Anna Sui encompasses everything we love about a fashion designer. Interviewing her is more like taking a journey through beautiful spaces and incredible moments in time. Best of all though, Sui isn’t about just one thing: She is a collector, a diner, a world traveler, a creator, an art fiend and best of all…an incredible designer.
All in all, Sui herself is the epitome of her brand: a curated hodgepodge of only the best and beautiful. Whether we were talking about the presentation at a restaurant, the accuracy of a lapel on a jacket, or simply the noise level at a New York café, Sui somehow made us want to stop time for a moment and – though it may sound crazy – take a look around. Here’s part one of an incredible interview with an incredible fashion icon…
The New Potato: From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Anna Sui: No matter where I go and all the incredible cuisines that I’ve tried, there’s nothing that beats going home and having Mom’s cooking. And it doesn’t matter what she makes. She always makes a whole assortment of things, and her recipes of what she knows we love. There’s nothing like it. The way she serves it — she takes so much time in serving it and presenting it. Nothing beats that.
TNP: What are a couple of her go-to recipes that are your favorites?
AS: Well, in the winter she makes a vegetable soup with oxtail in it. She buys all the ingredients fresh and then she lets it simmer for at least a day. We usually make a huge potful, so it lasts for a few days. Every day it gets better because all the juices just melt together.
TNP: What are some intersections that you see between food and fashion?
AS: It’s all about presentation. Also, tradition is mixed into that. I think there’s a certain craftsmanship and skill that is involved. I’m the type of person that is just mesmerized by someone who can cook well, because I have no retention for anything. My mother will stand there as she’s cooking and tell me, ‘and then you put salt in…’ and I’m zoning out. I can’t retain it at all. It’s so bad because my mother has such great recipes, so someday I have to write it down. Even when I hear ‘a pinch of salt,’ I think, what does that mean? A little pinch? A big pinch? How do you judge it? I have no talent for that. But if I look at a dress, I can see that it needs to be two inches shorter, or the lapel has to come in…I can see that, and I can concentrate on it. But with cooking I just can’t do it.
TNP: And does your Mom think the same thing about you, with fashion and design?
AS: No, she has the eye for the clothes too. Actually when I was little I used to watch her sew, and then I would go fabric shopping with her. That’s kind of how I learned how you first have to find the fabric, then a pattern, and then put it all together. I learned all that from her.
TNP: When you were younger didn’t you give yourself the challenge of never wearing something twice in a year?
AS: Well after I learned how to sew— and this is the time of miniskirts, so you could go buy a yard of fabric somewhere— that’s what I did. My best friend and I traded some clothes, but then I would go to Kmart or wherever you could buy fabric, and buy a yard of all these different fabrics, and whip up these little skirts or little shift dresses. And then maybe put a cardigan or something with it. And then that season— I mean that school year— I never wore the same thing twice. And I got voted Best Dressed in school. (Laughs)
TNP: What other industries inspire you when you’re designing?
AS: I love interior design. I’m so inspired by that because, again, it’s got all those elements of history, tradition, and craftsmanship. I love looking at furniture; I love looking at objects. There’s just so much to discover, and there are always stories behind everything, which I think is the same case for any of the arts. But right now I’m really intrigued by interior design.
TNP: And speaking of interior design, what are some of the things that you collect?
AS: Papier-mâché heads. All the ones in here [the studio] I made, except for the ones in the front. There’s a designer— Gemma Taccogna— that I collect. That’s when I first learned about them. I would see them in magazines, and then I found one in the flea market and the back of the head was broken. So I figured out how it was made, and then I started making them and realized it was papier-mâché. Through the years I’ve also collected them – especially from eBay and Etsy, where you can find anything – and I have certain color palettes that I like. I have a ton of them. Just yesterday, Thomas [my assistant] helped me bid on bracelets. Taccogna made a whole series of bracelets in papier-mâché. I used to see them in the fashion magazines and they’ve never been in the flea market or anything, and then someone just let go of a whole slew of them, so I can’t wait to get them.
TNP: Don’t you have one of Diana Vreeland?
AS: There was a Sotheby’s auction of Diana Vreeland’s stuff. And I did get a Bert Stern photograph of Elizabeth Taylor from that auction.
