Anna Sui may be known for her psychedelic-bohemian style, but she's a punk rock lover. Interview by Indigo Clarke.
LULA: Hi Anna, so nice to meet you – have you been busy working on your upcoming SS10 collection?
Anna Sui: I got a head start because I went on an early vacation in June, and so began on the collection before that. We completed most of the fabrics, prints and shoe designs – I always design those before anything else, and so now I’m seeing the finished product, and starting to figure out what to do with the prints and designs I’ve done so far. Fabric is essential. When I look at a fabric, I start to see what can be made with it. I can’t do it without the fabric – to create something you need to know what resources you have so you know what the possibilities are, it’s so key.
LULA: So you’re now in the process of extending or culling ideas…
Anna Sui: Yes, looking at everything is kind of mind boggling and cluttering up my head, but it’s the beginning of the design process… now is when the panic starts.
LULA: What were you inspired by this season? Your work is often derived from quite conceptual themes and cultural references…
Anna Sui: I saw this movie on television, it was Dr Doolittle from the 60s. I just loved the way the men were dressed, their outfits seemed so perfect. The women’s costumes were like 1830s crazy with bonnets, but the mens looked so right. I always like when there’s a period movie that is filtered through another period – so this is 1830s filtered through a 1960s perspective, so there is a semi mod aesthetic going on. I love that. So that's what is in my mind, but I’m not sure how to make it work yet. I have also put a preppy spin on it, with elements of sportswear.
LULA: I love your studio, it’s amazing. Is New York where you live and work, is it where you consider home?
Anna Sui: Yes I do, I travel a lot and go to Asia often, but this is my home. I am inspired by New York, I feel it's the centre at this point. You get such a cross-section of fashion people here. People coming over to experience the culture, lifestyle, flea-markets…
LULA: You’re originally from Detroit, what was it like growing up there?
Anna Sui: I think I had a really typical, suburban, middle-class upbringing. The only thing out of the ordinary was being one of the few Chinese families in town. Also, the fact that my brother was the smartest kid in school gave me some cache, it was like “here comes Bobby Sui’s sister”.
LULA: Was your brother creative too?
Anna Sui: No, he was really good at math and science. I was a really good student too, but I also loved fashion and rock’n’roll. People thought I was a lot wilder than I was because of the way I dressed and the aesthetic I projected – but I still maintained a really good grade point average (laughs).
LULA: Rock’n’roll has been a huge influence, how has this enduring love revealed itself through your clothing?
Anna Sui: My main goal when I started my collection – and I didn’t think beyond this actually – was that I wanted to dress rock stars and the people that go to rock concerts. There were two friends of mine during the punk rock period that had an amazing vintage and punk inspired jewellery line, I was inspired to do the same thing but with clothing. They invited me to share a booth with them at the “Boutique Show”. That was the place back then that buyers around the country used to go to buy exciting new collections. I went with five pieces of clothing and that's how I got started – I got orders from Macy’s and Bloomingdales, which were the biggest department stores back then. I also had my designs appear in ads. Consequently, the owner of the big company I was designing for at the time saw an ad of mine in the NY Times – he called me into his office saying, “What is this? You’re on my payroll but you have your own collection? You have to stop.” I said I couldn’t because I already had orders, so he fired me. That's how I started my business, I certainly had no master-plan (laughs). So with that last paycheck I invested in the fabric and patterns, and little by little built the business. That is why it took me almost ten years to afford to put on a fashion show. That was 1981 and I did my first fashion show in 1991.
LULA: Without fashion shows how did your clothing get exposure?
Anna Sui: I took the collection to department stores on buying days, and over time ended up selling to every department store in NY, and to the better boutiques across the country. I started selling at European department stores as well. But it took ten years to have a fashion show – to have the funds to do it, but also the confidence. If you think about the late 80s, it was the height of power dressing, wearing head-toe designer mega luxury brands like Versace and Chanel. Here I was working out of my loft trying to believe I could have a fashion show – it was daunting to say the least. It was really with the support of my friends Steven Meisel and Paul Cavaco, who said, “We’ve decided you are having a show this season,” that I made that leap. Socially I knew Naomi and Linda and a lot of the models Steven worked with, and it was a group effort resulting in an amazing first show with great models, hair and make-up, direction, everything.
