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ANNA SUI: DOING IT HER WAY

Anna Sui’s office is what I’d like to think my brain looks like. It is stuffed to the brim with old magazines, fashion books, Polaroids, fabric swatches and all manner of inspirational tools and information. From the ceiling to the wall, there’s nothing but fashion and fashion history. I take my seat across from her desk on a chair – which is, naturally, covered in purple velvet, one of her trademark colours – and look around, trying to let it all soak in. “How do you go through all this?” I finally ask her. Her answer is simple, “It’s what I live for. It’s what I love.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “I’ve never been in your office before.”

ANNA SUI: “Well, most people haven’t.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “It’s sort of exactly what I thought it would be like.”

ANNA SUI: “Overness?”

DEREK BLASBERG: “But, in a way, that makes me really jealous. In my apartment, I have every Vogue from 1988 to present, which my friends tease me about. But now that I see your place, I think I’m pretty normal.”

ANNA SUI: “I have them all. I have them bound. I have from 1957 to present. I have been collecting all magazines for years, and started getting them bound because they were falling apart.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “I always tell people the difference between a pack rat and an archivist is inspiration. You’re someone that actually uses your stuff.” 

ANNA SUI: “I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve saved a lot of things that I might need, just in case. But if I didn’t do what I’m doing I wouldn’t have it all. While I was researching the spring collection I wanted some Antonio Lopez drawings from the 1970s, and I owned a May 1972 Interview magazine that had all these illustrations in it.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Let’s talk about your process. How do you work? Are you one of those frantic, late-night owls who works right up until showtime? Or are you more organised than that?”

ANNA SUI: “I’m organised. It all begins with my inspiration boards and then goes from there. For example, Steven [Meisel] has been working on this book on Marisa Berenson, so I saw this photograph of her with Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise – and it totally inspired me. This summer I went to Paris to see the Rive Gauche exhibition, and it’s my favourite part of YSL’s work. It was so exciting. Then, for the rest of my collection, I started thinking about the book The Beautiful Fall, and also about Antonio, because he was such an intricate part of inspiring French fashion.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “So you’d say your work is about looking back to look forward.”

ANNA SUI: “Exactly. And then I went back through all my archives. This era was right around the time I got interested in fashion, and started really studying it. All the Antonio drawings with those women he discovered – Jerry Hall and Donna Jordan, who he went to Paris with and was in Andy Warhol’s movie L’Amour, which Karl Lagerfeld was in, too. They were a clique for a while and then, one night, they went to La Coupole on their own without Karl, and Yves came over to them and invited them over to their house. There’s a whole chapter on that in The Beautiful Fall.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “What a fabulous moment in fashion.”

ANNA SUI: “It was. Everyone would dine at either Café de Flore or La Coupole or Angelina; they were real fashion-y sort of hang-outs. And the club everyone went to was Club Sept. This summer, in addition to going to the YSL exhibit, that night we went to the Crazy Horse, and that’s where I got the whole idea for the set of my spring show – I loved how they projected the stars on the ceiling, and the purple into red lighting. That’s what gave me the idea for the prints on the fabric – to not only have that vintage look, but also have that iconic Anna Sui.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “I can’t get over these archives. Have you been collecting and acquiring for long?”

ANNA SUI: “From the very beginning. That’s me. That’s what I do. This process happens every season. It’s how I do my collections. I have tons of archives, lots of reference books; I do all kinds of research.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Where did you grow up?”

ANNA SUI: “In the suburbs of Detroit.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “I grew up in the suburbs of St Louis, so I know what you mean about starting to research and discover these sorts of things from an early age and only in books.”

ANNA SUI: “We must have had a similar experience. I think one has a stronger impression about things when they’re not so easily attainable and accessible. I can’t remember something I’ve just seen on my computer, but I can remember what I saw in Elle magazine when I was living at home in the 1970s.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “How did you come to New York?”

