In Conversation With

Anna Sui

The American designer Anna Sui, known for her trademark black fringe, platform boots and love of cultural mash-ups, is showing no sign of mellowing her style. Mixing everything from Victorian lace-trimmed dresses to medieval doublets with a dash of rock’n’ roll velvet, she is currently celebrating over 25 years in the industry with a London exhibition and a new retrospective book.

By Deborah Brett

After a stellar show during New York Fashion Week where Gigi and co strutted their stuff on the runway, Anna Sui is as relevant and as excited about fashion as ever. We talk shopping, where she gets her inspiration and how she’s not about to start dressing her age.

Image of Anna Sui exhibition Photography via Anna Sui

Who is the Anna Sui woman?

She would be a woman who loves fashion, loves all the latest trends but is also very nostalgic about vintage and style icons. There’s always a mixture of those opposites. I love the ambiguity of feminine and masculine, of new and old, of trendy but then classic.

What continues to inspire you?

Of course, like everyone else, I’m obsessed with Netflix and all the great shows on TV. I get lost in the little mini-series and binge-watch all the shows that have my interests. I’ve just watched Peaky Blinders.

Your cultural knowledge within your collections is always centre stage. How do you choose what inspires you each season?

I think if you look at my exhibition you will see that my obsession with the 60s and 70s is always constant, but sometimes something will catch my eye, like the Pre-Raphaelites or something from medieval times. Whatever I’m obsessed with, I research it. It could be a new culture or something I saw on TV, and I incorporate that into the collection.

Where did you get your inspiration from growing up in Detroit?

In the 60s, Detroit was such a happening city. We had lots of international influence going on in all the stores and boutiques, it was so much fun to go downtown to the big department stores like Hudson’s. They would always have the latest designers and we had a paraphernalia boutique that had all the modern 60s things, you would find a music magazine that would have pictures of The Beatles’ girlfriends.  All those glimpses and postage stamp-size pictures from newspapers and magazines that I saved and obsessed about, to this day it’s still who I’m designing for and what I’m always trying to capture in my collections.

Image of Anna Sui show
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My mother did say to me, ‘Why do you want to be a dressmaker when you could be a doctor or a lawyer?’ I just said, ‘Because I have to’

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When did you know you were going to be a designer and how did you go about making that dream a reality?

My mom is always so stylish and at that time she did some home sewing, so we would go to the fabric department and look at pattern books, fabrics and trims. It was always my favourite thing to do and I would say to her, ‘Why don’t we take the sleeve from this pattern and put it with this, let’s mix fabrics’ – it was such a natural thing to do.

What did your parents think about you moving to New York and going to art school?

I had been saying it since I was four years old and had geared my whole school curriculum so that I would get accepted at Parsons School of Design. But of course my mother did say to me, ‘Why do you want to be a dress maker when you could be a doctor or a lawyer?’ I just said, ‘Because I have to.’ After that they really supported me, paid my tuition and were always in the front row of every fashion show. My dad took pictures of all my runway shows and they’re even in my new book.

Who in your life has championed you and your work?

Definitely Steven Meisel [the fashion photographer]. I had known him since Parsons. So I knew all of his friends and would socialise with Linda, Naomi, Christie and [François] Nars. Everyone would hang out at my house or go out together, but I didn’t start working with them until my first show.  Steven and my other friend, Paul Cavaco [the stylist], really helped me to get my first show together.

Your flagship store in New York’s SoHo is synonymous with your own personal interior design style. Can you describe your inspiration behind it?

As a kid I always saved pictures of boutiques and decorating ideas, I had an envelope I would put pictures in. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I knew someone at the flea market who was always finding these great baroque pieces and we would paint them with black lacquer. I always loved Victoriana and decorated my apartment in this style. Stephen and Paul were over and they asked what kind of floor would [the infamous Vogue editor] Diana Vreeland have? I said red, so my floor became red and my walls were lavender, after my favourite colour, and the look became the trademark for my brand.

You now have 50 boutiques in eight countries – what are your shopping destinations in Tokyo, New York and Sydney?

Tokyo: I love Sacai and I always go back and revisit Laforet, because it astounds me. The whole building changes, all these little boutique concessions with whatever the latest trend is. Last time I was there, there was a whole push for yukata, which is a summer kimono.

New York: My favourite store on East 6th Street is called Nomad Vintage. And the antiques building called Showplace on 26th Street has lots of great concessions. My favourite is called Jewelry Just For You – the owner has lots of found jewellery including Berber, Art Nouveau and Hungarian jewellery, and she makes pieces herself combining vintage pieces.

