When I was at fashion college back in the 1990s one of my most favourite designers was Anna Sui. Her designs embodied everything that influenced my own work and she was a huge inspiration to me. Like Vivienne Westwood, another of my favourite designers at the time, she didn’t conform to the rules of the rest of the fashion industry and instead chose to do her own thing. And like Vivienne, her personality, her likes and interests and things from her past shined through in every single piece. So, when The Fashion and Textile Museum in London announced they were having an Anna Sui exhibition, there was absolutely no way I was going to miss it.
The Fashion and Textile Museum always cleverly guides you into their exhibitions by initially taking you into a room to show you the reasons why the main event occurred. For the Jazz Age exhibition it was about the way people’s lives adjusted after the First World War, especially for the younger generation.
For the Anna Sui one, there was a selection of mannequins dressed in ensembles from the designers that influenced her, such as Biba, Ossie Clark and Zandra Rhodes, all of which I totally loved. It also had a couple of TV screens showing films of flower children from San Fransisco and British Mods, both from the 1960s, as well as fashion illustrations and magazine clippings that had inspired her. On the red walls were lots of written pieces that explained her background as the daughter of Chinese emigrants who met in Paris, but later moved to Detroit, USA where Anna was born.
Once you’ve absorbed all of that you’re led to the main room, which is closed off by two black doors painted to look like a wardrobe. Inside, you’re immediately absorbed into the world of Anna Sui and I think I even exclaimed “Wow!” quite loudly at that point! Every single thing in the room screamed Anna, from the the red floor, the purple walls, the black lacquered furniture, and low hanging Tiffany lampshades, all of which were used within her first New York boutique. Unfortunately, my photo above just doesn’t do it justice, but trust me, it was an absolute feast for the eyes. (Elaine’s photos show this better!)
The entire downstairs of the exhibition was set out in different tiers of mannequins, with each section showing a different “Tribe” as Anna Sui calls them or Anna’s Archetypes, as the museum puts it. Each one has an overarching theme, such as the Nomad one above, but you can see all of her passions and interests creeping into each one. So, although these are obviously influenced by nomad communities across the world, you can also see her passion for the trends of the 1920s. It also shows her on-going love of mixing textures, which features heavily throughout the exhibition, and something I really want to start doing in my own outfits after this.
The Victorian Tribe was one of my favourites, especially the crushed velvet maxi dress that looked more like a 1930s dress. I remember the pink one on the right of the photo from one of her catwalk shows and I even had a small collection of crushed velvet pieces myself back in the 90s. Mine were more like her babydoll dresses from the Fairytale Tribe in shape though.
Every mannequin was styled from top to toe and the variety of footwear on show was quite staggering. The velvet dress above was teamed with the most stunning pair of Victorian style lace up ankle boots made from tapestry fabric. The shoes above were also from Victorian despite looking like a pair of 1920s ones. I love that they look like pewter metal but are actually soft leather. Hotter need to reproduce this shoes immediately!
And talking of shoes the two above caught my eye for very obvious reasons, as did the beaded bag on the second photo. All three items could easily be original 1920s/30s pieces but yet they’re modern day Anna Sui ones. I think you can probably see why I love her so much!
This fabulous knitting bag also appealed to me for obvious reasons. What I wouldn’t give to be able to carry my current crochet project around in this!
Upstairs was a display of mood boards, each one showing the inspirations and fabric samples, and then two completed outfits that these lead to. They reminded me so much of the mood boards I used to create at college (and now do on Pinterest!) and my mum pointed out that she still had all of them. I know there was a board dedicated to Miss Sui amongst those and I just have to go back to my parents house to dig them out.
Back downstairs again and it’s onto the Androgyny Tribe, which was all about mixing up the genders. So, male mannequins were dressed in exactly the same babydoll dresses and jumpers as their female counterparts and other female mannequins were dressed in Anna Sui’s take on menswear as womenswear.
I particularly loved the green, purple and blue suit because of the juxtaposition of all the different era influences. The print looked like it could easily be from a pair of late 1960s curtains. The oversize Peter Pan collar of the jacket also gave it a 60s look but then the rest of it looked like a Regency tailcoat. It was then teamed with a chiffon blouse with an Edwardian style collar and a tie made from shiny polka dot foil fabric, which is classic 90s!
And talking of 60s, the dogtooth suit from the Mod Tribe was a favourite of mine back when it featured on the catwalk, especially as my favourite model, Linda Evangelista, wore it. I remember searching everywhere for a similar High Street version but in the end I settled for a 1960s style dogtooth mini dress. It’s a shame I never found any mustard colour tights to go with it.
The last one before leaving featured mannequins with Anna Sui’s Dolly heads which are used in her collection of Dolly perfumes and cosmetics. Her very first perfume from 1999, Anna Sui Classic, was always my most favourite perfume but, as I only had a small bottle, it ran out fairly quickly. I then bought the Dolly Girl perfume, which comes in a bottle that looks exactly like the mannequins’ heads above. It was nice but it never quite lived up to the original. I kept it anyway, because of the cute bottle, and I actually wore some of it to the exhibition.
Okay, so I saved one more, the best, till last and that’s the Retro Tribe. This was the collection that made me fall head over heels in love with this eclectic fashion designer back in the spring of 1995 and I was beyond excited to see it in the flesh. The whole collection was based around the 1930s and 40s and the prints on the fabrics were taken from the Christian Bérard archives. Bérard, also known as Bébé, was a French artist and designer and during this period he produced hundreds of fashion illustrations for designers and magazines.
The red dress was the most popular of the Anna Sui collection, with Madonna even purchasing one. The fabric it was made in was created using one of Bérard’s original illustrations and even features his signature within the print. You can just about see it on the mannequin’s left hip.
All of the models wore perky little tilt hats that looked so much like original 1930s/40s ones and Sui completed the look with coloured ankle socks and 1940s style shoes. I actually had a pair of black ones very similar to a pair worn during the catwalk show. Why did I ever get rid of those?
So, you can imagine my excitement back in 1995 when Vogue patterns announced that they were releasing a whole collection of Anna Sui patterns as part of their Attitudes range! They had quite a few different ones, all based on her Spring catwalk pieces, and the one with the red dress was obviously the one I wanted. It also included another dress, a wrap over style, which was originally shown in a variety of prints, including a beautiful hibiscus one worn by Helena Christensen. Of course I snapped it up immediately after it was released but for some reason didn’t ever get around to actually making any of them.
That was until spring of 2015, just a year after I’d started this blog! This dress was what brought me back to my love of sewing clothes after a nearly 10 year hiatus, so I will always be thankful that I eventually attempted it. It does have a few fit issues, which you can read about on the original post I did, so I don’t really wear it that often. However, having now seen the original dresses from this collection up close and personal, I really want to make the short sleeve red version. Does anyone know where I can get my hands on some Christian Bérard print fabric? 🙂
As you can see I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition and I’m so glad it was the Fashion and Textile Museum who chose to show it. It was so intimate and, because the outfits weren’t hidden behind glass, you could really get to see everything in immense detail. The last day of the exhibition is Sunday the 1st of October, so there’s not long to catch it, but if you’re a fan of Anna Sui or just 90s fashion in general it’s well worth making the effort for.