'I have a surprise for you': How a Madonna encounter changed everything for fashion icon Anna Sui

Bands including the Beatles and the New York Dolls inspired legendary designer Anna Sui, whose work is the subject of a major design retrospective at New York's Museum of Arts and Design.

Bands including the Beatles and New York Dolls also inspired the legendary designer

Fashion icon Anna Sui has been influenced by musicians from the Beatles to the New York Dolls to Madonna. (Miguel Flores-Vianna)

Anna Sui was just four years old when she decided she wanted to be a fashion designer.

She had travelled from her hometown of Detroit to New York to be a flower girl at her aunt and uncle's wedding.

Sui was entranced by all the beautiful clothes — and from that moment, she knew she would someday return to the design mecca.

"My new goal was, 'How do I get to New York and become a fashion designer?'" she recalled in a q interview with Tom Power.

"There's a photograph of me in the wedding party, but I'm looking off into my fantasy, and everyone else is caught up in the wedding. I think that might have been the aha moment."

Model Linda Evangelista wears a brown panne jacket with a matching halter in the Anna Sui Fall 1996 fashion show in New York. (JON LEVY/AFP via Getty Images)

Madonna's 'surprise' 

Decades later, an encounter with Madonna changed everything for Sui, whose eclectic and reference-infused work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Arts and Design, which runs until Feb. 23.

By the late '80s and early '90s, Sui was working as a stylist and designer, but hadn't yet had her own runway show.

She had never been to Paris Fashion Week either, but in 1991, she went with her friend Steven Meisel, the legendary fashion photographer whose work appeared in Madonna's groundbreaking book, Sex.

On the way to the first show, the pair went to pick up Madonna at the Ritz, and once inside her hotel room, Sui was amazed by the racks and bags of clothing by every major designer in Paris.

"I was so jealous and thinking, Oh my God, here is somebody who can have anything she wants."

But the biggest surprise was yet to come. The group rushed out of the room and into a limo, got to the Jean Paul Gaultier show, and as Madonna took off her coat, she said, "Anna, I have a surprise for you."

"She was wearing my dress," Sui said. "That was one of those moments where I thought, 'Maybe I do have a chance. Maybe I can do something.'"

Supermodel Naomi Campbell wears painted jean shorts and a feathered and beaded top during a 1999 Anna Sui fashion show in New York City. (MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images)

Sui's 1st show

When they arrived back in New York, Meisel said it was time for Sui to do her own show.

"Of course, it seemed to be an impossible prospect at that point. This was at the height of Versace and Chanel, these big mega-brands. But somehow [the Madonna encounter] was one of those things that boosted me — like yes, maybe I could do it."

That first show included supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, to name a few, and cemented Sui's spot with the top designers of the day. Now, her $400 million empire includes multiple fashion lines, shoes, cosmetics, fragrances, jewellery, home goods and more.

Pop culture influences 

Sui's moment with Madonna definitely wasn't the first time the designer had been inspired by a pop culture icon.

In her q interview, Sui says watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show changed her life, and recalled travelling with her mother across the Detroit-Windsor border to buy Jelly Babies candy — which weren't available in the U.S. — because that's what girls would throw at the Fab Four. 

Then, in the early '70s, Sui moved to New York to study design, and ended up crossing paths with the New York Dolls.

"I met Johnny Thunders and Sylvain at Max's in the back room and they told me, 'We're having a rehearsal. Do you want to come?' So my roommate and I went to their rehearsal and saw the Dolls for the first time," Sui said.

Sui's work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. The World of Anna Sui runs now until Feb. 23, 2020. (Jenna Bascom Photography)

"And they gathered such an incredible crowd. The whole style of the crowd was very, very eccentric. Everyone tried to emulate how the Dolls were dressing," she said. "The Dolls were into wearing their girlfriends' clothes — lots of feather boas, makeup, teased hair, big platform shoes — and the crowd kind of followed suit. So it was just such a happening moment."

According to the Museum of Arts and Design, 'Sui is driven by telling stories head-to-toe about the worlds of cowgirls, grunge girls, hippie chicks, hula girls, Mods, pirate rock stars, Pre-Raphaelite maidens, and surfer nomads.' (Jenna Bascom Photography)

Sui also remembers going for drinks with notorious Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious shortly after he and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen got the boot from the London hotel where Sui was also staying.

"Sid and I went to The Speakeasy, and before we went in, I had to look inside to see if Paul Weller was there because he had gotten into a fight with Paul Weller last time he was there and thrown a beer mug at him or something," Sui recalled with a laugh.

"We sat down and then I said, 'Buy me a drink,' and he said 'I haven't got any money.' I said, 'Then use your charm.' So eventually we got drinks."

Let's dress up again

Sui's work has always kept up with the times, from the '70s punk era through to the pop-crazed '80s, '90s grunge and beyond, but still, she hopes to return to an era — or, more accurately, be part of a new movement — where people like to get dressed up.

"We've had such a seismic change in how people dress in these last 20 years because things have gotten so casual. I remember when you went on a plane before, you would get dressed up: you would see men in suits, you would see women in dresses. Now you see pyjamas, leisure wear, exercise clothes, shorts. You know, it's just completely broken down," she said.

According to the Museum of Arts and Design, 'Sui has explored wide-ranging materials and inspirations, including papier-mâché mannequin heads; linens by Vera; Claire McCardell sportswear; army surplus jackets; Japanese hankies; qipao dresses; wood-soled platforms from Goody Two-Shoes; the style of Jane Holzer, Zandra Rhodes, and Anita Pallenberg; and Minnie Mouse.' (Jenna Bascom Photography)

"It's certainly been adapted by fashion now, the whole 'athleisure look.' And now you can buy thousand-dollar sweatpants and thousand-dollar sneakers."

"I wish there was a movement. I wish there was something where people want to get dressed up again," she said. "And it's not just because I want to sell clothes. It's because I love getting dressed up."

— Written by Jennifer Van Evra and produced by ​Vanessa Greco

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