LULA: It’s incredible what friends who believe in one another can achieve together…
Anna Sui: That’s really true, and that's how my first show came about. It was timing too, it was definitely a good time for change in fashion. The economy wasn’t great, the designer thing was so saturated it couldn’t go any further. It was similar to what is happening now – luxury getting out of control, I mean, how expensive can you make a pair of shoes? All the people I knew who used to wear all the latest runway looks were suddenly in vintage pieces and jeans, people were starting to take on an individual look and I felt that what I was doing was more in line with that attitude. Also, Linda [Evangelista] had been wearing a whole lot of summer dresses of mine during Couture in Paris one season, and I was getting calls from other models asking me to send dresses. I remember someone telling me that Karl [Lagerfeld] was asking, “Anna, Anna – who is this Anna everyone’s talking about?!” It was these things that gave me the confidence to keep growing my business.
LULA: You found success because you were creating clothing women actually wanted to wear and felt comfortable in…
Anna Sui: Yes I think so. It was the same thing as today – the clothing in the 80s got so luxury, over the top and Ivana Trump. Then suddenly girls began finding clothing that suited them – it wasn’t mummy’s clothes anymore. They related to my clothes, they felt good in my clothes, it didn’t feel like a costume. but rather clothing that expressed something about them. It was a step down from the extremity of luxury that the 80s was dominated by.
LULA: Girls were attracted to the unique spirit of your brand…
Ana Sui: Yes definitely, and the spirit has been the same since I launched. Whenever people talk about my clothing they say the same thing. There’s a vintage vibe with a little rock’n’roll thrown in, but always ultra-feminine. There’s an ambiguity – a good girl, bad girl thing that girls can relate to. Everything I create has to address this vibe and spirit. Whether I create a lipstick, perfume or dress I want it to have the same thrill, the same aesthetic. That's what I strive for with every product.
LULA: Do you remember the moment you decided to become a fashion designer – was it always the dream?
Anna Sui: My best friend from childhood has told me she remembers me saying when I was four years old that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I can’t believe I even knew what a designer was then – but I think I probably thought it was a very glamorous job based on something I had seen on television. My best friend later on was a boy who lived around the block, and we used to play army men at his house. I remember one day his older brother said, “it’s the Academy Awards next week, we should do an Academy Awards show!” So we took the army figurines and made tissue paper dresses for them and created this whole portrait gallery for our own Academy Awards. When you are a kid you dream, and you think anything is possible. The real trigger though, was reading an article about Parsons school of design. I remember seeing a Parsons ad in the back of 17 Magazine, I contacted them and asked for an application form. I figured out what I was going have to do to make sure I got in when I finished school – I made sure I had the right curriculum and a portfolio. It was about having a dream and following it.
LULA: Was it ever difficult to follow your dream?
Anna Sui: (Laughs) Of course! It was really difficult at a lot of stages. Parson’s was great but second year I never did homework, too many fun things to do living out of home in New York, and I started getting a bit worried I might get kicked out… one day I overheard some seniors talking about some amazing job opportunity at a fashion label I loved called ‘Charlie’s Girls’. It was a similar aesthetic to mine. I put together my portfolio while I was still a junior for college and I got the job. I worked for a little over a year and then they went out of business. It was the most amazing experience you can imagine – my boss gave me my own design room, a draper and two sewers and she would tell me just to “create”. She wanted ideas, and for my designs to be unique. It was such fantastic training because she was such a demanding boss. After that experience every door was open to me because she was known as such a tough boss, and people knew I would have had good training.
LULA: What did you go on to do once you left that first job?
