THE TOAST OF NEW YORK : Anna Sui Mixes Grunge With Disco
There is a certain kind of woman who likes her clothes a little outrageous, something to set her apart from the predictable parade of tailored Calvins and understated Armanis.
For that certain kind of woman there is a certain kind of designer: Anna Sui, whose wacky creations mixing Carnaby Street and MTV have made her, in the breathless words of Vogue, “the darling of downtown fashion.”
“They don’t need me to be another Establishment designer. That’s not what I’m good at,” says Sui, clad in a flowing black suit and sitting in a voluptuous velvet chair in her cozy Soho boutique. “I try to capture what’s in the air and make it a package people will understand. When you see all the punk girls wearing ruffled antique dresses with a flannel shirt tied around their waists and Doc Marten boots, well, there’s nothing cuter.”
It should come as no surprise that in her spring collection the thirtysomething Sui showed fluttery print granny dresses with clunky boots, floppy hats and chokers. Also on the runway were rainbow-striped knit poorboys, Army fatigues, chiffon-and-satin 1930s boudoir numbers, slinky Chinese cheongsams and lots of embroidered butterflies.
The entire wacky jumble was Sui’s take on the current “grunge look,” cross-pollinated with freewheeling 1970s London fashion. In fact, Sui says her boutique, with its lilac walls, plush velvet furniture and beaded curtains, was inspired by Biba, the London emporium that was trend heaven in the 1970s.
No doubt Sui has some photographs of Biba tucked away in what she calls her “Genius Files.” These bulging folders, begun when she was a little girl, are filled with magazine clippings of everything from Jean Shrimpton to Tiffany lamps, all of which activate Sui’s fashion antennae.
“As a designer, it helps to be a pack rat,” Sui admits.
She’s a practical businesswoman who knows that her success is due in part to pricing her creations below the designer level. Dresses average about $250, jackets about $300. Last year, her business pulled in $1.75 million in sales.
“High prices and expensive fabrics are not what I’m about,” says Sui, flicking a crimson-tipped finger through her awning of black bangs. “Fashion changes. No matter how much you pay for something, it’s going to be out of style the next season unless you’re that real classic Brooks Brothers kind of person.”
Sui’s fans include not only art students and club crawlers but also Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, Nicole Kidman and Sofia Coppola, plus a legion of megamodels.
Sui, the second of three children of a Detroit couple, began her career by making clothes for her Barbie doll. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in New York’s Parsons School of Design, where she became buddies with classmate Stephen Meisel. Sui left Parsons in her sophomore year to work for the first of several junior sportswear companies. She also free-lanced as a stylist for Meisel, who was then a budding fashion photographer.
Sui started her eponymous company in 1981, using her small apartment as a cluttered office until last year, when she moved the business to a garment center loft.
Despite more than a decade of turning out trendy clothes that were snapped up by stores across the country, Sui didn’t gain star power until she held her first fashion show last year.
“It’s not like I was an unknown,” Sui says. “But to be in the big league on Seventh Avenue, you have to have a show. When I had the money and confidence to do one, I did. And it was great because it put me in a whole new light.”
As for future plans, Sui mentions a small line of vests and bell-bottoms for men, but adds that her immediate goal is to take a vacation.
“I’m exhausted,” she concedes, taking a swig of Evian to wash down two Advils. “But I can’t complain. There are days when I walk into my office and my assistant says, ‘Vogue is on the phone’ and it’s like, ‘What? For me?’ I can’t believe it.”