If rock and roll and fashion make the coziest bedfellows, souped up with bohemian insouciance and laissez-faire decadence, Anna Sui has been pioneering the modern iteration of the aesthetic for decades. The veteran New York designer, who started her eponymous line in the early ‘80s out of her Chelsea loft (which she painted a Diana Vreeland-inspired red and decked out in black lacquered furniture), has crafted her own idiosyncratic, postmodern magpie mélange out of pop culture’s richest archetypes. Dolly birds and Teddy Boys, cowboys, punks, pirates, cheerleaders, hippies, and of course, the psychedelic rockers who were her heroes growing up in the ‘60s outside Detroit, Michigan, have all been fodder for Sui, who has an intuitive knack for filtering disparate references into eclectic, extremely covetable jewel box collections.
When Sui made the pilgrimage to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, she fell into the city’s nightlife, frequenting the Mudd Club and CBGB’s. A friend from Parsons—the photographer Steven Meisel—introduced her to his friends Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell. Along with Meisel and KCD co-founder Paul Cavaco, the models encouraged Sui to show her clothes on the runway. Her inaugural runway show, in 1991, featured Evangelista and Campbell in a mod-inspired collection of checkered separates and mini dresses. Mick Jagger was her first male client, and she put rockers like Dave Navarro on the runway in a purple, lace-edged camisole and low-slung leather trousers. Karen Elson, Gigi Hadid, and Kate Moss have all had a major Sui catwalk moment, and Pat McGrath and Garren have been longtime collaborators.
Now, Sui is getting her due with a new exhibition mounted by London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. “The World of Anna Sui,” currently on view, is a kaleidoscopic retrospective of Sui’s career, featuring over 125 looks from her archives, sketches, ephemera, a recreation of her SoHo shop, and a wealth of textiles employed by Sui, including collaborations with Zandra Rhodes and Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki. A companion monograph to the exhibition, written by Tim Blanks, and out from Abrams, contains recollections from Sui and a foreword by Campbell.
When Interview called up Sui last week to discuss “The World of Anna Sui” and her career in fashion, we were briefly put on hold, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” piping over the line. It seems that for Sui, her art is her lifestyle.
COLLEEN KELSEY: I’d love to hear a little bit about how the exhibition came about at the Fashion and Textile Museum. Did they approach you?
ANNA SUI: That’s always been one of my favorite museums. I have seen so many great exhibitions there, especially because I love all those British designers. One of my favorites was Foale and Tuffin. They were the quintessential mod designers. They did the clothes for The Avengers, they did clothes for this movie Petulia , they did the pantsuit. I knew nothing about them, and then by the end of the exhibition I knew a lot about them. They recreated their boutique and their workroom. The other thing I loved was the Thea Porter exhibition, because again, I didn’t know that much about her. They had really extensive collections of all of her famous caftans and ethnic textile bohemian dresses. Then also all the different people she collaborated with, like Prince. It’s just fascinating, and when I was there for the Thea Porter exhibit, I was in the bookshop buying the book for the exhibition, and Celia [Joicey], who is the director of the museum, came in and we just started chatting. We ended up having coffee together and by the end of the coffee, she said, “Would you ever want to do an exhibition here?” So it was very organic and something totally unexpected.
KELSEY: How was that process for you, of putting together the exhibition? You’ve kept such an extensive archive. What was it like going back and identifying themes or collections? Do you think about your earlier work when you’re working now?
SUI: It was an interesting process. Actually, Dennis [Nothdruft], who is the curator of the show, came up with the idea of the themes. He said there are so many recurring themes that I continually revisit, that why didn’t we group the show that way to show the consistency of the thought process? When you do as many collections as we do every season and collaborations and things, you never really get a chance to look back at what you’ve done. You see the stuff for that six months before you do the fashion show, and then you don’t see it again: it goes into the showroom, goes into production, and then gets archived. So it was nostalgic revisiting all of those clothes and seeing everything put together again. It’s funny, because I still remember what I put with what. Like when we were organizing it was like, “Oh didn’t this one have a longer necklace?” “Didn’t this one have a flower here?” It was just things I instinctively remembered as far as how I styled it. But it was nostalgic because a lot of the suppliers and resources don’t exist anymore, and then of course, I can always remember which model wore the outfit.
KELSEY: I was looking at the book that you did with Tim Blanks, and there’s so much ephemera, like the snapshots from your first runway show that were taken by your father. Are you someone that holds onto a lot?
SUI: I kept really extensive scrapbooks and files of all the photos, and boxes of photos, so it was really fun to go through them all, because, again, I never really looked at them. They just all went into a box. It was very nostalgic to see all my dad’s pictures because he was front row taking pictures of every single outfit, every season, running to the film developer, and had prints made for me by the time I got home from a fashion show. He was just that way.