Anna Sui: I worked for a few other sportswear companies after that, then began my label and later I had that conversation about having my own fashion show. I had gone to Paris for the collections with Steven [Meisel] for the first time. We picked up Madonna at The Ritz to go to the Gaultier show together, and she took off her coat. At this point she hadn’t even said a word to me, but she leaned over and said to me, “Anna, I have a surprise for you,” and she showed me she was wearing my dress. It was pretty amazing as in her hotel room were bags and boxes from every designer in town. It was things like this that really made me think, ‘Maybe this is my time.’
LULA: As a teenager inspired by glam and punk rock, did you have a crazy or distinctive personal fashion style?
Anna Sui: Oh yeah (laughs). When I grew up the whole look was pretty preppy. I had a lot of that going on too, matching bags, shoes and clothing. When I started seeing how the rock stars were dressing in London, though, I was very inspired. One summer I made this herringbone maxi jumper, and I wore it with a ruffled shirt, feather boa and a long coat to school… and my friends wouldn’t talk to me. I just thought I was the coolest thing in Michigan, despite what my friends thought, all I wanted was English rockstar clothes.
LULA: Did you make most of your clothing, or were there places you liked to shop?
Anna Sui: I did make a lot of my clothing, but every summer my family would come to New York and we’d go shopping and I would buy bits and pieces.
LULA: Do you have an all-time favourite piece of clothing? Have you saved any of your teen clothing?
Anna Sui: Oh I’ve saved everything! Pretty much everything I’ve ever worn I’ve kept. I’ve always been a bit of a pack rat. I still have most of the clothing from when I first moved to New York, and often I’ll go through it for inspiration. A lot of what inspires me is what I dreamt about at that period. Now I have so many resources available to me – especially the internet, that makes researching certain eras so much easier. That’s what is thrilling about the internet, you can retrieve instantly what would previously have taken months or years of research to find. That’s why over the years my collections have become so much more layered and involved, because there is just that much more information available to me – and there is definitely a nostalgic edge to my designs.
LULA: Which bands or musicians were you obsessed with growing up?
Anna Sui: Of course one of my favourite periods of music was punk rock, and I loved the British scene. New York had its own scene too, and I would be down at CBGB’s every night, or at Max Fish. The late 70s early 80s was such an exciting time for New York, amazing loft parties, clubs and people.
LULA: Did you dress any of your favourite singers or bands?
Anna Sui: Not at that stage, but I did dress myself (laughs).
LULA: Who have you been happiest to see wearing your designs – people on the street, personal heroes, friends?
Anna Sui: It’s pretty random – sometimes I’ll get really excited seeing someone on a plane or in a shop wearing my clothing. Often I’ll walk up to them and say, “I’m Anna Sui”, because I feel so excited, but they’ll look at me like, “yeah, so?”
LULA: That is amazing that you still get excited like that! So many people would dream that the designer they love would walk up and introduce themself!
Anna Sui: (laughs) Sometimes you get a good reaction, sometimes you get a total blank stare. It’s also been amazing over the years to see idols of mine wearing my clothing. I remember when I opened my first store in LA, and at the opening party in walked Cher…
LULA: Incredible. What was she wearing?
Anna Sui: She had bought a lot of my collection that season – I remember there was a lot of lace bell-bottoms. There have been so many funny stories over the years. I’m actually putting a book together right now so I’ve been seeing a lot of images I haven’t seen for years. I came across one of Stevie Nicks wearing one of my coats – there is the funniest story behind that. Basically, she was in Harpers Bazaar and wearing some of my clothes, there was a story the shoot, which I’d been interviewed for. The journalist asked me, “are you a Fleetwood Mac fan,” I said, “Absolutely not, I was into punk, I hated Fleetwood Mac,” and they published it! When Stevie [Nicks] read it she thought it was so funny that I’d have the nerve to say that, that she called me. I was terrified when I took the call, I thought she was going to yell at me. She was like, “that was so funny! We’ve got to meet, I’m on tour, do you want to come see the show?” Now I see the amazing talent she had, but in the past I thought they were so out of touch.
LULA: I was always obsessed with The Cure… Robert Smith!
