August 21 2014

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Anna Sui’s Mid-Lifetime Achievement Award


Truth be told, there was something confounding about Monday’s announcement by the CFDA that Anna Sui would be receiving this year’s Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. While Sui herself seems a touch young for those kinds of laurels, there’s also the tricky matter of her aesthetics. Sui has drunk from the fountain of youth: The designer has drawn on a seemingly endless reserve of youthful whimsy, youthful exuberance, and youthful nerve since launching her label in 1980. Even at their most fashionably sophisticated, Anna Sui collections are always fun. But as the CFDA’s award recognizes, Sui has managed to pack a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment into her decades at the dress form. She has leveraged her rock ‘n’ roll sensibility into bags, beauty, and shoes and has taken her brand fantastically global without ever losing her independence or her cool. Here, Sui talks to about getting a little help from her superfriends, giving a little love to the Garment Center, and the music.

How much of a surprise was the CFDA news to you? I mean, I’m sure there’s always a satisfying shock to finding out that you’re receiving an award like this, but I wonder if it’s one of those things where you kind of knew your turn would be rolling around soon.

Oh, God no. It was a total, total surprise. I had no idea why Diane von Furstenberg was calling me Sunday. I work in such an isolated way—it’s my business and I built it myself, plugging away on my own terms, and I guess I always felt like people just kind of looked and me and thought, ‘Oh, well, there she is doing her kooky thing.’ So this is—honestly—an amazing honor. I mean, these are my peers recognizing me. It’s huge.

When did you know that you wanted to be a fashion designer?

I knew when I was four. My best friend from childhood tells me that I was talking about that when I met her. I’m sure I had no idea what I meant, saying, ‘I’m going to be a fashion designer,’ but I knew I liked to watch my mom sew, and I loved to go fabric shopping with her. It was always there.

You were still pretty much a kid when you started your business. Does the vision you had for your brand then bear any resemblance to what it’s become?

I think I’ve actually managed to stay pretty true to my original concept, which was to do fashion in a young, affordable way. That wasn’t so common back then. I had my first fashion show in ’91, and at the time, buyers didn’t really know what to do with me—did I belong in the designer department, next to Bill Blass and Calvin Klein? Probably not. But what I was doing was clearly “fashion.” I just wasn’t seduced by super-expensive fabrics. And I’m still not.

Your brand certainly anticipated the huge contemporary market that exists now. Do you see yourself as having had a role in creating it?

One designer can’t make a market. What I will say is that I had a sense that things were about to change, and I was doing the right thing at the right time. I remember, particularly, this one summer in the late ’80s—I was hanging out with some of my model friends, and whereas before they’d been all about that power-dressing thing, head-to-toe label, suddenly these girls were wearing vintage. One of them was making her own necklaces. It was like, the energy was shifting. People wanted to be more individualistic. A little less dictated to. And I could see that attitude working for me.

Is there a moment in your career that you look back on as a particular highlight?

My first fashion show. I did it in ’91—up to that point, there was no way I could afford to do a show, and really, no reason for me to have one, but that season my friends really got behind me and pushed me to do it and helped make it happen. I remember, distinctly, Steven Meisel and Paul Cavaco saying, ‘OK, this it. Now.’ And me being like, ‘Oh no. I mean, how? With what money? Why?’ Linda [Evangelista] and Naomi [Campbell] helped me get all the models. When the show was over, I was crying backstage—my family was there, the press and the buyers were out supporting me, the whole thing had been put together with so much love. Every time I’m struggling, I look back on that show, and it keeps me going.

It’s interesting—these days, you never hear young designers talking about waiting a decade before doing that first show.

Well, today I think everything moves faster. Prints we used to hand-paint; now they’re all developed on CAD. The trends move faster. The business moves faster. And I mean, look at the city. I’m constantly lamenting the fact that this is not the New York I moved to. There’s hardly any quirkiness anymore, and barely any differentiation between neighborhoods. Everywhere you go, it’s like, bank, bank, Barnes & Noble. It took years for that to happen in Manhattan, but Brooklyn, just as it was becoming this enclave for creative types, a place where they could afford to live and work, it got swallowed up by gentrification. Almost instantaneously, it seems like.

Do you think the recession is going to slow some of that back down?

It will to a degree, which I think is a good thing, but not enough to turn back the clock. It’s a different time. Some of what’s happened, you just have to accept.

That said, you’ve emerged as perhaps the most vocal defender of the Garment District. Why is maintaining a few square blocks of showrooms and notions stores so important to you?

When I started my business, I’d be running to the Garment Center ten times a day, for zippers or buttons or to get my scissors sharpened. And even now, so much of my work is based on the resources in that neighborhood—the lacemakers and the pleaters and so on. I have my design studio here; I drape on a mannequin; we sew our own samples. That’s how I know how to make clothes. I can’t make sense of a dress without seeing how a fabric drapes, for example. So it’s critical for me, personally, that the Garment Center stay affordable and accessible. I guess I’m one of the few designers who’s still trying to produce as much as I can here in the States, and more specifically, here in the city. I would just really hate to see the fashion industry go the way of all industry in America, and give up and go totally outsourced. We used to have the most beautiful woolen mills here, and the best denim. There was a sense of craft.

On to a more cheerful subject: music. You’ve always said that music is a key influence on you, but I guess I wonder—how? I assume it’s not as simple as, you hear a song and the song suggests a feeling and the feeling suggests a silhouette. Or is it?

Well, sometimes it’s pretty clear-cut, like, I did a grunge collection the same season Marc [Jacobs] did, and both of us were just really inspired by the music and the look of that whole scene. But one of the things I love about music—which is also something I love about fashion—is the way it’s a reflection of its time. You hear a song, and right away, you’re back there. But as much as I wind up referencing vintage, it’s always really important to me that there’s a connection to something happening in the current moment. Like, when I did a mod collection, there was a street thing going on in New York and Japan that was also very mod. And another thing I like to do is not just, you know, take the vintage idea forward, but also find the thing that inspired it originally. So a psychedelic collection is also an Art Nouveau collection. You look at Aubrey Beardsley posters and you see the way they influenced the posters at the Fillmore, back in the ’60s, and then you tie it to something happening now that feels the same way.

What about your own influence? Do you see yourself setting an example for young designers?

I hope that I set a good example in terms of, you know, focus. And determination. I’ve worked really hard. And if you’re going to accomplish anything in this business, that’s what you have to do. There’s no coasting. Good days and bad days, you just keep going.

Photo: Marcio Madeira