what I dream I want.”

She's currently working with the accessory brand Kipling and Knix shapewear, but she dreams of exploring the realm of home décor by way of bedding and wallpaper. And when it comes to collaborations, “A lot of times they search me out,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s great to work with something kind of unexpected," Sui says. "It proves to be a new challenge, a new way of designing, a new way of thinking about your customer — and I love that. As long as people are interested and approaching me, why not? It’s almost like, never say no.”

"The World of Anna Sui." Through October 3, at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500; Tickets cost $5 to $12; free for museum members, NSU students, and children 12 and under.
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Christine Borges