Chinese-American Anna Sui knew she was going to be a fashion designer when she was four-years-old. When she entered the seventh grade at the age of 11, she refused to wear the same outfit twice, choosing to sew her own clothes from Vogue patterns. After her second year at Parsons School of Design, she was hired by the juniors clothing label, Charlie’s Girls and subsequently worked for sportswear designers including Bobbie Brooks. But during those early years, her dream was to start her own label and design for rock stars. She designed a five-piece collection and took it to a New York trade show, where she caught the attention Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. Two weeks later, in August 1979, those five pieces were featured in a full-page Macy’s ad in the Sunday New York Times. Anna was summarily fired from her job at the design house where she was working at the time. Left with only $300 in savings, she started her business in a corner of her tiny New York apartment, supplementing her income doing odd jobs and reinvesting every spare penny in her business—and her dream.
Anna’s breakthrough came during Paris Fashion Week in 1991, but not on the runway. She was driving with her friend and former Parsons schoolmate, Steven Meisel, to the Jean Paul Gaultier runway show. On the way, they stopped to pick up a friend of Steven’s who, as it happened, was wearing an outfit Anna had designed for her back in New York. The friend was Madonna, the paparazzi went wild, and photos of the superstar, in Anna Sui, appeared on the front-page of newspapers around the world. Madonna would wear the same outfit shortly after, on the cover of Vogue.
In the world of international couture, Anna Sui is considered an American visionary. Her style has been called “rock’n roll meets art nouveau.” Interviewed at a Pre-Raphaelite retrospective in 2014 at the Tate Museum in London, she said, “I’ve always been inspired by these Victorian English painters and poets—they really are my favorite.” And yet, as if in the same breath, she admits, “My two ultimate style icons are Wallis Simpson and Minnie Mouse. I’m not kidding. I hope one day to find a way to do a collection with both of them. [But] I think the movie character who best illustrates the Anna Sui woman is Auntie Mame.”
Today, the 55-year-old winner of the CFDA’s Geoffrey Been Lifetime Achievement Award, among many others, has an eponymous line of accessories, fragrances, skincare, and cosmetics that is among the top-selling in the world. Her collections are available at Bergdorf Goodman’s, Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, and even online on Amazon. Despite ruling over a multi-million-dollar fashion empire, Anna maintains that “Designing never gets easier over the years. It really is an uneven playing field today. There are fewer companies to produce the fabrics or treatments I envision. And sometimes a fabric that looks great as a swatch doesn’t look so good as an outfit. I wait until a fabric really speaks to me. This is how every collection evolves. It comes together at the last moment.”
By Laurie Wiles