Designer Anna Sui opened the doors to her eponymous store in New York City in 1992. Her iconic feminine take on grunge and punk style (read: baby-dolls and slip dresses rendered in satin, lace, velvet and moody florals) paved the way for the ’90s aesthetic—which is back in a major way. Although street-style stars like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid may be partly responsible for resurrecting trends like the choker necklace, it was Anna Sui who played an integral role in the invention of this uber-cool vibe (some key pieces from her archive are currently being reissued by Opening Ceremony, more on that later). In an exclusive interview, the designer talks with us about building her brand, her rock ‘n’ roll influences, and (yes!) some epic moments from that glorious era when Naomi and Linda ruled the runways.
Anna Sui: The Reigning Queen Of '90s Style
How do you design your collections—what inspires you?
"I think I've always been very consistent. When I started designing, my intention was to dress rock stars and people who went to rock concerts—and that's what I still do. Music has always been a major influence on me. The Rolling Stones are my favorite style icons. When I'm designing, I often think to myself, Is this cool enough for Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg? I inevitably incorporate elements of their look into my personal wardrobe and into what I design for my collection (pin-striped pants, ruffled shirts, tall boots, etc.). I've worked many pop themes into fashion shows: rock, punk, glam, goth, folk, mod, grunge, psychedelia. Music has always been a major influence on me."
Do you reference your '90s archive?
"Opening Ceremony is collaborating with me on an amazing project, reissuing from my archive. They've been particularly interested in my grunge and punk collections from the early '90s. They zeroed in on baby-doll dresses, maxi dresses, slip dresses, crop tops, butterfly chokers and birthday cake handbags."
Which '90s supermodels have you worked with? "In my Spring 1994 fashion show, the final three looks featured Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington in short, white, frothy party dresses with pastel feather boas, birthday-cake handbags and Mary Janes with lace-trim socks. The models were scheduled to walk out one by one, but the runway was long enough for three girls to be on view at the same time. As Linda, Naomi and Christy passed one another on the catwalk, they caught eyes. For some reason, Linda stopped in the middle of the runway and waited until the three of them caught up, and they proceeded to walk together in unison. It was a completely unplanned, magical fashion moment I'll never forget. As the girls turned before they exited, they burst out in giggles. The sight of those three famous girls—who are dear friends of mine—standing together in their adorable baby doll dresses and circus-pony tiaras brought the house down."
What big break launched your career? "Though I'd already been in business for 10 years, it was after my first runway show, for the Fall '91 season, that I started getting notice from the international press. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. All the Japanese stores were coming to New York looking for American designers [to carry]. I started getting a lot of offers. The company that I chose was Isetan. It's been the most amazing partnership. Isetan made my collection so famous in Asia. They opened freestanding Anna Sui boutiques in Japan, as well as a cosmetics line and other licenses. Then the German company Wella asked me to develop perfume. That's really what made me a global brand."
Made In NYC
Where do you produce your collection?
"I'm a big supporter of the effort to save the traditional New York Garment District. In the old days, I was able to find everything I needed right here in the neighborhood. Lots of the wonderful American-made suppliers of wools, trims and buttons have disappeared. I make a conscious effort to patronize those resources that still exist. It's important to me that most of my collection is made within five blocks of my office."
What advice do you have for new graduates?
"I always tell students, there's only one Calvin Klein, there's only one Tom Ford—you have to figure out your own niche. Competition and circumstances are tough. Be true to yourself, that is the key. Do what you're best at and learn your craft. It's better when you're young to decide what your main interests are (couture, ready-to-wear, junior, active sportswear) and only take steps (schools, internships, jobs) that move you in the right direction. My father always told me that if I wanted to have my own company, I should be in the office every day before the rest of my staff and stay later than anyone else. That philosophy of hard work and dedication has always inspired me."