The world of Anna Sui is one unparalleled in the world of fashion. Her eclectic collections are mixed with vintage influences and cultural obsessions, reflecting her boundless energy and spirit. Her products exude an air that is both feminine, young, and playful while reflecting influences like the 1960s, rock n’ roll music, and street fashion.
On the Anna Sui World:
I think that whenever somebody talks about Anna Sui fashion, there’s always the same catch phrases. It’s always nostalgic but trendy, a touch of rock n’ roll but very feminine. But there’s always that opposite. You can never tell if you’re a good girl or a bad girl, and I think that’s part of the appeal.
Fresh from New York Fashion Week where she launched her Spring 2016 collection, the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series at the University of Michigan hosted Anna Sui for a conversation hour in the crowded Michigan Theater.
New York Fashion Week was a Tahitian daydream at the Anna Sui show. The runway lined with iridescent trees whose palms waved in the venues air conditioning as if it was a warm breeze on a day at the beach. Models wore long lashes and dark red lipstick in the style of Dorothy Lamour 1940s movies. Dreamy gowns with lace trims and fringe and Tahitian prints were embellished with seashells or embroidered with octopi and starfish. Models carried ukuleles and cocktails in coconuts.
“Surf shorts made glamorous with a Victorian top,” Sui says as she watches footage of the show, recounting details and inspirations behind the collection. The eclectic combination and yet effortless glamour of the pieces are what make Anna Sui’s creations so creatively unique. “This butterfly lace someone made for me, and I thought I’d make a glamorous football jersey out of it… I wanted to get a grass skirt in here, so I thought – why not layer a grass skirt over a sarong with a Chanel jacket?”
On inspiration for the collection:
This (collection) was inspired by my trip that our family took to Tahiti, but I had to finish all the fabrics and all the colors and all the ideas before I went to Tahiti. So it’s really my fantasy of Tahiti. It was fun doing the research, it was fun to kind of research back along with my trip. But I also am a product of pop culture, so to me Tahiti is all those Dorothy Lamour movies. Like in the 40s it was such a big thing, like that whole south seas influence. I also researched night clubs, because at that point all these movie stars were going to clubs like the Mocambo and Coconut Grove, and I thought that was so glamorous that they had these places to go where they’d get all dressed up. The Coconut Grove especially intrigued me because they had life size coconut trees, and in fact, one of the pictures that I saw, there was a fashion show inside this Coconut Grove and that’s what gave me the idea for my runway.
On the personal side of making a collection:
The fun thing about doing a collection… you have to make clothes that are going to sell for you but you can also have fun with it. There’s some inside jokes, inside stories – and then as you’re doing it other ideas come to you so they get thrown in. It’s very personal, and people don’t usually hear the whole story, but when I look at it I see all those little things.
The creative process leading up to a runway collection begins with research and a concept, followed by inspiration boards and the creation of prints and fabrics. Then, six weeks before the show, sketching begins. One month prior to the show, clothes are beginning to be made. “People don’t understand that you’re making clothes up until right before the show,” Sui laughs.
Three weeks before the show, there are some clothes. Sui usually brings in one model to try everything on, and with friends like famed fashion photographer Steven Meisel, comes up with additional ideas. Two weeks before the show, more models are coming in to try on clothes, and the week before, Sui begins taking polaroids to assign clothes to certain models and order the pieces in the collection.
On taking the pictures herself:
It’s so personal for me to really see how the clothes look and build the collection that I don’t know that I could ever let that go.
During the show, backstage is a circus of hair and makeup approvals as models take to the runway. But the experience is a thrilling one, and once it is all over, there is no rest for Sui.
On her post show ritual:
That Monday after I started working on the next collection… Actually, before I came here, I just finished my new inspiration boards.
Sui reflected her own journey into the fashion industry, offering up advice from her own anecdotes and the things that she’s learned throughout the years. Growing up in suburban Detroit, her visit to Ann Arbor was practically a homecoming.
On growing up in the Detroit suburbs and the influence:
Growing up in the suburbs, I was really a product of pop culture. I lived for TV shows, rock n’ roll, and every once in a while I’d find a great magazine… and dream about that. It was a much bigger world back then. You didn’t have the internet. I think that made things much more precious. I was always trying to find out what’s going on in fashion, who’s the new designer.
