photography katie mccurdy

anna sui has made a global empire out of her teenage dreams

The iconic New York designer reminisces about underage Iggy Pop concerts in suburban Detroit and 90s shopping trips with Marc Jacobs.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
26 May 2017, 8:00pm

photography katie mccurdy

Anna Sui's world is all-encompassing. Entering her Broome Street store or her Garment District showroom, it engulfs you like the smell of patchouli or the fuzz of a shearling coat, and it floods you with the same nostalgic magic. Fifteen floors above West 39th Street, her studio is a Tiffany-lamped Shangri-La, anchored by red lacquered floorboards and lavender walls. It contains the same rococo furniture (bought at the now long-gone 26th Street flea market and painted black) that filled her first-ever store at 113 Greene Street, a 90s clubhouse for her friends like Naomi Campbell and Steven Meisel.

Moving through her showroom, wearing a patterned charcoal dress overgrown with sequined appliqué roses, Anna is almost camouflaged among the clothes of her fall/winter 17 collection, distinguishable only by her thick black bob. The racks are a crush of red velvet, teal paisley, and gold brocade that conjures my mom's descriptions of Biba in its heyday. Even Anna's nails are painted a glossy black sprinkled with silver glitter.

(I think about how my mom would buy small treasures at the Biba beauty counter, which stocked treats affordable for even penniless teenagers who wanted to be like Twiggy. It's a business model Anna has always understood innately.)

Anna Sui's time has come again. Or rather the fashion world is once more interested in her breed of immersive maximalism. Alessandro Michele's romantic, referential collections for Gucci seem to have helped shift fashion's focus back to the tactile, the highly ornamented, the feel-it-in-your-gut desirable. Or perhaps enough time has passed since Anna sold her first piece of clothing, from her Chelsea apartment in 1981, that we're nostalgic for her early days again — and that particular era of free-wheeling New York creativity.

Today, a retrospective of Anna's career opens at The Fashion and Textile Museum in London, displaying over 125 of her runway looks. And next week she will launch a book, written by fashion critic Tim Blanks, that will also survey her four decades in fashion. It's a scrapbook of memories, sketches, playlists, and reference images arranged partly chronologically and partly according to Anna's recurring inspirations: mod, punk, grunge, Victoriana, Americana, hippie.

There are Polaroids of Linda Evangelista and Marc Jacobs partying at the first Anna Sui store opening in 1992 (her hair a 90s crop, his shiny and flowing). Naomi Campbell, who also wrote the book's introduction, is pictured throughout, wearing every stage of Anna Sui's aesthetic evolution: carrying the iconic cake-shaped handbag of spring 94, wearing a gypsy-ish tunic for fall 05. Later, there's a portrait of Courtney Love, in a cream frilled babydoll, from the singer's first visit to the store. "She tried on everything, and it ended up in a big pile on the floor," reads Anna's caption, "It looked like a teenage girl's bedroom!"

"I guess for a young girl it all starts in her bedroom," Anna writes in her own introduction to the book.

Anna Sui was born in Michigan, into a middle-class family that was also the suburb's only Chinese family. Her early desire to create her own world, she guesses, may have had something to do with a sense that she was already living outside the culture of her white preppy peers. She writes, too, that she was her parents' only daughter "and only boys count in Chinese families, so my parents left me to my daydreams to such a degree that it helped me enlarge on them."

Those daydreams, as a teenager in the late 60s, were of Carnaby Street and King's Road. Anna says she's always felt like a Youthquaker who arrived slightly too late, or was slightly too far away in suburban Michigan.

"A lot of my references are 60s-based," she says, "Those were probably my most developmental years of thinking about style. I saw pictures of the Rolling Stones's wives, of what Anita Pallenberg and Pattie Boyd were wearing at the premiere of Yellow Submarine. I read about The Fool and Granny Takes a Trip and I wouldn't really know what they were apart from sometimes seeing little glimpses in newspaper supplements and magazines like Eye. All those things seemed so far away, it was kind of a dream."

"This is how cuckoo I am," she laughs, "Since I was a kid I've saved pictures of all those boutiques and people I would see."

She arrived in New York, to attend Parsons in the early 70s (where she met classmate Steven Meisel), with a garment box filled with those clippings. In an article in the Los Angeles Times from 1992, she refers to them as her "genius files." "It was all labeled," she explains to me, "According to models and designers and boutiques. Steven used to love coming over and we'd just go through them and talk about them. I still have it all, it's in my closet. It's huge now, it takes up a whole book shelf."

Those images inspired the aesthetic of her Greene Street store (red floors, purple walls, and black armoires), which then became the ur-store on which her global expansion was based. When she opened five stores in China and expanded into Korea in the late 90s, she sourced furniture from the same woman who'd sold her those first pieces at the 26th Street flea market. "Somehow she would come up with all these rococo, bamboo shapes," Anna remembers. "She would call me like, 'Annieee, you gotta come to the market, I've got something you'll loooove!'"

