Anna Sui exhibit at Charlotte's Mint Museum offers a glimpse at her greatest works
When the Mint Museum Randolph first signed on to have “The World of Anna Sui” exhibition come to the museum, Annie Carlano was a bit concerned.
Carlano, the Mint’s senior curator of craft, design and fashion, realized that fashion designer Sui wasn’t exactly a household name.
“It’s not like Dior or Gucci or even Stella McCartney,” Carlano said.
But in the two years since Charlotte agreed to be the sixth location where Sui’s innovative designs would be highlighted in a museum, the spotlight has shifted in her direction. She was featured in The New York Times’ Style magazine, she was called one of fashion’s greats, and there seems to be a new appreciation for the style of the 1990s, when she was at her height.
And Carlano is hoping Mint Museum visitors realize what a coup it is to have this exhibit.
“Oh, it's such a big deal. It's such a big deal,” she said. “This is really her moment. It's taken far too long for fashion critics and the public in general to celebrate all that she has achieved over her career as a woman in the fashion field, as a woman who owns her own company — which is really rare. Someone who in staying true to herself, did not want to sell out, so to speak, to a big conglomerate.”
The idea for a museum exhibition came from a conversation Sui had with Dennis Nothdruft, head of exhibitions at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. Nothdruft happened to spot Sui at his museum, they talked over coffee, and soon they’d devised a plan to showcase some of her best work.
Nothdruft says that had to include designs she made in the '90s that were heavily influenced by grunge music.
“I think you can't have the conversation about Anna's work without looking at the grunge collection, which really was seminal in the '90s,” he said. “That changed everything. And she did the his-and-hers baby doll dress at that time. In the ‘90s, you had Kurt Cobain and the Smashing Pumpkins — they're all wearing dresses. And so she sent them out on the catwalk and it was in this amazing fashion moment.”
The Mint Museum Randolph’s iteration of the exhibit features 100 different looks and marks the first exhibit at the museum dedicated to an Asian American designer and the first devoted to a woman’s body of work.
“These rooms really allow for the clothes to be viewed from many different angles, where some of the other spaces you only saw pieces from the front or the back, depending on which way the mannequin was facing,” Sui said. “But this is wonderful because you can walk around and see both front and back.
“And when we design for a runway show, that's what we think about all the time, because you have to show that you have to realize that people are going to see the clothes coming and going. So there's always some surprise details on the back that were missing when you could only see the front part of the mannequin.”
Said Nothdruft: “It's very beautiful. It's very Anna Sui. There's lots of black, red, shiny Victoriana, which is one of Anna's signatures. It's got her signature purple on the walls, and that's Anna's kind of signature color. And they were really into kind of getting in a rock-and-roll vibe to it.”
Carlano, for one, says that Sui’s colorful and whimsical style is “exactly what we need right now.”
“The overall feeling from what she creates is joy and fun,” Carlano said. “And it's such a relief in these challenging times to have that kind of experience.”
Plus, it’s a unique chance to see works from an artist who is finally earning her due.
“She's been relatively under the radar for the average art museum goer or even some people who care about fashion,” Carlano said. “And so finally, the world has caught up with her.”
"The World of Anna Sui" is on display at Mint Museum Randolph now through May 1, 2022.