Sui went on to study at Parson’s, finding her first big break during her junior year when she overheard to seniors talking about a job opening with one of her favorite designers. Running up to the studio with her school portfolio, Sui got hired.
Eventually, she joined some friends in sharing a booth at a trade show, creating a five-piece collection which received orders from Macy’s and Bloomingdales. When the owner of the company she was working for at the time saw her ad in the New York Times, he told her it had to stop. “I can’t stop, I have to ship my orders!” Anna recalls telling him. “So, that’s when I started my business.”
It was another ten years before Sui had her first runway show, during which she worked as a freelance designer in Italy and in India.
On what kept her going:
About 10 years after I started out and started having my collections at a lot of major department stores and boutiques, some of my friends said to me, “Why don’t you come to Paris with us? We’re all going for the collections.” I had never been to a Paris show before so it was so exciting. The first show we went to I was with Steven Meisel, and we stopped by the Ritz and we picked up Madonna. I walked into her room at the Ritz and it was filled with racks and racks and racks of clothes from every designer in Paris, shopping bags with shoes and bags. I mean, you would be so jealous if you saw what she had sitting there. She came out of her dressing room but she had her coat on. And by the time we got to the… show, she sat down and she leaned over and opened her coat, she said, “Anna, I have a surprise for you. I’m wearing your dress.” So that was one of the big things that gave me confidence that maybe I could do my own show.
This past June, Anna Sui relocated her store from its flagship location in SoHo, where it had been for 23 years.
On her store:
It became a showcase for my world – the red floors, purple walls, black lacquer furniture, which was done out of necessity because everything was from the flea market and I just painted it black so it looked like it matched. But all those things – the furniture that I chose, the things that I hung up on the walls, the butterflies, the paper-mache dolly heads that we made for decoration – all became Anna Sui icons.
Sui spoke into the ever-changing industry, highlighting a nostalgia for the period when she first entered the industry – the height of fashion in the United States, as she calls it – and reflecting on how things have changed for better, and for worse, today.
On social media:
It’s great, but it makes things… not so special. I was from that period of longing and dreaming about things, but now it’s like it’s so instantaneous. You just see it right away, and it’s done with. But also it’s kind of fun because I can’t wait to see the next collections. This week was the Paris Fashion Week shows and they have live fashion shows now that you can see and you don’t have to wait until the next day to read Women’s Wear or until three months later to see it in a magazine. It’s got its good points and bad points.
For those wanting to enter the fashion industry, Sui offers up advice. It all starts with attending a great design school, she prompts.
I really feel that it’s always different for everyone and you really have to stay true to yourself and have to do what you believe in to really do best and stay true and stay focused.
On being your own worst critic:
I’m probably the hardest on myself because you’re only as good as your last collection. Each time you have to try to outdo what you did last time or do it in a different way. But that’s also the fun thing, and that’s the challenge. That’s what keeps me going, because I love that challenge.
Finally, Sui reflected on her own career, and the passions that have driven her business to where it is today. She notes that networking is incredibly important in any industry, and that without relationships like with Steven Meisel and Marc Jacobs, there were many doors that wouldn’t have been opened to her. She finds inspirations through her travels, interests, and the people she works with.
On her ultimate muse:
Every time people ask me who is my ultimate muse, I have to say its Anita Pallenberg. She was Keith Richard’s girlfriend and I think she really set the standard for rock fashion, rock style. And to this day everyone’s still copying her. Kate Moss has her look.
On It Girl Gigi Hadid:
I’m really fortunate to have Gigi Hadid in my shows. I think she represents that new glamour. Not only is she beautiful and clothes look incredible on her, she’s one of the nicest models that I’ve ever worked with. She’s really polite and considerate.
Left: Sui’s designs on display at the Detroit Historical Museum || Right: Sui speaks in Ann Arbor @officialannasui
On her guilty pleasure… or, well, job:
Fashion! To me there’s nothing outside of fashion. I’m obsessed. In the mornings the first thing I do is read Women’s Wear and look at Net-A-Porter – what can I buy and what can I wear? That’s just how my brain works. And what do I think about when I’m not thinking about my job? Oh – I love that Dries Van Noten jacket. Oh – I love those Miu Miu shoes! That’s just my brain. I’m very shallow that way.
Sui’s designs are currently on display at the Detroit Historical Museum as part of the Fashion D.Fined exhibition.
What can we see from Anna Sui in the near future? Wait and Sui.