ANNA SUI: “I came here to go to Parsons, and at the end of my second year I got a job working for a big fashion company on Seventh Avenue. I’ve been working since then. I started my own company by accident. I had done a really small line – like, maybe five pieces – and I had some friends who made jewellery and had a stall at a trade show. They said I could share the booth with them. I think they asked me for economic reasons, but I ended up selling my pieces to major department stores. I ended up with a New York Times ad, which the owner of the company I worked for saw and he fired me. That’s how I started my business.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Really? I thought he would have promoted you or something.”

ANNA SUI: “Nope. It had my name on it, not theirs.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Yeah, but today I’m sure they would just buy you, buy your name and own you forever.”

ANNA SUI: “That’s what they do now, but not then. It was good and it was bad for me. That’s not the way to start a business; all I had was my $300 pay cheque and no knowledge about how to run a business. It took me 10 years before I did my first fashion show. I slowly built the business, did all the trade shows, brought all the clothes to all the department stores.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “When did you do your first show?”

ANNA SUI: “I remember in 1990, Steven said to me I should go to Paris with him to see all the shows because next season he wanted me to do one. So I go with him to Paris and I was still not confident that I could do a show, but I was fascinated to have that access, through Steven, to see all these other designers. Our first stop was picking up Madonna at the Ritz; we walked into her hotel room and it was filled with shopping bags from every major designer, just filled, and I thought, ‘Look at all those things, look at all that treasure they’re just throwing at her.’ Then she came out of her bedroom with a coat on, and we got in the car and we drove to the Gaultier show. When she sat down she looked at me and said, ‘Anna, I have a surprise for you,’ and she took off her coat and she was wearing my dress. I was like, ‘Oh my God, out of all that stuff and all those things in her room, she’s wearing my dress?’”

DEREK BLASBERG: “That’s amazing!”

ANNA SUI: “That was one of the big things that gave me confidence that, yeah, maybe I could do a show. I still couldn’t understand how I could compete with the Versaces, Chanels and really strong brands with zillions of dollars behind them, but Steven said he would help me. And he did. Linda [Evangelista] and Naomi [Campbell] helped me get all the girls, Garren did the hair, François [Nars] did the make-up.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Steven was like your fairy godmother. How did you two meet?” 

ANNA SUI: “Parsons. In the 1970s.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Do you feel a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s? I’m not sure if nostalgia is the right word, but I personally feel a definite longing for that period.”

ANNA SUI: “Through those early years, when we would work on collections, Steven and Paul Covaco and some of the girls would come over and we would just do dress up. That’s how we styled it. That’s how we would figure out where the collection was going. It was such an exciting time for New York fashion; everyone was interested and enthusiastic.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “They were genuinely interested in fashion, you mean.”

ANNA SUI: “Yes! We weren’t paying people to come to shows, or giving them free clothes. People just wanted to be there. We had everyone from the Ramones to Iggy Pop to Ronald McDonald come to my show.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Ronald McDonald?”

ANNA SUI: “Yes! McDonald’s decided that Ronald didn’t have an identity so they wanted him to be a real person. So we invited him. Here’s what’s even more genius than Ronald McDonald coming – my friend Linda, who was married to Johnny Ramone, came in the same coloured wig as Ronald McDonald and sat right in front of him. Can you imagine the field day the photographers had?”

DEREK BLASBERG: “I love that Ronald McDonald gets a second-row seat.”

ANNA SUI: “And everyone comes backstage and they’re laughing, saying I’ll never believe what just happened. Finally, Linda and Johnny come back and Johnny said that it’s so bad it’s funny. I still didn’t know what he was talking about, and then he pointed at Linda’s wig and I started laughing. I had told her that Ronald was coming! Somewhere in the back of her mind, I guess, she had thought she was punk rock – not Ronald McDonald.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “What are the other crazy stories? In my head, that time in fashion was a little more fun, got a little crazier, and was a little more carefree in the non-bloggable world.”

ANNA SUI: “Like everyone else, fashion has turned into big business. But back then, it wasn’t. It wasn’t like a big hoopla; there wasn’t a bunch of photographers. When I opened my store in Soho there wasn’t a pandemonium.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “That’s still the flagship on Greene Street, right?”

