She’s always been a little bit of a rock star.
Her look. Her vibe. Her everything. Right down to her fingernails.
In fact, you could say the whole reason Anna Sui wanted to get into fashion in the first place was because she wanted to dress rock stars.
And the girlfriends. And the groupies, too.
Anna Sui has been doing just that for more than 40 years.
She’s modest – but I call her the OG of Asian-American designers.
A trailblazer who’s always done things her way.
Later today, she'll release her new collection for Fall/Winter 2022.
Inspired by this:
Rock star, through and through.
ANNA SUI: I always loved the way rock stars and their girlfriends dressed.
[At concerts], I would always look at the side of the stage to see what the girlfriends were wearing, what the groupies were wearing. And you would see them wearing stuff from London, stuff from New York, and that was what my eye was attracted to. So, that's all I really wanted to do was dress those people.
ALINA CHO: So, then you started your line in...
ANNA SUI: 1981 was when I became incorporated.
I had these punk friends who used to do jewelry for all the cool boutiques. And they said, “Well, why don't you make some clothes?” So, I did that, and I ended up getting the Christmas windows at Macy's and a New York Times ad.
I was still working, and I got called into the office of the owner of the company. And he said, “Why are you on my payroll and you have your own New York Times ad?”
ALINA CHO: Yeah. I read that.
ANNA SUI: “Well, it just happened.” And he said, “It’s got to stop.” And I said, “It can't stop. I have to ship my orders.” So, I got fired and started my business.
ALINA CHO: Like so many other designers in the early days, you were toiling away. And then, boom, major moment. You're in Paris for fashion week in 1991. You’re in a car with [famed fashion photographer and close friend], Steven Meisel. You're heading to the [Jean Paul] Gaultier show. And you’re picking up Madonna.
ANNA SUI: When we walked into her room at the Ritz, it was filled with racks and shopping bags from every major designer. And I thought, “Oh my God, I wonder what she's wearing.” And she came out of the dressing room with a coat. We ran into the car because we were late. And when we sat down at the show, she took off her coat and she said, “Anna, I have a surprise for you.” And she was wearing my black baby doll dress.
ALINA CHO: Oh, my God.
ANNA SUI: Herb Ritts took pictures backstage, so there's all these pictures of Madonna wearing it. And she's wearing all my jewelry. Because Steven said, "Anna, give her your jewelry. I don't like the jewelry she's wearing. Put your jewelry on her."
ALINA CHO: Madonna — no one bigger at the time.
ANNA SUI: And she was such a trendsetter at that point.
ALINA CHO: What did that mean to you?
ANNA SUI: It was shocking because she hadn't even really acknowledged me because she's not a girl's girl. After that, Steven did all these Vogue shoots with her and Italian Vogue. She wore a lot of my clothes during that period, even socially, she wore a lot of my clothes.
ALINA CHO: You came back to New York, same year, and you decided to stage your first runway show.
ANNA SUI: Well, Steven decided that it was time. And I said, “But how am I going to do it?” He said, "Oh, don't worry. We'll help you." I knew [supermodels] Linda [Evangelista and] Naomi [Campbell] socially. And they said, “Oh, we'll help you get all the girls.”
ALINA CHO: What happened after that first show? Because that was a huge breakthrough.
ANNA SUI: Yeah, it was.
ALINA CHO: It put you on the map in a different way, didn't it?
ANNA SUI: It really did.
Everyone was looking at New York at that moment because New York fashion was really starting to happen. Suddenly, so many stores were asking for my clothes, especially from Japan. And within that year, I got offered so many different deals from Japan, but I signed with Isetan, which was that huge department store in Japan. I [also] got 12 licenses, including a cosmetics license and a fragrance license offer from Wella, which was a German company.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
ANNA SUI: So, I said, “Okay, I'll sign with both of you if you cross distribute.” And they were like, “What? Nobody does that.” And I'm like, “But why not? That way, you could sell Japan, and you could sell Europe.” And so, we did it. And it was the beginning of globalization.
ALINA CHO: How many categories are you in right now?
ANNA SUI: In Japan, I still have about 10 licenses, including children's wear, handbags, hosiery, jewelry. I also have done a lot of different collaborations.
ALINA CHO: I know, everyone from Samsung to Barbie to Hello Kitty to Nissan to Ford Mustang.
ANNA SUI: I’m so limited as far as what, personally, my company can do because we are just a small company. So, it's so much fun when you collaborate with somebody that can make the luggage, that can make a Barbie, that can make snow boots. It’s fun to able to be unlimited as far as what product you can create.
ALINA CHO: I do find that we do all want to get dressed again.
ANNA SUI: I remember the first time I went back out to an outdoor dining restaurant, everybody was dressed up, I thought I was going to get whiplash. Because I was looking everywhere, every time somebody walked by with a long, floral dress or great shoes, it was so exciting to see again.
ALINA CHO: And I'm sure inspiring for you.
ANNA SUI: Yeah, totally, totally. So, I just look forward to those days. And I think people are going to go to the extreme the other way and really go all out and get really, really, really dressed and really enjoy.
ALINA CHO: Before we go, I just wanted you to comment on two giants in fashion who we recently lost. [Fashion designer] Thierry Mugler, who I know has been an inspiration to you in your career, and [legendary Vogue editor] Andre Leon Talley.
ANNA SUI: Thierry Mugler and Claude Montana in the eighties, were it.
ALINA CHO: They were it.
ANNA SUI: I just remember whenever you'd see somebody dressed head to toe in Thierry Mugler it was just so stunning and so forward and so celebrating a woman.
Andre [Leon Talley] was backstage at my first show, and he was sitting next to me. And during the whole show, he was commentating.
ALINA CHO: Of course, he was.
ANNA SUI: The first time I met Andre was outside of a club in those clubbing days with Steven [Meisel]. I had just gotten these big silver platform shoes, in the glam rock days.
I was walking up to the club, and I hear somebody going, “Silver shoes, silver shoes. Ooh, look at them silver shoes.” And it turned out it was Andre. And he was just commentating outside the club.
ALINA CHO: As he always did.
ANNA SUI: As he always did. So, backstage, it was kind-of the same thing. As each model went out, he would be making a comment. “Oh, she's so fierce. Look at her.” And it was hysterical. It was just fun to have him commentating my very first show. What a memory.