The Unsinkable Anna Sui

Few designers have had a coffee-table crusher devoted to them, much less written by Andrew Bolton, renowned fashion historian and curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. Anna Sui is one of the select few, no doubt owing to her irrepressible personality and unsinkable creativity. The self-titled new book (Chronicle Books, $60)—her first—looks back at two decades of twice-yearly brilliance. I chatted with the reclusive designer about the making of the monograph, coming up in the low-rent 80s, and hanging out with famous friends…

Congratulations on the book. It’s gorgeous. I love the small details, like the silver edges of the pages.
Thanks. It was a dream come true to do something like this.

Whenever I talk to people about a new book, they usually say it was a great experience, but also a huge headache, with all the meetings and all the fine-tuning. Was it like that with you as well?
It was a lot of hard work, but I’m fortunate to have my assistant Thomas, who worked really hard on it. He’s been with me since the first show. We relied a lot on his memory, too. A lot of it is just trying to recall things and the ideas we tossed around for every collection.

If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I haven’t kept anything. I always admire people who have the wherewithal the keep things.
I’m kind of a pack rat, so I saved everything. I saved a lot of my storyboards and we have pictures of every show. And then I also have pictures of all my storyboards. But the funny thing is I so rarely look back, because as a designer you’re looking six to nine months ahead. You’re on deadline for the next show. That’s why it was fun for us to look at all these images again.

When you started talking with Andrew Bolton (the book’s author and curator of the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute), was he already completely familiar with your collections?
Yes, I met Andrew in the late 90s. I remember doing a walk-through of the spring 2000 collection at the Victoria & Albert museum, where he was working at the time. We did what was called Fashion in Motion. I brought the collection to London and we did an event in the museum where we had models walking through and walking past rococo objects and paintings. For the book, we had conversations with Andrew about each season. That’s why there’s so much information in there. Plus Andrew and I have been talking about this for quite a few years, so he had already conceptualized the whole thing. 

Among all the exciting moments as you were making the book, is there one exciting moment that really stands out?
There’s so many, but one of them was Steven Meisel doing the introduction, and that so many photographers let us use their images, people like Steven Meisel, like Irving Penn, like Peter Lindbergh, like Albert Watson. So, again, I never really looked back at the things that happened, and they happened so quickly, and they’re gone so quickly that it’s great to have it all together in the book.

Was there anything you discovered or realized about yourself from going through all those old photos?
I discovered more in Andrew’s writing. As a designer, you never have to explain yourself. You can give a synopsis of your inspiration in five minutes, but Andrew really described it and spelled it out, and put into words what I only thought about. 

And the most challenging moment?
Every season is a challenge. Every season there’s something you have to worry about, be it the shoes are late, or the fabric is late, or the fabric doesn’t happen, or the model you wanted to open the show doesn’t come through. There’s always something. You’re always trying to fix a situation when things aren’t going the way you want them to go. With every collection I can remember the problems also.

Were there any problems like that with the book? Any moments when you were thought it was too much, that you can’t go on?
Not that I didn’t want to go on with it, but it was such a lengthy process to try to find all the images. The biggest challenge was trying to find all my negatives, because I used to take pictures of my storyboards myself. I thought I had them all in one place, but I didn’t. So it was hours and hours and hours of going through piles and piles and piles of those envelopes with negatives. This was before digital. Many a weekend was spent going through a pile of those things. I still never found everything. Thomas experienced the same thing going through slides because each of these runway shots was a slide up until everything went digital.

Would you say you’re a nostalgic person? I know that if I were to go back 20-some years and remember things and friends and moments, I would get very nostalgic.
Yeah, totally. I hope that comes through in the book.

In the early days you were kind of a club-hopping diva with a very cool, quirky style. I don’t know that it’s possible to start in the clubs anymore.
Manhattan is different now. It’s a different time. I was very lucky to come through during that period because it was such a creative period. New York was a much smaller town, the scene was much smaller. I think it’s amazing how many people came through that scene and became successful—filmmakers, musicians, actors and actresses, designers, artists. I mean, it was such a creative period, and it was because Manhattan was affordable for artists back then. It’s a matter of economics. Now you don’t have the luxury of a 2000-square-foot loft for $200. 

Is that what you had?
No, I always had a normal job and a normal apartment. I remember [artist] Kiki Smith came over once and said, “You’re the only person I know with a normal apartment.” Everyone else had warehouse situations. Kiki lived in a warehouse on Ludlow Street and there was no back of the building, just plastic. Manhattan was a different place, real estate was different. There were pockets of Manhattan that were very affordable. And there were special grants for artists where you could rent a place for, like, $55 a month. That’s why now you see a lot of creativity in other cities, like a Seattle or like an Austin, Texas. That’s where artists gravitate, because they can’t afford $3000-a-month studios in Manhattan. That’s really where it’s at.

One of the things that struck me as I was reading the book, and which I knew about you before the book, is that you really pride your friends. Where do you think you would be without that network of friends?
Nowhere. Having those connections really helped me. Knowing Linda and Naomi, knowing Steven Meisel, knowing Paul Cavaco. And I met a lot of people through all of them also. Plus the people I met going out every night, going to parties. That was my life.

I love your story in the book about going to a fashion show with Steven and Madonna and she surprised you by opening up her jacket and showing a dress of yours when you were just starting out. 
The part of that story I think I left out was going to her hotel room beforehand and it was filled with clothes from every major designer in Paris. That was one of the things that gave me the confidence to do my first show. I thought here’s someone who could wear anything form anyone and she’s wearing my dress. So that was really amazing.

Music, too, is a huge part of your collections, speaking of Madonna. And of course Jack White wrote the book’s preface. I wonder if you can comment on the influence music plays in your work.
That’s what really interested me. I still love going to see concerts and bands. And I use music a lot for inspiration, and when I’m designing.

What kind of music do you listen to?
For my last show I was listening a lot to Karen Elson’s album, and Broken Bells and Band of Horses. I listen to a lot of current stuff but I also listen to a lot of old stuff. Like I was listening a lot to Exile on Main St, because the Rolling Stones had re-released it and Keith [Richards] was about to introduce his book, so I was looking forward to that. There was a lot of press about those days of them living in the South of France. So I jump back and forth between old and new stuff.

What can we look forward to from Anna Sui? What’s next on your plate of projects?
Well, I think everyone knows I’m interested in interiors. There have been a lot of pictures taken of my apartment and my store. I think that’s one area I’d like to move into, trying to do some houseware products.

I think that’s genius.
Then let’s put it out there. Maybe someone will get in touch with me. I would love to do that.

I can totally see it. I think you’d be a natural.
I also have a children’s collection and a teen collection in Japan, which we’re about to expand into other parts of Asia. And we’re always expanding the beauty and the perfume lines, and also the Anna Sui collection we’re expanding into the Middle East.

I think you should have a reality TV show.
I don’t know. I think I’m a little too private for that.

I think you are too private, yes, but at the same time I think it could be really great. Have you had any offers?
I’ve been asked to do some shows, yeah.

You turned them down?
I think it’s not really what I want to do. I love talking to students and doing my interviews with video and digital people, but I don’t know that I’d want to be on a TV show.

It’s not for everyone. It’s not in my DNA either. I really respect people who can do it, but I never could.
Never say never.