Anna Sui: I was obsessed with The Cure too! I have a really funny story about him. I went to David Bowie’s 50th birthday celebration and Robert Smith was there, he had performed with Bowie at Madison Square Garden. Bowie sang his greatest hits with loads of different people like Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins. At the dinner, Robert Smith was sitting close by, I got Naomi Campbell to get him to come over. He sat next to me and said, “Are you meant to be famous or something?” and I was about to say, “Not as famous as you,” when Iman and David Bowie came past and yelled, “Anna!” and clued him in as to who I was. I couldn’t have wished for a better moment. Then when Bowie walked away, Robert turned to me and said, “I was just kidding, I know who you are. If I lost seven stone would you make me a frock?” (laughs). After that I sent him a fax and asked if he wanted to be in my next fashion show, he faxed me back a poem about wandering through the countryside!
LULA: What has kept you inspired over all these years to create?
Anna Sui: What is always in the back of my mind when I design anything is, is it nostalgic but trendy, rock’n’roll but feminine, good girl and bad girl. I think that there is also something very aspirational about my brand, and people relate to that – to my background as a little girl that dreamt big and overcame obstacles to create my own fashion label. You have to stay focused and not let your insecurity drive you – one of the smartest things Steven Meisel ever said to me, when I was weighing up having my first fashion show and was terrified, was “Well how will you feel if you don’t try?” Every time I feel sacred, I think about that. It moves you forward. This is why I sign all my products with “Live your dream”. This carries you through life. It’s not even obtaining that dream that matters necessarily, but just having the dream inspires you in life. Dreams and aspirations are so important.
LULA: Because you create so many different products and have such a diverse aesthetic, do you think you appeal to a broad range of women – or is there a particular Anna Sui girl?
Anna Sui: When I do my perfume or cosmetic tours I see that my brand has touched a couple of generations now. Something about the spirit has attracted not only the core 20 to 35 year old audience, but also women over 40 who love the rock aesthetic. Also, a lot of my first fans are now buying their daughters my clothing and perfume. Based on that, I’ve just launched a collection for a younger audience in Asia called ‘Dolly Girl’. I like to address all generations.
LULA: When you’re not working what do you love to do?
Anna Sui: Well, I work a lot of the time to be honest (laughs). On days off, I love going to the flea markets in New York, and when I travel I always find out if there’s a flea market to go to. I also just went to Moscow, which was amazing, and traveling in general really inspires me. I collect a lot of knick-knacks, I love papier mache heads from the 60s and I make a lot myself as well. To decorate my stores I bought lots of second hand furniture and painted them black, I also made these papier mache manequin heads for the store, and they also formed the inspiration for my perfume bottle.
LULA: When did you first meet Karen Elsons, and what was your first impression of her?
Anna Sui: I met her when I did my ‘Goth’ collection. I got a phone call from Steven [Meisel], he said “You have to meet this girl, she is so you.” She ended up opening and closing my show. I think it was the season she got the big Versace campaign. She has been in nearly every show since then – whenever she’s available she will do it. She has a lot of the qualities that embody my clothing – the rock aesthetic and the quirkiness. Her own personal style is very unique, she loves vintage and things that are unusual. She is the perfect icon for my brand because of her diverse interests and what she represents. She is the face of my newest fragrance too, which just launched this year.
LULA: If you could design any outfit for Karen, what would you dress her in?
Anna Sui: Well actually, I made a dress for her and she saw it at the perfume shoot and instantly gravitated towards it. It was quite fluttery and 1930s, in an iridescent plummy magenta colour. She’s worn it a few times and it looks amazing on her.
LULA: What are you looking forward to for the rest of the year?
Anna Sui: I am really looking forward to my next tour of Asia, especially China. It is so exciting in China right now, every time I go there it is totally different. It is experiencing such an incredible creative and industrial boom. If I didn’t live in New York I would live in Beijing, I love it there. There is so much opportunity and people are so eager to catch up and be part of what is happening in the rest of the world. When I’m there I just want to explore – there are so many cultures, you will see people from Tibet, Turkistan, indigenous people in native outfits. You constantly see these new trends emerge, and because there are so many people in China the trends just instantaneously blow up. There is always something new materializing and it is fascinating to see.