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Sui Generis

Anna Sui's pretty, personal womenswear owes a lot to a very different aesthetic: punk. As she describes it, punk rock's pared-down ethos had a huge impact on her collections. No surprise: Along with Sid, Nancy, Patti, and Debbie, she was there

Published May 01, 2013
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There's that old saw about Woodstock, that 400,000 people attended but millions more remember being there. You could say something similar about CBGB back in the day: Lots of people claim to have seen bands like Television play, and most of them are lying. But Anna Sui was really there. She's got the photos to prove it, not to mention a handful of punk-era anecdotes that are just too mundane to be anything but true. "It was a small world, and we all pretty much knew each other," Sui says. "Like, I remember once when I was in London, and I was wearing a pink leather jacket, and I ran into Billy Idol. And he was like, 'I'm going to see the Heartbreakers.' And I was like, 'Yeah, I am too.'" If either of them realized, at the time, they were in the dead center of the mid-seventies zeitgeist, they didn't talk about it. But Sui's talking now: Here, she tells Style.com about coming of age in the epoch of punk.

What was your first experience of the punk scene?

First? I mean, I guess you could say my earliest experiences were in Detroit, actually, because I grew up there, and my brother would take me to see, like, Iggy and MC5. I was just crazy about that music. And by the time I moved to New York City, there were these bands forming, like the New York Dolls. One of my good friends was in Patti Smith's group. I'd go to shows almost every night. It was just the thing to do. There was no Internet back then, obviously, so everything was word of mouth; you'd hear from a friend, "There's this band Blondie playing." Or, "There's this band from London in town."

London punk and New York punk seem very different species, looking back. Did they feel different to you at the time?

Yes and no. There was a lot of interest back and forth. I was friends with the guys in the Heartbreakers, and I went with them to London in 1976. When they played, everyone came to see them. The guys in the Sex Pistols, the guys in The Clash. The photos of Sid and Nancy and Siouxsie from my invitation last season—I took those photos at a Heartbreakers show.

The energy was definitely different, though. You did feel that. In New York, people came to gigs to watch the bands. They really watched, you know? It was an art scene. Whereas in London, it was just mayhem. The first time I went to a gig there, it was scary—the kids were jumping around, smashing things. Lots of anger. And more extreme, which you saw in the fashion, too. The New York thing was almost, like, beatnik. Very downplayed, a lot of androgyny. Like, you'd wear a vintage tuxedo jacket. But then in London, on the one hand, you had Vivienne making costumes for the Sex Pistols, which created this whole more elaborate style, and on the other hand, you had the kids making their own clothes out of bin bags or whatever. It was more extreme. New York was more "cool." You'd never take things that far.

How did punk influence you as a designer? As an aesthetic, it seems like something you can take or leave. But has the ethos of it informed your work?

Punk in fashion…it was like punk in music. You had all these stadium bands, prog rock, whatever, and then some guys came along and pared it back down to three chords. The bare essentials. When I started designing, it was that same idea, of paring down. Fashion had gotten to be about, like, head-to-toe brands, total power dressing, and it was time for a change. Naomi, Linda, all the models going to Europe for the couture shows, they'd come to me to buy my dresses. I guess because they wanted something more…personal, maybe.

Based on what you're saying, I'm wondering whether we aren't due for another punk-fashion moment—at least in terms of that paring down.

Well, it's inevitable that something will flip things in another direction, eventually. But it can't happen the same way. Right now, everything is so Internet-driven that everywhere and everyone is all kind of the same. We've all got the same information, and we've all basically got access to the same stuff, so it's hard for anything to be "cool."

And then, too, a lot of what happened with punk came out of politics and the economy. I mean, you really could live in Manhattan for nothing and make art. If there was going to be another movement like punk, it would probably come from someplace where people can do that now, like Detroit.

Photos: Courtesy of Anna Sui

There was a huge punk influence on the runway this season. When you see, say, studs or safety pins now, do those elements still ring as subversive?

They don't have the shock value, certainly. I'm not sure if I see that stuff now and ever feel like it's subversive, but I do think there are people who do a punk interpretation well. They get it. And then there are people who do it badly. But isn't every trend like that? There are the real people, who do it with, like, this authenticity, and then there are the followers. So when punk comes back around in fashion, it's like that. The people who are just appropriating, without having any real feeling for punk, they do cheapen it. But what can you do?

One of the interesting things, for me, about punk is how romanticized it is. I mean, like you were saying—it came out of a pretty dark time, and when you read memoirs, like that new one by Richard Hell, you get the sense that the whole scene was pretty seedy, in fact.

People definitely romanticize it. But then, you know, it was romantic. Even then. It was exciting, and we did feel like we were part of something really, genuinely new. I mean, all of us at CBGB, we'd all pretty much come from the suburbs, and suddenly there we were in New York City, experiencing this whole other life. We had our own language, our own vocabulary. It was a small group of people, and when you went to a band, it wasn't just going to see a band. It was about who was hanging out, the crowd, the energy.

What were the best gigs you saw?

The most exciting was in the early days, seeing Television and Patti Smith. And it was always exciting to see the London bands play—I never got to see the Sex Pistols, but I did get to see Sid's famous performances at Max's Kansas City. But my favorite band was the Heartbreakers. And that time with them in London, that was incredible.

You've got an amazing photo of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. What were they really like? Was it as bad as Sid and Nancy?

I mean, it was pretty nuts. That picture—after I met them that night, I got a message at the hotel where I was staying, "A Mr. Sidney Fisher called." I was like, Sidney Fisher? Who? It took me a minute to realize, Oh, Sid Vicious. Anyway, coincidentally, we'd been staying in the same hotel—I'd actually seen Sid a couple days before, throwing a tray across the room at breakfast. I mean, yeah. So that plus some other stuff. He and Nancy got kicked out of that hotel, but Sid called me there and asked me if I wanted to come by their new place and hang out. And I was like, "OK, I guess I can do it."

So I go to Sid's, and I sit with him and Nancy for hours. Hours and hours. Waiting for the man, right? God, they were such a mess. Finally, after we've been waiting forever, Sid's like, "Screw this, let's go to the speakeasy." And I go with him, and we get there, and the first thing that happens is Sid says, "Wait, you have to go see if Paul Weller is inside—the last time I saw him, I threw a glass at him, and when he sees me he's going to beat me up." I go in, I check, and I'm like, "Uh, no, Paul Weller isn't here." So we go inside, and the next thing that happens is Sid asks me to buy him a drink. He doesn't have any money. And I'm like, "Well, I don't have any money either!" And I'll never forget—he looks at me, and he says, "What are we going to do?" And I tell him, "Use your charm." We got the drinks in the end.

Photos: Courtesy of Anna Sui
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