We know Anna Sui as one of the key fashion designers who made their mark in the 1990s; a time of grunge music, baby doll dresses and plaid. Over her 30 plus year career, she is known for dressing everyone from Madonna to Dua Lipa, and is famous for creating a romantic aesthetic around rock star chic.
As Sui once said: “Every collection that I work on, I always think, is this cool enough to wear to a concert?”
Her arty, romantic aesthetic is now on display in a traveling retrospective, called The World of Anna Sui, which is currently on view at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, which runs until next spring. She also recently released a new limited-edition holiday tote with St-Germain, which packs a flowery punch around a bottle of the famed French liqueur brand (or just use it to carry a bottle of your choice).
Sui speaks from her New York studio about growing her fashion empire, her favorite New York neighborhood and one of her favorite celebrity dressing moments.
Tell us about your new holiday tote, how did it come about?
Anna Sui: We started making bigger jewelry pieces in my latest collection and then we made a bigger carrier that was initially to put water in. It was sitting on my desk. We thought, wouldn’t it be so glamorous if you could carry liquor or a gift in it? when we established this collaboration with St-Germain, they have such a beautiful bottle that we engineered the tote bag to fit the bottle. People are always carrying around bottles these days. Why not show it off a little?
What trends do you see with winter coats this year?
Fleece. But I’ve been treating fleece like a luxury fabric and embellishing it with contrast linings. I’ve been printing on it for several seasons. It’s lightweight, but warm. It’s easy to layer with a Sherpa lining. that’s the go-to jacket and coat of choice right now.
What has your retrospective exhibition changed about people’s perceptions of you?
It recently opened in the Mint Museum in North Carolina. It has been such an honor. In all the years we’ve been working, we’re always frantically trying to catch up. Rarely did we ever look back on anything. We do a collection, present it on the runway, produce it and put it in storage. We never really pulled out the old samples until we started working on this exhibition. It brings back so many memories. You forget everything that went into every collection. There’s so many stories.
What’s one story that you love to recollect?
The baby doll dresses story, which was spontaneous. It was in 1993 at a catwalk show when Linda Linda Evangelista stopped on the runway and Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington followed her. That moment became so iconic. There were so many great moments, like getting a rock star like Dave Navarro, who was playing guitar for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I asked him to model for me and he said yes. That was thrilling, to be able to dress him. He said: “As long as it involves lingerie.”
What inspires you about New York?
It changes. In the 1980s it was the downtown Bowery area, then the East Village and Tribeca happened, but lately there’s a place in the Lower East Side called Dime Square near Chinatown where there’s a bunch of pop-up boutiques, interesting places to eat and great people watching. So, it’s always shifting.
How do you feel about the retail revival after the pandemic brought on the ecommerce boom?
There’s nothing like a spontaneous buy of something you can take home. We’ve all learned how to shop better online. But how many times did you buy something online and you thought, ‘oh, that’s not how I imagined it.’ Even if you saw detailed pictures. There’s nothing like trying something on in-person.
Do you have any favorite celebrity dressing moments?
Madonna gave me the confidence to do a fashion show. I was in Paris to see Fashion Week and stopped by the Ritz Hotel to pick up Madonna. She came out of her room with a coat on, when we sat down at the fashion show, she said: “Anna I have on your dress,” and took her coat off. I thought ‘whoa, how did that happen?’ It made me realize I had a chance to compete. I thought I have to do a fashion show.
What do you credit making your dreams come true, was it focusing and going after them?
Definitely. You have to have that focus. There’s so much competition. When I went to Parsons, there wasn’t that many people applying to be fashion designers at that time, then there were 30 people graduating, now there are 300. Back then, there were zillions of jobs, the garment industry was thriving. Now, it’s very different. This old garment area is dwindling because of economics. The landlords are using the buildings for other purposes and discouraging clothing companies to rent in that area. That’s a cause I’ve been involved with since I heard my contractors were having trouble having their leases renewed. If you want to be a designer these days, you have to realize how much sacrifice you must make to succeed because you have so much more competition. Now, it’s a global competition. You can’t just think you want to be a designer, you have to know you want to be a designer. You need that determination.
St-Germain x Anna Sui Bottle Tote can be purchased from ReserveBar.