Anna Sui - A Retrospective

The long established American fashion designer, Anna Sui, is currently the focus of a retrospective exhibition in the UK. Here we recall her honest and informative public conversation about her fashion journey and her unrelenting drive to succeed...

In conversation during Bath in Fashion with fashion writer Hywel Davis, Anna Sui spoke with ease and honesty about her fashion journey. It all clearly began for her at the young age of four. As a young girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan she attended a stylish wedding in New York and that sparked the beginning of her love affair with fashion and the Big Apple. A motto she has lived her entire life by is, “Live Your Dream” and this drive and focus to attain her dream was a constant throughout.

While other girls talked about ponies and pop stars Anna was leafing through the glossy pages of SeventeenVogue and Mademoiselle, tearing out pages that inspired her. She collected piles of these tearsheets, which she would fondly refer to as her “Genius Files”. Her focus throughout school was to attend Parsons The New School for Design in New York and become a fashion designer - this vision was clear and led to an unfaltering determination.

The right time and who you know...

While studying at Parsons she became a key figure on the 70’s club circuit, wearing what looked like designer outfits cobbled together from thrift store finds. Every night she would be out at the Mud Club with the likes of Warhol, David Bowie and Debbie Harry. She became great friends with classmate Steven Meisel, who would later become one of the industry’s most highly regarded photographers. Sourcing pieces to wear, dressing up and going out became a big part of Anna’s life, “it was a very creative time that was happening with a small clique of people.” Did all this clubbing have a detrimental effect on her college work? “I had a part-time job and I was out a lot and yes, we had lots of homework, but I would catch up with a nap during the day.”

Anna didn’t complete her design course at Parsons, a job came her way with junior clothing label Charlie’s Girls and she took up the offer. Her core focus however was to have her own business and she did this by starting small, she created a collection of 5 pieces. Her advice to the many students in the audience; “You know you can always make excuses; I can’t afford the fabric, I can’t get the right model, but there are always ways around it, you need to find that way, work through the fears and move forward.”

While working for the sportswear company Glenora, she brought her five piece collection to a New York trade show and after gaining the attention of two department stores one of her designs featured in a window display as well as in an advertisement in the New York Times. Her manager at Glenora was less than pleased and immediately fired her.

Sui then ran her business from her apartment, taking on odd jobs, she slowly built the business, she held out and waited for her time. “It was the 80’s, think power dressing and Gianni Versace, my style didn’t fit but luckily I was at the beginning of a change.” The saying ‘right time, right place’ couldn’t be more apt for Anna as the early 90’s said goodbye to shoulder pads and power suits. She also had the very best models too courtesy of her friendship with Steven Meisel, “Linda and Naomi would wear my dresses and people were like ‘who’s that by?’” The celebrities of their day the supermodels were fundamental to the early success of Anna’s label.

After a decade of running her own label Anna’s friends persuaded her that the time was right to put on a catwalk show and with the supermodels strutting in her designs everyone took notice. This marked the beginning of the Anna Sui brand, which has now evolved to into 50 Anna Sui boutiques and over 300 stockists globally.

So how does the design process start for her, what sparks her initial ideas? Anna always starts with a wall of collected images that inspires her at the time, this collage of images is on display to her team and copied and sent to her fragrance and cosmetics licensees. “My image archive used to be a box, now it’s a closet,” quips Anna. She then researches elements from these initial images, which form the basis of her next collection. “I like to let creativity flow however I do have one practical person on my team that will point out if I have too many dresses.”

Despite her lengthy experience working as a designer Anna interestingly admits that the process of designing a collection has “never got easier.” She admits to doubting her designs and being an impossible perfectionist – all the things that others in the industry can relate too.

So what defines the Anna Sui brand? “I’m a product of pop culture,” she states. One part American Dream, another part vintage inspired. “I love 70’s Yves Saint Laurent and Halston, also Biba, mod and punk.”  Carved roses, butterflies and purple & black are synonymous with the Anna Sui brand.

Her drive and determination has gained her many top accolades including: One of the decades top five fashion icons in Time Magazine and winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award 2009.

Hywel rounds off the talk by inviting the audience to ask their questions and here are some of Anna Sui’s advice gems:

  • Keep informed read, watch and absorb.
  • Collect images of things that inspire you.
  • Be true to your own style.
  • Take advantage of viewing days at department stores
  • Personally approach boutiques with your designs
  • There are so many avenues to promote your label – presentations, film, the internet and social media sites, find your way.
  • Trust yourself, stay positive and move forward.
  • Live Your Dream.

 

 

The World of Anna Sui from 26th May and runs until 1st October 2017 at the Fashion & Textile Museum, 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF.

By JoJo Iles

 

 

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