ANNA SUI: “That’s the one. Steven and Naomi were in that store so much when we were setting up – they would come every day to see the progress – that the rumour was they were backing me. That was funny. That was 1993. The first show was in 1991.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Was this the game plan when you’re growing up in Michigan and enrol in Parsons?”

ANNA SUI: “No, because that’s not what fashion was about at that point. Fashion was more all-you-wanted-to-do-was-nice-clothes, and a fashion show. There wasn’t a global market at that point. Paris was far! Not many American designers were selling in France at that point, not many French designers were selling here. Maybe you had small selection at Bergdorf’s, but it wasn’t like it is now where you can get the same product in every single shopping mall across the country.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Those were the good old days, when you had to travel to shop. When a woman had to work for it.

ANNA SUI: “I think of it as the days of longing and desire, rather than the instant gratification, which we have today.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “It’s also much younger now. We have teenagers who see reality TV shows or go on the Internet and see this world of fashion, and think they can just do it.”

ANNA SUI: “Which is great. That’s fantastic. I just wish it were more creative. I think if you watch reality TV you don’t understand what the process is, where the process goes. When I explain my inspiration boards I want people to know fashion is not just decorative. It’s not just a pretty dress. There’s a whole strategy behind it, for our stores, for production. I don’t think this part is reinforced on those shows.” 

DEREK BLASBERG: “Yes, on the show the challenge is how to make a wedding dress out of toilet paper, now how to run a business.”

ANNA SUI: “Exactly. How do you get the fabric? And get it made? And get it into stores? They should teach these kids that, not how to make a dress out of toilet paper. What people don’t understand is that making clothes is a craft, and you have to learn the craft. That’s why so many of the great designers came from apprenticeships and working under other designers. It didn’t just happen overnight. It was a learned process. That’s the other thing that’s really hard to teach someone – the resources. Where do you get that print, or those buttons? That’s acquired through practice, trial and error, and one thing leading to another. You don’t graduate from school and get a directory.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Let’s go back to Ronald McDonald and your fashion shows. They’re one of the hottest tickets at New York fashion week, and I’ve been lucky enough to be backstage at a few of them. It’s always a fun, organised chaos.”

ANNA SUI: “It’s a circus. But imagine them during the days of the supermodel.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Tell me!”

ANNA SUI: “When I first started it was Linda, Naomi, Christy [Turlington] – and Kate [Moss] was new. She was lagging behind at the time, trailing along with the others and learning from them. They were all such dominant personalities. The demands! They would come in, look at the Polaroid board and count how many outfits they had and where they were in the line-up.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “And who had heels and who had flats?”

ANNA SUI: “And how tall the person was before or after them. You had to juggle all that, which these days you don’t have to think about. I used to have to hide the board.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Was that amusing at the time, or is it even amusing now, looking back?”

ANNA SUI: “It was terrifying. Here are these women who could demand anything they wanted from Chanel, from Versace – and they did. That’s how they were. Who was opening, who was closing? It was a different time.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Do you miss it? I wasn’t working in fashion in the 1990s, so I don’t have these experiences – be them good or bad – so I love hearing about it.”

ANNA SUI: “Let’s just say there’s a reason they were supermodels. When you put an outfit on them, it was just incredible. I could put anything on them and they would make it fit and make it work. It was just like, ‘How is that possible?’ They were supermodels.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Does Steven still come backstage?”

ANNA SUI: “When he comes to the show.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “Does he still help you with your casting?”

ANNA SUI: “There’s a list. There’s always a list in the beginning of August, and every Polaroid goes to Steven. It’s fun for us. I think he enjoys it. I only see these models for half an hour twice a year, and there are so many new ones every season. It’s not like I’m doing it daily like he is.”

DEREK BLASBERG: “One thing I admire about your career is that it seems like it’s been a team and collaboration from the very beginning.”

ANNA SUI: “I think that’s what’s gotten me through all these years. It’s what got me started and it’s what has kept me going.”

www.annasui.com

by Derek Blasberg