It seems fitting that Love Cats by The Cure is playing when we meet Anna Sui on the eve of her first fashion retrospective. After all, this was the song that inspired her debut catwalk collection in 1991 – a show starring original supers Naomi, Christy and Linda that shook New York. “There is such a interest in the ’90s and a lot of revivals of ’90s design right now,” Anna observes. “I guess there’s something in the air. It was a much more innocent time, it was a much smaller world then, and a lot of young kids are romanticising it.” Anna should know, as somewhat of a romantic herself. After becoming the first living American designer to exhibit her work in the UK with this retrospective first shown at London's Fashion and Textile Museum, The World of Anna Sui is finally coming home…
You unleashed your maximalist aesthetic onto the catwalk in ’91 which coincided with an era-defining time of New York minimalism. Did it feel as if you were marching to the beat of your own drum?
Oh totally! Even after my first show, I got a lot attention, but the stores didn’t know where to put me because I couldn’t sit next to Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, so I usually ended up in the hallway or an alcove. Then my friend Zack Carr, who was Creative Director at Calvin Klein, saw me on the street one day and said, “Let’s have dinner! I have an idea.” During dinner, he told me, “You have to open a store. You have to learn how to showcase your clothes because people don’t get you. But if you had a store, they would understand what your world was about.” The next day I found space that I didn’t even know if I could afford. That was so prophetic because after I did that, and painted the walls purple, and did the red floors, the black lacquer, suddenly when people wanted to do an Anna Sui department, they wanted the whole environment – the Tiffany lamps, the butterflies, the carved roses – and that actually led into what became my brand icons. If Zack had never said that to me, I might still be thinking, “Oh, I wonder if I’d ever do a store?”
So while other designers created their brand first and then their world, you had the world first and then the brand. Do you feel vindicated now, at a time that those brands you couldn’t sit next to seem to be losing their way, when your world is getting stronger?
Not because of that. I love fashion so much and I think there is room for everyone. Of course, right now I am very happy such a strong brand like Gucci has a similar aesthetic and that only makes my brand more viable. It was tough during those minimal years. People were thinking, “Why does she have all this stuff going on when everyone else is so pared down to nothing?” But it’s just the way I love to see things put together.
You’ve been described as a fashion outsider. Do you agree with that?
Definitely. I’ve always been an outsider. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in a very Italian/German neighbourhood. Everyone else’s fathers worked for Ford Motor Company. My father was a structural engineer for an architectural firm. We were the only Chinese family. I was the only Chinese student in school, except for my brother. I was always the novelty, so I think I have always reacted that way in the fashion world. It was shocking when I got the call from the CFDA giving me the Lifetime Achievement Award when I was never included in the New York designer circle. I mean, I was friendly with some of them but I never socialised with them and it was a thrill to be recognised and honoured that way. Just like The World of Anna Sui is.
What advice would you give to other outsiders, in either fashion or in life?
You can spin it either way. It can work against you or it can work for you. I’ve always felt I am going to make it work for me. It makes me stand out, it makes me unique, it makes me special. That’s how I’ve always looked at life. You are your worst enemy, you can set up those barriers by thinking in a negative way. Why not turn it around in a positive way? That’s always worked for me, and I think people should always look at life that way.
With the rise of the destination show, would you ever consider taking your runway to Woodstock or Seattle?
I would love to transport the whole circus somewhere else, but it’s an astounding amount of money, so I don’t know that I could ever afford it. Every season we think, “Can we afford to do this show?” I don’t have that kind of financing.
What do you think about see-now-buy-now?
I didn’t think it would ever work, because who can afford to make that kind of inventory? I mean, it’s different if you make the same trench coat every season and you know you’re going to sell a certain amount, but you don’t know that you’re going to sell a laser-cut, lace dress in pistachio. You don’t know! Pistachio might not work this season or it might be the hit of the season. You never know that. To me, it’s a difficult concept, unless you’re doing a product that is repetitive.
Do you think that catwalk shows are still relevant?
I love them. To see the clothes in motion, to see them put together the way the designer is dreaming it, there is nothing like it. I don’t think that every collection is show-worthy – no, certainly not – and I think there are other ways to show collections, but for me it’s the way I love showing them. So it’s relevant for me.
What would you most like your legacy to be?
I always say, “Live your dream,” and I lived my dream. I wanted to do this since I was four. I was so determined by hook or by crook, however I could figure it out, and I did it my way. I didn’t do it by the rules. And I survived it all.
- Don't miss The World of Anna Sui at the Museum of Arts and Design, Jerome and Simona Chazen Building, 2 Columbus Circle, New York until 23 February 2020. Click here for tickets
Photos: Getty Images and supplied