Anna Sui's global expansion was not a given. When she opened that first New York store in 1992, it was the era of Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, and Donna Karan. Creating her own space was an attempt to contextualize her lushly ornamental aesthetic (championed early on by supers like Campbell and Evangelista) in a landscape of minimalist pant suits. She was prompted by her friend Zack Carr, who worked at Calvin Klein and lived down the street from her. "I bumped into him one day and he said, 'I'm psychic and I know you need a store. If you had a store to showcase what you do, people would get you, because right now people don't get you.'"

As Naomi Campbell explains in her introduction, "The Japanese were the first ones who really understood Anna." "That's what made me global," Anna agrees. "In the 90s, when New York Fashion Week started getting organized, a lot of Japanese buyers were coming. We got so many offers for distribution and partnerships, you name it. I decided to go with Isetan, because they had so many stores." Along with that deal she sold licenses for cosmetics in Japan and fragrances in Germany, but insisted that she would only sign those contracts if the two companies agreed to cross-distribute. "They were like, 'Nobody does that, that's unorthodox.' I said, 'Let's try it.' That was right at the beginning of globalization, so it's not that I knew that was going on, it just kind of made sense to me."

Anna's astute business sense is as natural to her as, say, her love for music. (Growing up, she would go to underage Iggy Pop concerts in Ann Arbor with her older brother; her show soundtracks are legendary.)

The Sui parents, Anna writes, "knew the value of a dollar." She is also, by her own account, a fierce shopper. I ask her about a shopping trip she mentions in the book. In 1995, she traveled to London with Marc Jacobs and Martine Sitbon. "It's what we've always done," she explains. "I said to Marc, 'I think I'm going to go to London next week,' and he said, 'Oh, maybe I'll come with you.' So then I called Martine and she came from Paris. We all went around together, with my friend Anita Pallenberg." Saturday was the designated shopping day. They spent hours at Portobello Market. "Then I wanted to go to Alfies [Antique Market] and Cornucopia. They were like, 'Can't we have lunch first?' But I said, 'Come on, let's go there and then we can have lunch.' Marc thought I was such a slave-driver with this schedule. We ended up not having lunch at all. If the stores had been open at night, I would have kept going!"

For fall 95, Anna, Marc, and Martine each showed a collection that was clearly influenced by the mod fashion they'd seen in London. "But each of us did it our way," says Anna. It was the same thing when Marc and Anna had both shown their grunge collections two years before, for spring 93. They each did it their own way: her with crochet and lace, him with plaid and cartoon T-shirts.

"I'm really happy that fashion has come my way again," Anna says, when I ask her about the current spotlight on her work. "It was pretty scary during those minimal times." I ask her too about the spell of recent collections by other designers that seem to recall early Anna Sui. "It's very welcome," she replies. "I love fashion, and I love shopping, and I wear other designers' clothes. I'm so thrilled that there's so much to choose from now. And it just makes my collection more relevant now too."

Did she ever consider doing an about-turn and trying minimalist Anna Sui? "We started doing groups that were just solid once, but people just wanted the prints, the embellishments," she says. "I mean, I do try to pare down, but it's still got bells and whistles and everything going on. I can't help it."

Anna is currently decorating a new apartment. It's in the same building as her present apartment, on a street in the Village that is also home to Isaac Mizrahi. "I want it to look like Auntie Mame's Chinese phase," she says. "So it's chinoiserie." Her new bedroom will have an aqua de Gournay wallpaper with a peacock motif as well as eglomise furniture ("I'm obsessed with eglomise, which is painted mirror furniture").

While creating her most recent collection, Anna explains, she was fascinated by the recently resold L.A. home of Dorothy di Frasso, who was Gary Cooper's girlfriend in the early 1930s. "She was older than him, very sophisticated and she was a countess. She showed him the ropes in Europe, and then she moved back to Hollywood with him and had this house decorated by Elsie de Wolfe and it was all chinoiserie." She'd pinned pictures of the interiors to her inspiration board. They influenced both the fabrics and colors of her fall/winter 17 collection and also her new home.

Anna's next business venture, she says, might be designing housewares and wallpapers. "It seems like a natural evolution for me," she considers, explaining that she's already debuted a line of kitchen accessories in Japan. Anna Sui's business began in her bedroom and it is every bit still a product of that personal world — whether her walls are covered in magazine clippings of Biba or de Gournay peacocks.

Before leaving her studio, I slip on a dark green shearling coat, made 60s-style with patches of soft leather divided by thick wool lines. Looking at it in a baroque mirror with a lacquered black frame, it's clear just how timeless Anna's magic is. She may have felt removed from the original Youthquake of Mick Jagger and Jean Shrimpton's London, but she made one all her own, on the other side of the Atlantic. Her soundtrack was just more shoegaze than Stones.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Katie McCurdy

marc jacobs
steven meisel
Alice Newell-Hanson
fashion interviews
tim blanks
martine sitbon