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Rock Star Designer Anna Sui Reflects on Quarter Century of Fashion

Anna Sui with her models at the conclusion of a 1994 show. Courtesy of Anna Sui

Before designer Anna Sui was an award-winning head of a multi-million fashion empire, she was a teenager in Detroit's rock music scene, looking up to artists like Iggy Pop and Alice Cooper.

As Sui prepares to launch her first museum exhibition this month, the fashion designer has been reflecting on her life, looking back on a journey that has taken her from Detroit to New York City and across the world.

"A part of success is being in the right place at the right time," Sui told NBC News. "My generation, Generation X, is known for being entrepreneurial; I fit into that. I didn't want to work for a big company or corporation. I wanted to define my way."

On May 26, the Fashion and Textile Museum in London will open a major exhibit on the work of Sui. She will be the first-ever American fashion designer to have a retrospective exhibition in the U.K., according to the museum.

The exhibit, titled "The World of Anna Sui," will showcase an archive of the designer's work, featuring more than 100 looks that display Sui's contribution to the American national identity, including her influence on Generation X in the '90s based on American rock 'n' roll.

"When people think about my clothes, they think about babydoll dresses, especially during the era of grunge and Courtney Love. That's what people came to me for," Sui said.

Working with the museum's head curator Dennis Nothdruft, Sui divided her work into the 12 themes she's touched on during her career, including Americana, rock star, punk, fairy tale, and schoolgirl. She noted that the exhibition not only celebrates her designs, but the team that's helped her create them, which she has worked with for years.

Of her body of work Sui reviewed for the exhibit, she said her first was the most emotional to look back on.

It took more than 10 years for Sui to launch her first fashion show in 1991. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, she worked as a freelance stylist and designer for sportswear companies while investing in her business.

"The first collection was the most sentimental; the most impossible one," Sui said. "I thought, 'how could I compete in the world arena when I was just a small business?'"

"There were times when I had no money, when I would walk to the garment industry by myself to pick up my clothes," she added. "I invested in myself bit by bit and built it little by little. All of those things helped make it a real brand and business."

Sketches from Anna Sui's 2012 Spring/Summer collection. Courtesy of Anna Sui

Sui credits her disciplined focus for keeping her going during challenging times.

"Since I was a kid, I knew what I wanted. I've always been focused Decide what your priorities are," she said. "Understand that success is a matter of luck — the right connections, the right product."

This was evident in her first fashion show, which she said was not only a matter of timing, but of her own confidence and support from her friends.

Before launching, Sui went with her friend, photographer Steven Meisel, to Paris, where they picked up Madonna from her hotel to attend a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show, she said. When they arrived, Madonna revealed a surprise.

"She took off her jacket, and she was wearing my dress!" Sui said. "It gave me confidence to do my own show."

Other friends who offered assistance over the years include models Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, who wore Sui's creations, giving her runway the visibility and momentum to propel her collection forward.

Today, Anna Sui's collections are distributed through her boutiques along with more than 300 retail shops around the world. Her fashion empire not only includes apparel, but also cosmetics, fragrance, shoe, and accessory licenses.

Despite her successes, however, Sui has not forgotten her roots. Raised in the suburbs of Detroit by Chinese immigrant parents who met while studying in Paris, Sui did not grow up with a lot of fashion around her. But, she said, her parents were open-minded. This allowed her to have the support to go for her aspirations, and to eventually lead her to where she is today.

"[Success] takes a team. There's a lot more people to rely on that just yourself. I think the fact that I had my family to support me all these years, at every fashion show, gave me a solid foundation. I credit my friends too. I still have the same circle. [They give me] stability," Sui said.

Sui's upbringing in Detroit exposed her to bands that would pass through to play concerts, giving her the inspiration for her future brand. Her initial goal was to dress rock stars and the concert-goers, and to sell at rock 'n' roll boutiques across the country. The aspiration paid off, with Sui landing her first male client in Mick Jagger years ago. She has since dressed Cher, Florence Welch, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, and more.

"To this day, it's still a thrill to get a call from bands," Sui said.

As the exhibition opening date draws near and she approaches yet another milestone in her career, Sui still has her eyes set on the future. With aspirations to expand her business into interiors, she hopes to extend her ability to literally share her world. But for now, she said, she is grateful for her journey.

"I'm proud of the fact that I own my own business, that I'm completely independent, and I get to do what I love," Sui said. "When I was young, I had visions of what I wanted. Now I get to live those dreams."

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