For Anna Sui, Longevity Comes From Establishing — and Owning — Your Identity
Anna Sui has built an empire on eclectic, bohemian, vintage-inspired style. As one of the most prolific contemporary designers working today, she knows a thing or two about working in fashion — so, last month, students at the Savannah College of Art and Design eagerly lined up outside the school's auditorium to hear her speak, hoping to glean some advice from the industry legend.
Sui appeared on stage with Ssense's Steff Yotka as part of SCADstyle, a three-day event that celebrates fashion and innovation. And she told the crowd how, like many students in the audience, she began her design journey at school, moving to New York City in the '70s to study at the Parsons School of Design. As the story goes, Sui infiltrated the city's flourishing punk and rock scenes and befriended creatives like Steven Meisel and pop stars like Madonna; by the time she presented her first runway show in 1994, she already had supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista in her corner.
Ahead of her talk, Sui told Fashionista that she knew she wanted to be a designer from an early age — "ever since I was four years old" — but, as the child of immigrants living in Detroit, she didn't have a clear roadmap.
"I spent my whole childhood trying to figure out how to [become a designer]" Sui said. "My babysitter had Seventeen, and always, in the back of it, there was an ad for Parsons... So I wrote to Parsons, got the registration catalog and just geared my whole education [to Parsons].... I had to find the solution."
As someone who benefitted from going to fashion school, Sui is a big proponent of early creative education and specialized programs tailored to student interests.
"I think [SCAD] is so nurturing: The classes aren't that huge, and there's much emphasis on developing your skills for a career," she said. "This is just so much more real. It's very practical."
Sui's work has always been heavily narrative-driven, her clothes telling the stories of cowgirls, grunge girls, pirate rock stars, surfers, pre-Raphaelite maidens — you name it.
"There's always a fantasy character behind it," she explained. "It could be a freckle-faced redhead on the Scottish moors wandering around looking for Heathcliff or a groupie going to see a rock concert in the '70s, and you have this whole fantasy about them. I think really that's what fashion's about."
Over the past four decades, Sui's brand has become synonymous with the rock-and-roll romanticism of the '90s, meshing it with different subcultures of New York City, from the punk to the party scene. "It's my version of Victorian — like, it's not stiff with corsets and stuff. It's as if you got [it] thrown in the river. It's all kind of disheveled... It has to go through my filter," she said. "As much as I want to be minimal, it will never be minimal."
The key to longevity in fashion, according to Sui, is to "establish your own identity." For her, that meant developing instantly recognizable symbols for her products, whether it's the sweet embellishments, the dark florals or the card roses in the packaging for her fragrances and cosmetics. Nowadays, it's easy to spot an Anna Sui design from a mile away, thanks to its "feminine" but also "a little rock and roll" sensibility, mixed with nostalgia that's also "very trendy."
Sui has benefited from the cyclical nature of trends, like the '90s and Y2K aesthetics experiencing a resurgence as of late. "I think that every designer is very influenced by their childhood and teen years," she said. "There's always...a 20-year reflection, so, naturally, this is like a 20-year thing reflecting back on the '90s."
Sui not only participated in these looks the first time around, she's also continued to reference them in her work over the years.
"When we were designing in the '90s, it was a much smaller community," she said. "It was very intimate. It wasn't manufactured. Those audiences at my shows were every rockstar, every up-and-coming movie star, every model's boyfriend," referring to people like Iggy Pop, Jim Jarmusch and Johnny Ramone, who regularly frequented her shows. "I didn't pay them. It's completely different now. Fashion, like everything else, turned into big business."
At the same time, Sui is enjoying the love that her collections are receiving from Gen Zers just finding out about her brand.
"Oh, I love it," she said. "There was a while when vintage was just floundering — New York used to have the most incredible flea markets, and it wasn't a matter of finding something, it was like, 'What are you gonna decide to buy?' I hope that vintage turns into that again."
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the event.
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