KELSEY: What was your perception of fashion when you were growing up in Michigan?
SUI: I was obsessed. I knew since the age of four that I wanted to be a clothing designer. I read an article in LIFE magazine about two young ladies that graduated from Parsons School of Design, and when they graduated they went to Paris and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor opened a boutique for them. So I thought, “Oh, I just have to go to Parsons, that’s all.” That was always my goal, to get into Parsons. My babysitter had Seventeen magazine, and I remember in the back there was always an ad for Parsons, so I wrote to Parsons and got the registration catalog, and geared my whole junior high school and high school curriculum so that I would have the right credits and the right portfolio. I was accepted at Parsons early on in my senior year.
KELSEY: When you got there, did it feel completely surreal?
SUI: Yeah. [laughs] It was kind of a transition time. I was more into the new, what was called prêt-à-porter, ready-to-wear French designers like Kenzo, Sonia Rykiel, and boutiques. Parsons was still kind of old school Norman Norell, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and I think it was kind of a clash. But still, I was in New York, still able to visit boutiques and see those designers that I was in love with at department stores. Bloomingdale’s carried a lot of those designers at that time. So it was just what I wanted. I wanted a boutique; I wanted to do fun clothes that were geared to a young girl with an edge, not so serious as couture.
KELSEY: What was it like coming to New York at that time from Michigan?
SUI: It was crazy. I mean the ‘70s, everything was happening. Everyone of my generation wanted to come to New York and meet Andy Warhol and go to Max’s Kansas City. And then the punk movement happened, and so I was at CBGB’s every night, and then the Mudd Club. The nightlife was just incredible. It was a much smaller world and you kind of got to meet everyone, and it was a very creative time. At the Mudd Club you would run into people like Jim Jarmusch and Debbie Harry, and all the bands, like The Ramones. Everyone was on the scene. It was different from today where everything is too fragmented. Back then, there was one place to go and you would see everybody. And people like David Bowie and Andy Warhol would drop in, so you had that opportunity to rub elbows with those people.
KELSEY: At the time, were you making clothes for yourself or shopping a lot of vintage?
SUI: That was the height of vintage, and plus, since my first job, I would save every penny and buy designer clothes. Norma Kamali was one of my idols, so I had a lot of Kamali clothes. Then my first job, somehow the company owned Henri Bendel, so I got a discount there. The first thing I bought was a Fendi fur coat, which lived better than I did for many years, because it was in cold storage every summer and I lived in a not air-conditioned walk-up apartment. I always loved designer clothes. That was my goal. But then, of course, I supplemented a lot with vintage, which was really happening at that point. Especially in Detroit, you could take a grocery bag and as much as you could fit into it, you would pay $5, and you would find the most amazing ‘30s and ‘40s pieces like sequins and padded shoulders and snakeskin shoes, platform shoes. All that stuff was around. And then there were boutiques in New York that had things from London like Granny Takes a Trip where you could get the Terry de Havilland shoes, or the Granny Takes a Trip things like Chelsea Cobbler shoes, which were the ultimate at that point. You would save to get those. I was obsessed.
KELSEY: When did you decide you were going to start your own label? I know you worked a few different jobs after you moved to New York.
SUI: I worked at a couple of places. I got hired out of school, and then I had these friends that were making jewelry, and it was during the punk rock time, and they were selling to all these great boutiques cross-country. They were using vintage pieces to make the jewelry, and I thought they were so cool, and I said, “I want to do what you’re doing.” And they said, “Well why don’t you make some clothes, and we can share the booth at the boutique show,” which is what we did. But I ended up getting orders from Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, which were the fashion stores at the time, and suddenly I had a New York Times ad and Christmas windows, and I got called in by the company I was working for and I got fired. So that’s really how I started my own business. There was no master plan.
KELSEY: The ‘90s was a time of transitioning out of rigid head-to-toe styled designer looks, into a more personal sort of dressing, which was a strong point in the clothes that you were creating. What were those early days like? Was it very much intuitive about making the clothes you wanted to make and reacting to the market?
SUI: It was tough, because I really had my business 10 years before I did my first show. It was an exciting time because Barneys Co-Op was beginning and there was a contemporary market, and my clothes fit into that, so they were very supportive. But I just noticed the change. I was really close friends with Naomi [Campbell] and Linda [Evangelista] and Christy [Turlington], and because of Steven Meisel we were friends socially, but I had never really worked with them. But I would see them at dinners and parties and they would be in head-to-toe Chanel or Versace. It was so exciting to see that fashion and them wearing it. I would be ooing and ahhing over everything they were wearing, but then one summer I noticed kind of a change. Naomi was asking me to take her to vintage stores, and she was getting a vintage top and wearing them with jeans and platform shoes. There was a model who was making these beautiful chokers, and I thought, “Well maybe there’s a chance for me, because I fit more into this than I do any other,” so that was one of the things that gave me confidence that maybe I could do my own collection.