Sydney: I discovered Camilla in Bondi. I haven’t been there for a long time, but when she first started her boutique it looked like a surfer shack and had the most beautiful kaftans.

How would you describe your own personal style?

I think it’s a combination of very feminine, but with a bit of rock star thrown in.

What are your everyday wardrobe staples?

Lately my favourite is putting on a really beautiful blouse or shirt, usually with some lace trim or embellishment or ruffles and then track pants; I have 10 pairs now. I made them because I couldn’t find them. They have sport stripes but in different glitter colours and I love wearing them with boots that are metallic glitter or platforms. I have purple platform suede ones that I love mixing in.  And then usually there’s some sort of jacket, either a Chanel jacket or pea coat, jean jacket or a fatigue style jacket. I love jewellery too, I love collecting old diamonds or snake jewellery.

We have a section on the website called The Transformers – what are your top three wardrobe game-changers? The jacket, accessory or shoe that changes your outfit around?

The housecoat dress: My latest obsession grew out of the long dresses that I do. I love seeing how the young ladies in my store were wearing them, buttoned in the front and then opened, with maybe a T-shirt or pants or shorts.

The new track pant: I love all the different versions we do. They’re so versatile.

A beautiful shirt: When you don’t really feel like making much of an effort, you can always put on a gorgeous tunic or shirt.

Who do you admire for their effortless style?

My friend, the late Anita Pallenberg. She was the ultimate in the rock world as far as style. So many people try to emulate her. She always dressed the same, but with updated versions of the same pieces. The beautiful shirt, a mini skirt or her crushed velvet pants, a beautiful sandal or boot and then always an item of menswear thrown in like a great pea coat, and she always dressed in the same colour palette, beiges and golds – perfect for a blonde.

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When I introduced menswear, my first customer was Mick Jagger, and the next was Nick Rhodes!

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Which designer or creative person influenced you the most?

Barbara Hulanicki at Biba. I mean, when you think about all her products and store designs and aesthetics, that was one of the things that I saw a glimpse of when I was a kid. We would come to NYC and the Biba department at Bergdorf Goodman rocked my world. Everything from the colour palette, how it was presented, the stacks and stacks of those great T-shirts, the big billowy peasant sleeves and the proportion.

How has your love of music influenced your design?

When I first started my business, all I really wanted to do was to sell to rock stars. I had two friends that had a great jewellery collection made from vintage parts, selling to all of the rock boutiques across the country. They offered for me to share their booth and that’s how I really started my first collection. The exciting thing was that when I introduced menswear, my first customer was Mick Jagger, and the next was Nick Rhodes!

Your book The World of Anna Sui has recently been published. What was it like condensing all your years of fashion design and style know-how into one tome?

I had the best time. I spent four days in London with the writer Tim Blanks. We hung out together, went out to eat and did stuff together, but then would have to get down to work! Tim is so brilliant at weaving it all together.

Was it equally as difficult weaving together all your collections for your London exhibition?

Thankfully I had a great show leader, Dennis from the Fashion and Textile Museum. He came up with the brilliant idea of my archetypes, with recurring themes that appear throughout my whole career, from the music-oriented punk, mod, rock star, but also fairytale, schoolgirl, Americana. He picked out 12 archetypes and that gave us a starting point for the selection.

Anyone we should follow on Instagram?

One of my favourites is @mr_gazoline. I have no idea where he lives, what he does, I don’t know anything about him but I love seeing what he posts.  A lot of it is the punk days, rock bands, kids going to rock concerts, but it feels underground and very subversive. Sometimes he will just zero in on someone’s shoes or glitter on their face; a different perspective, but it’s all that subculture that I love.

Have you been inspired by people on Instagram?

Bill Mullen is a great person to bounce ideas off [@billmulleninc]. He’s got an incredible Instagram account where he keeps this diary. You learn his deepest, darkest secrets. He also illustrates, he’s a great illustrator. If you look at his Instagram you really find out what his fears are or what makes him happy, it’s kind of incredible how people have used Instagram. It’s so much more interesting than people who post selfies of themselves.

What exciting projects do you have in the pipeline?

Interior design is something I am so passionate about. I’m doing something with Pottery Barn in the USA. It’s bedroom-inspired furniture, accessories and bedding. We have redone the vanity table, a heart-shaped chair and wait until you see the lace-trimmed bedding, I can’t wait to get it for my own bed.

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