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Fashion designer Anna Sui has always worn her love of rock music on her proverbial sleeve, but film has also played a big part in her life and her career. An upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in September, “The World of Anna Sui,” will include the screening of movies that have made the most impact on Sui during her 28-year career.
Opening during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 12 and running through Feb. 23, 2020, the exhibition (which first went on display in another variation at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London in 2017) will showcase at least 75 looks from the beloved designer’s archives, spanning from her inaugural show in 1991 to her spring 2019 collection, inspired by the 1955 fantasy comedy Kismet. A cinema series will accompany the exhibition, highlighting four key films that have influenced Sui’s creativity.
The exhibit will center on 13 design archetypes (including rock star, schoolgirl, punk, nomad and surfer) used by Sui throughout her career and made her own with various, seemingly disparate influences from the famous London boutique Biba, pirates, Minnie Mouse and pre-Raphaelite maidens. Garments, sketches, mood boards, videos of runway presentations and the original runway backdrops from Oliphant Studio will trace her career from her childhood in Detroit to the global Anna Sui business in New York, which spans 50 boutiques in eight countries. The designer has dressed everyone from Madonna, Courtney Love, Stevie Nicks and Mick Jagger to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, Sofia Coppola, Jane Holzer and Anita Pallenberg.
For as long as she can remember, Sui has been a fan of the cinema. She credits a Jerry Lewis movie for her obsession with the color purple. “It was after seeing Cinderfella , when I was a kid,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There was a princess and she drove up in a lavender Rolls Royce, and I remember saying to my mom, ‘For my birthday, can I have a cake with lavender roses and a lavender dress?’ That’s when I started liking the color purple instead of pink. I thought it was the coolest color.”
From her childhood in Michigan to her success in New York, film has always fanned her curiosity about life. “I have the best job in the world, because I can use everything I’m obsessed with,” says Sui. “Everything that I want to research more, that I’m thinking about, I can incorporate into my work, just as I always did with the way I dress myself. I would go see a movie like Women in Love [Ken Russell’s 1969 romantic drama] and suddenly I was dressing all in ‘20s clothes, searching out things in thrift shops and small flea markets and dressing that way.”
She adds, “I do the same thing when I’m working on a collection. I could be in one direction and then see something else and do a 360 and turn the other way. So there’s always that eclectic quality throughout my work. There’s a mixing of influences that no one ever would think of putting together.”
Sui highlights Marie Antoinette (2006), one of the films that will be part of the cinema series, as a classic example of how the medium has been the springboard for her eclecticism. “I was lucky enough to go visit my friend Sofia [Coppola] when she was filming at Versailles, and I saw them filming the ballroom scene in the Hall of Mirrors. I was also working on my Spring  collection, so a lot of the fabrication, and colors, and everything were very inspired by that whole period of Marie Antoinette — with the beautiful jacquard fabrics and very feminine pastel colors.”
But Sui added an element of surprise: “After that, I went to Turkey and went to a maritime museum, and saw this whole pirate segment. And all of a sudden I threw all these pirate things into it, because it was kind of at the same time. When you go visit the palaces there, they were at the same time as Marie Antoinette and there are a lot of the same influences, but there was this whole pirate element, so I put that into it.” She also was listening to her favorite band, The New York Dolls, at the time, so she added nods to them as well. “It’s always a mixture, but film is definitely a big part of what influences me,” Sui says.
Another movie that will feature in the cinema series, which has been co-curated by Sui’s niece Jeannie Sui Wonders, is Festival (1967) by the late Murray Lerner. “There was a collection I did that was really inspired by folk music, and it was at the same time that I moved into a new apartment, and my across-the-hall neighbor was Murray Lerner, who captured the quintessential footage of the whole folk movement — Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; Pete Seeger. And we started chatting in the hallway and he said, ‘You should see my film, Festival.’ And I was so intrigued and taken by it that I asked him to re-project it on the runway.”
Taking its cue from Lerner’s film, which centered on the Newport Folk Festival and includes footage of the moment Dylan went electric, the shifts, smocks and ponchos of Sui’s 1999 autumn/winter collection paid tribute to the Marimekko-like graphic patterns that became synonymous with the era and to which Sui was drawn.
The third film that will be shown in the series is Puzzle of a Downfall Child from 1970, starring Faye Dunaway and directed by Jerry Schatzberg. “When you see it, you realize how modern it is, although it was done in 1970,” says Sui. “You can see how so many films that we all talk about today were influenced by Jerry Schatzberg and his direction. He went on to do The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Scarecrow (1973), but this was his first film. And he started out as a fashion photographer.”
Sui is still selecting the fourth movie from among all of her other favorites. The film series will feature Q&As with the directors and Lerner’s son, Noah, and run through the exhibition’s duration, with specific screening dates to be announced soon at madmuseum.org.
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