Features: Conversation With...


How Sui It Is

At the age of four, Anna Sui began telling family and friends she wanted to be a fashion designer when she grew up. “Of course, I had no concept of what that meant, but I did love interesting clothes,” the designer notes. “One of my favorite outfits as a child was a taxicab yellow vinyl coat with maroon stripes and a matching handbag.”

And one of her favorite activities was going to the fabric store with her mother, who liked to sew. Soon Sui, too, began sewing, making clothes for her dolls and her brother’s soldiers and eventually for herself. She also began collecting Vogue magazines and clipping images.

What really influenced her, however, was an article she read as a child. “It was about two women who went to the Parsons School of Design in New York and then went to Paris to design clothes for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” recalls Sui. “I thought if I went to Parsons I, too, could immediately become a fashion designer. Years later when I reread the article, I realized one of the women was the daughter of [fashion photographer] Irving Penn. I had no idea how the fashion business worked.”
Upon graduating from high school in the Detroit suburb where she grew up, Sui did go to New York and attended Parsons for two years in the ’70s. There she began an enduring friendship with then aspiring and now famous fashion photographer Steven Meisel. After leaving Parsons, she worked at a variety of sportswear companies and as a stylist for Meisel’s seminal photo shoots. In 1980, Sui presented six original pieces at a boutique show and immediately received an order from Macy’s. The same year Sui launched her own business out of her apartment. In 1991, the designer presented her first runway show, described by The New York Times as a “pastiche of hip and haute styles.” That year she also moved her business and showroom to New York City’s Garment District. In 1992, she opened a boutique in New York’s SoHo and has since opened stores in Los Angeles and Japan. Although the mainstay of her business has always been her dresses, she has expanded into a men’s collection, footwear, handbags, fragrances and cosmetics. In 2001, Anna Sui Vision, a line of ophthalmic frames and sunglasses, available from Allison Eyewear, made its debut.

When asked to describe her design philosophy, Sui notes, “A lot of catch words are used to characterize my work: ‘Trendy and nostalgic, flea market and rock and roll, saucy and sweet, rococo and gypsy.’  I do love discord and mixing diverse elements such as the good girl/bad girl theme. I like to create a sense of fun and dress up in my clothes. And I love the feeling of fantasy and luxury, with a touch of humor added,” she explains.

Sui likes to mix things up among her contemporaries in the fashion world. “I’ve always liked being different,” the designer says. “I’d be the first one to do a short skirt when everyone else was doing long skirts. Then I’d do a long skirt when they were doing short skirts. I like forcing change. People long for individuality—a feeling of discovery.”

With her new eyewear collection, Sui reinforces her eclectic vision—modern interpretations of retro inspirations. Cat-eye and butterfly styles inspired by designs from the ’50s and ’60s are scalloped, sculpted and accented with charming floral engravings, witty metal piercings and romantic lacework for a “now” look.

Adding an eyewear collection to her line was a logical extension for Sui. “Eyewear is such an important wardrobe accessory. People don’t feel they can just have one pair anymore,” she notes. The designer sees herself as the perfect eyewear customer. “I wear prescription glasses and Rx sunwear and I’m always in search of the right pair to wear with an outfit or for a special occasion,” she says. Sui especially likes “granny-style wire frames” with purple or dark blue lens tints and cat eyes. She also has a collection of cat eyes from the ’50s with rhinestones and carvings. “Cat eyes make you feel glamorous,” she notes.
With Allison Eyewear, Sui feels she has found the ideal partner. “Allison got it,” she says. “They understand what I’m all about. And they have all the advantages of access to high-tech materials and innovative technologies. I never imagined there were so many options available for eyewear.”

Her goal with the eyewear line is to continue the globalization of her brand. “I want to make eyewear accessible to as many people as possible,” she explains. “Women who can’t afford my dresses can buy my eyewear and get the same thrill and tingle.”

Whether she’s designing clothing or accessories, Sui takes the same approach. “I spend a lot of time researching,” she says. “I love learning about something I’m interested in. I’m obsessive. If I see a painting I admire, I have to find out all about the painter and his other works. If I hear music I like, I must learn about the composer.” Her interests provide inspiration for her work. “Last year I was collecting first-edition fairy tales,” notes Sui. “Recently I went to a Tibetan Freedom concert packed with an amazing array of people—from skateboarders to spiritual types to people in various ethnic dress. I take bits and pieces from everything I experience—whether it’s a book or a concert—and reinterpret them into something of my own.”

Sui also likes to incorporate a human touch into her designs. “There are so many crafts that are dying out. The hand-made feel of a product should be valued,” she notes. “I like feeling my clothes fit well. I like to think after you’ve taken away the backdrop of the fashion shows, I’ve made some nice clothes. There’s nothing I like better than hearing someone—usually the husband of a customer—say, ‘My wife never looks more beautiful than when she wears that dress she bought from you eight years ago.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
Another aspect Sui likes about current fashion is the comfort level, which she attributes largely to the efforts of Coco Chanel. “Chanel wrote the book on modern, innovative fashion,” she says. “She freed women to wear comfortable, casual clothes—a trend which has continued. Clothes are getting more and more comfortable. You don’t have to dress up to go to the opera or church or work. You can wear jeans, T-shirts, underwear as outerwear anyplace anytime. This is the biggest revolution that’s happened in the fashion world. There are no rules.”
If Sui weren’t a designer, she would like to be a rock star. “I could do whatever I want, make a lot of money and not have to produce a fashion show twice a year,” she says. “Fashion is the only creative field where you have to produce on cue.” However, she admits she actually enjoys doing fashion shows. “They are hell, but I like being involved from soup to nuts—casting, choosing the music, the makeup. It’s an opportunity to take the audience on a journey and I love it.”
For Sui, the elements of style are a way for all people to communicate silently with the world around them. “To me style is your own personal vocabulary,” she says. “It’s how you express yourself or don’t express yourself—through your shoes, your handbag, your eyewear—without saying a word.”