A look into this iconic Chinese-American designer’s legacy on fashion. 


Walking through the exhibit, “The World of Anna Sui,” at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, I stop in front of a large wall. I am captivated by the rainbow mosaic that spreads across it, which is made up of various items sorted by color. Moving closer, I see that the items include vintage magazine clipping and fabric swatches, from a print of Marilyn Monroe to a blue silk fabric spotted with yellow peonies. This immense visual spread is fashion designer, Anna Sui’s, intensive and creative design process.


Born and raised in a primarily white suburb of Detroit as a first generation Chinese-American, Anna Sui took advantage of the Western influences that surrounded her, becoming fascinated by American pop stars and rock ‘n roll. Anna was only four years old when she decided that she wanted to be a designer, having been inspired by her uncle’s wedding in New York. From there, she began to make clothes for herself and her dolls. Upon learning about the famous art school, Parsons, as a teen, Anna immediately set her eyes on attending and ultimately secured admission when she was 18 years old. 

It was at Parsons where Anna’s career took off. In her junior year, she was hired as a designer for a sportswear company, thus prompting Anna to leave school early. A few years later, while working for another company, Anna began to make a collection of her own designs. These designs quickly got into the hands of buyers at Macy’s and Bloomingdales and soon, Anna had to quit her company over a conflict of interest. From there, Anna’s eponymous brand, Anna Sui, was born. 

Since 1991, Anna has made 84 collections, each collection constructed through the same process of decorating her studio walls with large mood boards of textiles and visual research. Now showcased at the Museum of Art and Design, alongside seventy looks from her archive, Anna's creative process is being shared with the world. 

The two floors of “The World of Anna Sui” exhibit are dedicated to exploring Anna’s various collections - from fashion to cosmetics - and her life story - from her biographical timeline to her collection of psychedelic rock posters. 


The looks in the exhibit are organized by genre: retro, mod, androgyny, surfer, schoolgirl, Americana, nomad, fairytale, hippie and rockstar, victorian, and grunge. While each archetype is seemingly very different from the other, Anna has managed to unite them under her style and own them. With bold shapes and colors, each archetype stands out as an aspect of Anna’s identity. The fairytale collection showcases her imagination through whimsical flowers and shining butterflies, while her schoolgirl collection is reminiscent not of her school days but of the magazines she read as a schoolgirl - featuring knee high socks and Converse.


Following the success of her clothing collections, Anna was prompted to create fragrances and cosmetics. Like her clothing, even the packaging of the products are designed exquisitely, with floral imprinting on a black background to maintain her punk roots. 

Nothing about Anna follows the rules. In the 1990s when she broke out into the fashion scene, she wasn’t trying to mimic the famous, traditional fashion houses at the time and instead led a rebellious movement inspired by the subversive tones of  edge and punk. Anna has always taken ownership of her “outsider” status, going from a predominantly white suburban neighborhood to a predominantly white industry. Through the designs that deviate from “the norm,” Anna celebrates the beauty of existing as an “outsider.” Rather than trying to fit or blend in, Anna embraces her status and shows a capability and uniqueness only achievable through an unconventional perspective. 

“The World of Anna Sui” exhibit is the first time Anna’s work - both past and present - has been compiled. She reflects, “for so many years, I never looked back. You don’t have time when you’re designing all these collections.” In bringing together this collection, she had a sad realization that a lot of the traditional manufacturers in the garment district that had helped make her clothes before were no longer in existence. Nevertheless, Anna has embraced the power of the technology that had been replacing a lot of the traditional practices of the past. At her last show, Anna wanted to use anime wigs that many kids have been wearing, so she recalls, “we Googled them, and another whole world opened up.”


Meanwhile, it is the same movement of technological advancements that has led Anna to reconnect with her Chinese heritage. Anna describes her latest visit to China: “It was so exciting to see second- and third-tier cities and see how advanced those cities are. You go into a village, and there’s a superhighway, trains, and skyscrapers.” Seeing China as a leader in technology usage, Anna has decided to invest more in expanding her work there - embracing the benefits of “savvy [Chinese] online shoppers” and experimental malls. Anna sees the potential in not only sharing the technological resources of China, but using those resources to preserve local customs and highlight them on a larger scale through her work.  

In 2009, Anna was awarded the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and most recently, recognized as one of the top 5 designers of the decade. Whether it’s manifested through the punk skull displayed to all of Columbus Circle as the promotional image of her exhibit, or the capital letters announcing her name on storefronts across the world, Anna Sui has left her legacy and it is a bold one. 


You can follow Anna Sui on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and visit her official website here.  


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