“I just want to look hot.”
That’s what Anna Sui heard from a slew of models, among them a pageant queen, a Yale drama student, and a stand-up comedian. The missive should be easy-in Sui’s words, “Of course! We all just want to look hot!”-but these models represent the 17 million Americans with wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility aids. They were hitting the catwalk as part of the annual Design for Disability show, which enlisted Sui as a mentor to promising design school undergrads.
Their mission: promote the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and help create accessible fashion that’s actually cool. “Historically, clothing made for [those with disabilities] has been clinical or somber, or some sort of uniform,” Sui explains. “There’s not a lot of color. There’s not a lot of movement. And that needs to change.”
Sui has the kind of style to help change it. Her runways are loaded with rock star staples, including packs of vintage patterns, psychedelic color schemes, and layered lace kimonos. (They usually boast a Hadid or Jenner, too.)
We spoke with the designer before the event, which raised nearly $1 million for CPF and lured style stars like film director Sofia Coppola and model activists Jillian Mercado and Hanne Gaby Odiele to the front row.
How did you get involved in Design for Disability? Have you been thinking about accessible fashion for a while?
No, in fact this experience was a total learning process for me. [Design for Disability] to me, partly, because they wanted me to infuse some of my attitude onto the catwalk. My shows are always really fun; the fabrics are very vibrant; everyone’s smiling. And we all wanted to bring a lightness to the topic [of accessible fashion]. Just because an outfit is functional, that doesn’t mean it has to be clinical or severe, you know? The limitations of disability are what we’re addressing-but we’re also addressing the possibility of great style. I chose to work with Liberty of London fabrics because there are so many prints and colors that through florals, print combos and fabric choices, you can really express your personality. And the models involved have huge personalities, and also huge, exciting futures…For instance, one of our models, Jessy [Yates], is going to Yale in the fall. What does she want to look like at Yale? How does she want to project herself? She has a vibrant, exciting life. How can we help her dress for it?
You went to Parsons School of Design in the ‘80s, and now you’re mentoring fashion students. Is it easy to identify with them, or are they just obsessed with their Insta feeds?
When we worked together, they were more obsessed with technique and draping skills, which is good. But yes, I can kind of relate them in some ways. Like each of them has their own look, already! From day one, you can already tell what prints they’ll choose, and it’s really hard to push them out of their box… Honestly, it’s just like when I started. I was like, “I want to make really fun rock n’ roll vintage-feeling clothes.” It wasn’t what Parsons wanted me to do. I felt like every semester, I had to keep saying, “No, I just want to make fun clothes that cool people are actually going to wear!” And to this day, that’s what I do.
Were you a DIY addict in art school?
Sure, because it’s not like I could buy designer clothes. I remember in the early days in New York, during my club days, I didn’t have a penny! I’d go to a thrift store and get outfits for $5, even though for inspiration, I was looking at Saint Laurent. Sometimes people would say, “Oh, is that Saint Laurent?!” when I wore a $5 outfit, and I’d be so excited.
It’s not okay to counterfeit someone’s designs. But your Spring 2018 runway outfits-the painted Levi’s cutoffs on Taylor Hill, the bleach pen leotard on Bella Hadid-they had such a DIY Woodstock vibe. If girls paint their own denim with hippie flowers, inspired by Taylor’s shorts or Bella’s top, is that cool with you?
Oh, I love it! I do. Because that’s what [the collection] was about… I was inspired by a Museum of Art and Design show called Counter-Couture… I wanted every piece to have that artisanal feeling, because I think clothes have gotten too manufactured. I want to look at something and feel like a human being is behind it all. So I was trying to bring that feeling back.
Taylor and Bella influence a lot of trends, and a lot of designers. Do you think the models in Design for Disability-like Madison Ferris, the Broadway actress, and Andrea Dalzell, who was Miss Wheelchair New York-can do the same?
I think yes, definitely. Before I got involved with Design for Disability, I was thinking, “Oh, every garment has to be functional above all else.” And then after meeting the model-mentors and working with them, I thought, “Why? There’s a whole other thing going on here that we have to pay attention to, and that we have to express.” For instance, the model-mentor that wanted to look hot, Ryan [Haddad], he sparked this idea to wear accessories that say SEXY on them. People need to really get it- these people want to project who they are through their clothing, like we all do. And if someone looks great in their clothes, and feels great in their clothes, that always inspires other people and bigger trends.
You’re famous for casting the coolest models-Gigi and Kaia and Kendall-in your shows. Do they inspire your catwalks, or do they just look good in everything?
It’s different when you’re doing a [fashion show] because you have such a limited time with each model. It’s a cold meeting-you have 30 minutes to try stuff on, make sure it fits, and then keep going! It’s pretty hectic. But once you get to know a model, you might think about her when you’re designing. You’ll be working on a look, and suddenly it’ll pop into your head: “Oh, Gigi will look great in this!” And there are those models, occasionally, who try things on and just inspire you to design other things. You’ll go, “Oh my gosh, what if we made that dress again, but longer, and sleeveless!” That’s when you get inspired, when there’s a model who does that for you. It doesn’t happen all the time-but it’s fun when it does.
Who’s a model that’s recently inspired you?
Do you know that French model, Lea Julian? She’s so perfect. She looks so great in all the clothes, and she’s really fun and super cool. The first time she came in for a fitting, we didn’t have that many samples ready to try on, and I told my assistant, “You’ve got to make sure she comes back. We have to put her in everything. It’s going to look so great.” And it did. She’s amazing.
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