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Interview

Anna Sui charms decades of fashion fans with iconoclastic vision

Chinese-American designer's unique narratives on display at New York exhibition

 "The World of Anna Sui," an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design, will run until February 2020. (Photo courtesy of Anna Sui)

NEW YORK -- Anna Sui describes herself as an "outsider" in the fashion industry. But the celebrated New York designer's independent streak has helped her build a brand beloved by multiple generations of fans in an industry where trends fade in a matter of months.

In a sign of her enduring popularity, "The World of Anna Sui," an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design here, has averaged more than 2,200 visitors a week since its opening in mid-September.

The retrospective on the designer's career, coming nearly three decades after Sui's fashion show debut, features 750 items including pieces from her deeply researched collections. Visitors range from teenagers to 50-somethings.

Sui is known for rose and butterfly motifs, her use of black and purple, and the creation of custom fabric prints for her designs. Her label has expanded beyond clothing to bags, accessories, cosmetics, fragrances and more.

Visitors to Sui's office in New York's Garment District are greeted by a 2-meter-by-4-meter mood board plastered with nearly 100 images sorted by color and type, including design sketches and photos. It offers a glimpse into her creative process.

A clipboard in Anna Sui's New York office shows the designer's ideas for the next collection. (Photo by Tetsu Wakabayashi)

"It is so hard for me to describe the images in my head, so I created a board where people can follow my thought process," she told Nikkei.

An inquisitive mind is the wellspring of Sui's creativity. Films, opera, people on the street and scenes from her travels can spark a flash of inspiration, she said.

Her spring/summer 2020 collection draws on the art of Italian fashion illustrator Lila de Nobili along with Victorian-era rose wreaths, floral embroidery and the work of opera director Franco Zeffirelli.

Sui "is not making a fashion style," said Dennis Nothdruft, curator at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London, which debuted "The World of Anna Sui" exhibition in 2017. "She is a storyteller. Her fans follow her because they love her stories."

Her designs encompass wide-ranging styles such as punk, fairy tale and retro. When working on a collection, Sui's research into the initial source of inspiration leads her to the next story she wants to tell, she said.

Sui was born in the Midwestern city of Detroit to Chinese parents. During a visit to New York City at the age of 4, Sui was fascinated by the women she saw on the streets and declared to her parents that she would become a fashion designer.

When Sui combed through fashion magazines, the pictures "were always tiny and blurry, and I always wondered what materials and patterns they used," she said in a panel discussion at the New York exhibit.

Designer Anna Sui speaks to Nikkei in New York. (Photo by Tetsu Wakabayashi) 

Sui launched her first collection in 1980 and made her runway show debut in 1991. Alongside the likes of Marc Jacobs and Todd Oldham, she made her mark as an up-and-coming designer tuned in to the tastes of young urbanites.

Lauded for a countercultural bent not seen from designers of the previous generation -- such as Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan -- Sui vaulted into the mainstream of New York's fashion scene.

Sui consistently focuses on her own aesthetic sensibilities rather than chasing trends. This has caused difficulties for her business at times.

In the late 1990s, prominent European fashion companies including LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton tapped Americans such as Jacobs and Michael Kors as chief designers for their brands. Sui was not on the list.

And Sui did not ride the wave of minimalism established by Calvin Klein when it swept the American fashion world that decade. "I hated the minimalistic style," she told Nikkei. "I'm a person who loves head-to-toe looks."

When her company struggled as a result, Sui turned to freelance work to earn money.

"I was doing freelance for the [Italian] company Gilmar, that owns Iceberg, and I did three collections for them," she said.

Sui still works late into the night for months on her two seasonal collections each year, spending time in her office every day.

In the center of the office sits a full-length mirror with an elaborate black border -- as if to illustrate Sui's wish to use her designs to draw fans through the looking glass to the world of stories beyond.

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