SERIOUS FUN : Anna Sui’s Quirky Designs Come of Age

Anna Sui’s gleeful eye sees poetry where fashion conformists see only the absurd. She trims her glittery disco dresses with garters and drapes fake fox stoles--heads attached--around the shoulders of serious supermodels. Smile , her clothes say, it’s only fashion.

After a decade of anonymity, Sui grabbed the fashion world’s attention a few years ago with her resurrection of hippie chic, a potent marriage of bohemia and psychedelia that appealed to the theatrical sensibilities of both New York’s downtown crowd and Hollywood’s young and hip .

Her quirky designs have evolved since then but remain part of fashion’s vanguard. Today, Sui sells to more than 200 stores in the United States, Japan, Europe and Canada. And in what is surely the sincerest form of flattery, her work is copied by rivals. A souffle- sized faux fur hat that prompted giggles when Sui friend and longtime client Linda Evangelista wore it during the designer’s collection debut in 1991 has turned up on competitors’ runways. And earlier this year, an Italian designer was accused of duplicating Sui designs, stitch for stitch.

Sui’s taste for eccentricity or romance or whatever you call her free-form aesthetic places the thirtysomething designer squarely opposite someone like Giorgio Armani, for whom less is more. For Anna Sui, more is more better. She tops a Norwegian sweater with a Norwegian cardigan, teams them with a fake fur skirt, patterned hose, a neon-green marabou scarf and a big hat to match. Oh, did we mention the teetering, five-buckle pumps? Woven through her work are references to favorite design motifs of the past--Chanel suits, ‘50s-style jackets, Eva Gabor’s peignoir in “Green Acres.”

The designer attributes her tendency toward postmodernist sampling to a childhood spent poring over fashion magazines. As a Chinese-American teen in Detroit, she would meticulously match her shoes and purse to her dress, an effort that earned her the title Best Dressed Eighth-Grader. But her creative mettle wasn’t truly tested until, while studying at Parsons School of Design in New York, she helped classmate Steven Meisel style photo shoots for an Italian fashion magazine. “They would send us skiwear, and we would turn it into hippies on motorcycles, adding fur vests and tapestry boots in much the same way as I do now when putting together a collection,” she says.


Sui’s fall collection is a generational leap from her signature look from spring, the baby-doll dress. The innocent girl in the patent-leather Mary Janes has grown up and would rather wear flouncy cheerleaders skirts, rubber rompers over neon-bright spandex T’s and black vinyl pants. Sui credits the groundbreaking ‘70s fashion photography by Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton for inspiring the edgy glamour in her latest designs.

“I love all that glamour,” she says. And so, she suspects, do the young women who came of age in the time of grunge. Push-up bras, corsets, garter belts, stiletto heels--"for this younger generation, it’s like playing dress-up,” she says.

Her own personal style is defined by a few rituals from which she never varies: “I always wear Chanel Midnight Red lipstick and nail polish"--and a discontinued but treasured blush called Orange Flame. Her penchant for color extends to her New York apartment, where floors and ceiling are vivid red and where, up until a few years ago, Sui did her designing.

“I would love to do everything--shoes, jewelry, lingerie,” Sui confesss. “I’ve been talking to people about a perfume. I wish I had more money so I could do more.” Until then, she’s busy in her Garment Center studio, plotting the direction of her next collection. Possible influences include her recent travels through Europe (“I love the eccentric way people in London dress”) and the shopping habits of her West Coast clientele (“A halter dress we did for spring just flew out of the store--it showed a lot of skin”).

“Having a store in L.A.,” says Sui of her year-old La Brea Avenue boutique, “has really opened my eyes. It got me thinking about non-seasonal design and more casual clothes.” What also struck Sui was how close to the bone women here keep themselves. “Everyone is a size 2 or 4. I remember seeing women and wondering how old are they?”


Produced and styled by Michael Eisenhower