But it was really [KCD co-founder] Paul Cavaco and Steven Meisel that pushed me into doing my own show. I had gone to Paris with Steven, and that was the first time I went to see the Paris shows, and we picked up Madonna at the Ritz and went to the Gaultier show and when she took off her coat, she had on my dress. It was like, “Oh my god.” In her hotel room at the Ritz, she had racks and racks and bags and bags of clothes from every designer. I was so jealous that she got these things just being thrown at her, and then the fact that she was wearing my dress was another big boost of confidence.
KELSEY: What’s your process of generating a collection? Because there’s so many of these detailed themes and archetypes you explore, whether it’s the recent Americana show or, or more of a rock and roll language, or the pre-Raphaelite collection…
SUI: A lot of times it’s based on what I’m inspired by in that period of my life. That’s always the scariest thing, to get that inspiration or idea that will make sense for that season. You just pray that something is going to hit you like lightning. Like a movie, a book, or a photograph, a painting, something that you can riff on it and learn more about it and explore it, and just go on a journey with it. So lots of times when I choose a theme, I’ll also incorporate other things that I’m doing at that period.
A good example is my friend Sofia Coppola was making Marie Antoinette  and I had gone to Versailles to watch her film. I decided I was going to do this Marie Antoinette-inspired collection [for Spring 2007]. I had been looking for fabrics like that, the brocades and pastel colors, but then I went on the trip to Turkey and went to visit the palace there and in the harem, I realized, “This is the same period as Marie Antoinette.” They had French brocades and very elaborate kind of baroque plaster. Then I went to a museum and they had a whole thing on Barbarossa the pirate, so I threw in pirate with that. The other thing that I mixed in, because I was feeling very nostalgic, was the New York Dolls, which was one of my favorite rock bands ever. All those elements got mixed together, and the dress that is on the cover of my book is the result of that. So the black, red, and white of the New York Dolls, with stripes and roses, which was kind of like the clothing code of the day, and fishnet mixed into this Marie Antoinette silhouette with lace trim. Then there’s a big pirate hat with it. So all of these things filtered through my brain, and somehow I make them make sense in my mind. [laughs]
KELSEY: Going back to your exhibition back at the Textile Museum, the fabrics that you employ are always not just appropriate to the theme, but executed and researched in terms of their history and references. I imagine that you are very particular about the fabrics that you choose.
SUI: Well the way the collection starts is, of course you have this deadline, so you have to decide, “Okay, this is the theme.” I’ll spend a whole weekend researching images of whatever that theme is, and group it by color and feeling, because I have these inspiration boards in my office that I really build the whole collection on. Each board represents a different delivery, because we ship by delivery, but I kind of do the color story that way. Then I start putting up fabric selections to coordinate with the color story or the theme of whatever the inspiration board is. You’ll see in my book that there are examples of that. Let’s say the Marie Antoinette collection. There was a black, red, and white section, so all the photos that were for inspiration were those colors. And then you’ll see different patterns of fabric, and then it will be reflected in the fabrics that we develop for the collection. Because I have a lot of licenses, plus my assistants all get to see what’s going on in my brain, then they get what the different groupings are, and what the themes are, and understand what the general mood of what the collection is going to be.
KELSEY: I read Mick Jagger was your first male client. How did that come about?
SUI: He was doing Saturday Night Live, and somebody had told him that I had just done menswear in my show. I think it was spring, the grunge collection in ’93 I think, and said, “Mick heard that you were doing clothes. Can you send them over?” He ended up getting everything, so it was pretty exciting. [laughs] Then the second customer was Nick Rhodes [of Duran Duran]. I had just opened my store in L.A., and he walked in before we were even ready to open, and bought the velvet dandy shoes that were from the fall before that. Through the years I’ve dressed a lot of rock stars. Marilyn Manson came up here before he did his famous MTV [VMA Awards] appearance in the chaps. He had seen Naomi’s chaps that we had done. I think he got an idea about it, and then ordered a coat that Christy Turlington had been wearing in a show, and then took off the coat and there he was with the chaps and… No pants. [laughs]
“THE WORLD OF ANNA SUI” IS ON VIEW AT LONDON’S FASHION AND TEXTILE MUSEUM UNTIL OCTOBER 1, 2017.