A disrupter decades before the noun existed, Anna Sui continues to ambush fashion’s conventional, not to mention corporate, expectations. The only daughter of well-to-do Chinese immigrants, she fled the safety of home in the suburbs of Detroit for the gritty beginnings of a dream in 1970s New York City. Together with soon-to-be close friends Marc Jacobs and Steven Meisel, she enrolled in Parsons School of Design, worked full-time and freelance, trawled the alleys of the long-gone Chelsea Flea Market, and hung out at the now-defunct punk palaces the Mudd Club and CBGB, where her lifelong love affair with music was born. (Sui’s wildly eclectic playlists are such an integral part of her vision and so popular that they often live on online for years after her collections debut.)

From the humble kitchen-table launch of her label in a Chelsea apartment in the 1980s to her discovery by the Material Girl, Madonna, in Paris, to her first New York runway show, in 1991, Sui has remained fiercely independent. “The World of Anna Sui,” an exhibition opening at the Museum of Arts and Design, explores the intimate nature of her storytelling, the catwalk worlds she creates and populates with outlaws and outliers—piratical rock ’n’ rollers, hippies, cowboys, surfers, aristos, goths, even the occasional Wasp and mermaid—all sharing her pop-tastic palette of psychedelic blues, greens, oranges, and pinks. Inspired by her love of movies, pop culture, and poetry, and by her nomadic travels, Anna Sui’s career is proof that dreams can do more than come true. Fueled by relentless hard work, and an artful refusal to surrender exuberantly bohemian sensibilities, they can also become the stuff empires are made of. —Brenda Cullerton