But I also have a mannequin doll made by Greer Lankton. They just had a huge exhibition on the Lower East Side of all of her work and she made these life-sized dolls. She made one of Diana Vreeland and of Anna Wintour. They were in the Barney’s window, and I remember thinking, ‘How cool is that?’ You could have Diana Vreeland and you could dress her in all your vintage fashion. So a friend of mine knew Greer and brought me over to her apartment and she said, “Okay I’ll make you one.” But then of course she never got around to making one, so I ended up with the one that was in the window. I had it in my apartment for quite a few years and I had some vintage Courrèges, and I would change the outfits especially when people were coming over. So I have pictures of different people standing with her. I was just looking at them the other day after seeing the exhibition. But then, it became kind of high maintenance to have that fragile thing in the house, so I donated it to the Metropolitan Museum. So now the Met has her, but they don’t change her outfits as much as I did!
TNP: How has music always inspired what you do?
AS: I grew up in Detroit, and all the great bands would travel through Detroit. There were always incredible concerts. At first, I wasn’t old enough to go to the Grande Ballroom, which was kind of like the psychedelic venue for all those bands — what’s considered now classic British rock— that came through. But I would read about them. There was a senior in school, and he would go see the bands and he would bring me a flyer, and so I collected some of the flyers, and they were the same design as the big psychedelic posters that I now collect. They’re super collectable now because they’re so rare. I used to dream about going to see those bands, and finally I figured out that if my brother took me to the park concerts, I could get in because there was no ID-ing to get into the park. So I saw some of the bands in the park until I was old enough.
That’s still the music that I love. In Michigan, we had the MC5, which were kind of like the godfathers of punk rock – the MC5 and Iggy Pop. I actually saw both of them in the park performing. It’s at that age when you’re most impressionable, and I still like that music the best.
TNP: Were you inspired also by the aesthetic of the shows, and the music, and the packaging?
AS: Of course. You’d see pictures of the rock stars and their girlfriends, and the girlfriends always had on those incredible Ossie Clarks or Zandra Rhodes— all the English designers— and I think you can see that influence in my work. That was kind of the aesthetic that I always wanted. Especially in my last show, even the men’s clothes were from King’s Road – that whole inspiration of Granny Takes a Trip. I still just love all that. There’s a movement of psychedelic music now, bands from England and Australia, like the Temples or Tame Impala; I just love their music. They all kind of have that look. Especially the guy from the Temples— he’s got the Jimi Hendrix hair and I think Hedi [Slimane] made some clothes for him. He had the little fringe jacket on, skinny legs on stage, with this big hair. It was amazing to see them in concert.
TNP: In your career do you have a memory of a dinner you were at, where you were looking around at the company you were in and couldn’t believe it? Where was it and what were you eating?
AS: When I first started doing fashion shows and I started getting invited to events, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to talk about?’ Here are very accomplished people – people that you only read about – and they’re sitting with you. I remember John Duka (one of the founders of KCD) had said to me that the secret is just keep talking, and the best topic is to ask them where they went on vacation, because they love to talk about that. It got me through so many dinners because I was so intimidated, but you found that people just loved to talk about their vacations. I think that was the secret to— what we would call— the “rubber chickens” that we would have to go to.
It was almost a required thing to go to these dinners, but then you ended up really enjoying yourself because you did meet such fascinating people. It started probably with CFDA. The first CFDA awards I went to were when I got the Perry Ellis Award. And I remember at that award show it was really kind of unbelievable. Gianni Versace was there, and Karl Lagerfeld. But the biggest impression that I had was at dinner. I was going to be getting the first award, and I was trying to remember my speech. I was walking down into the hallway to go backstage, and and all of the sudden I heard footsteps running after me, and I turned around and there was Barbra Streisand and Donna Karan. They were like “Anna, Anna, Anna!” and Barbra’s like, “Where can I get your clothes?” and I’m like “Um, um, um, I don’t have a store in L.A. but I have a store in New York!” Which I guess maybe was the wrong thing to say… you’re supposed to say, “Oh I’ll send you some” (laughs) So at that point, that just shattered me because I thought, Oh my God, how am I going to do this speech after meeting Barbra Streisand?
TNP: Speaking of Donna Karan, we spoke to her recently and chatted a lot about the the nineties. Are you nostalgic for the nineties?
AS: I think I’m more nostalgic for that sixties/seventies period that I wasn’t old enough to really be involved with. It was more of my fantasy. And then last year I was really into the whole punk rock thing, which I was part of, so that was maybe the most nostalgic I’ve been in a long time, as far as my own life or my own career.
*Anna Sui, photographed in her New York, NY studio by Danielle Kosann.