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 two of an incredible interview with an incredible fashion icon…
TNP: What do you think social media, such as Instagram, has done to fashion?
AS: I think all of social media has made everything so immediate, which is a good and a bad thing. I think what we don’t have anymore— which is really the basis of all my creativity— is that longing. Like, you would see a little picture of The Beatles and they’d be wearing those embroidered Afghan jackets, and you’d think, ‘Oh my God. Where did they get those jackets? Did somebody go to Afghanistan to get them? Where can I find one?’ Dreaming and dreaming and dreaming about that. Or dreaming about going to London to those shops to buy those clothes. Now, you see something, and you go buy it on Net-a-Porter. It’s so immediate that, I don’t know, once you get it, is it as treasured and appreciated as when you had that longing? It makes everything a little more throw away. I think the unattainability makes something much more precious to a person.
TNP: That’s a good point. Where do you love to travel? What have been some of your most memorable trips?
AS: Well, I used to love going to London all the time. Whenever I knew I was going to have a four-day weekend or something, I usually went to London. I just loved shopping there, going to the Portobello Market, and had a lot of friends there. But when my nieces and nephews started getting older, I started worrying that they didn’t even know me. I’m their aunt in New York. I see them at the fashion show, and I see them at Christmas. So when my two nephews were sixteen, I said, “Let’s go on vacation together. Where do you want to go?” And they were studying the Iliad, so we went to Greece and Turkey, and we went to all the spots that are mentioned in the Iliad. It was such a great experience — getting to know them, understanding their personalities, but them also getting to know me. Then the next year I took all the girls, my nieces, to Thailand, because I had been there for business. When you go for business, it’s like a whirlwind, and you get two hours in the market and then the rest of the time you’re just working. But I knew the girls were going to love the flea market there – seeing all the cute clothes and accessories and all the beautiful flowers. So we went. And then we made a tradition of every June, going on a family trip. Two years ago we went to Tanzania on a safari. They’re still talking about it. That was such a great life memory. They all grew up so close, and now everybody’s kind of scattered, so it means so much when we can get together.
TNP: Speaking of Asia, can you tell us a bit about your business in Asia and how it’s different from your business here?
AS: I was just so fortunate to get my agreement with Isetan. They really promoted my brand in Japan and also got me twelve different licenses to help support my brand. That made me famous throughout Asia. Then the German company Wella approached me to do a fragrance. I had this idea that they should cross-distribute so that it could be a global thing. I remember the president of Wella saying, “That’s unorthodox. We’ve never done it that way.” And I said, “Well why don’t you try it? It makes sense to me.” That was kind of the beginning of globalization. Of course, it was very rocky and difficult to get everyone to agree on how to do things, but I think that was the way business was going. Everyone is in that same boat now, trying to make it work globally. I think that if it wasn’t for Isetan and that support, and also the support of the fragrance company, I don’t know if I would have been able to continue for as long as I have.
TNP: What’s it like when you go there in terms of the food culture, and the culture of going out to dinner?
AS: Well, that’s the great thing about traveling. I’ve learned so much about Japanese culture from going there. The president of Isetan – Nobukazu Muto – was instrumental in getting me the licenses and bringing my collection to Japan. He loved really old-fashioned traditional Japanese restaurants. I would look forward to him inviting me to dinner because we would go to restaurants that would almost be like old houses. There were maybe three or four tatami rooms, and the head of the house would be the person who was serving us, and all the dishes would be from thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years ago— beautiful, beautiful ceramics. The way they would present the food was always seasonal, so when it was winter they would place the sushi on this pile of salt and have a pine branch in it, so it would look like the mountainside with a pine tree. It was so breathtaking that I really regret that I didn’t take pictures each time, because the combination of the dish itself and the way the food was presented…there’s nothing like it. The amount of care and time and tradition and skill that went into serving that dish that you ate in five minutes was just astounding. They have all their different traditional dishes, which every country does, but there’s something about their presentation that’s just kind of unreal.
TNP: The manners there are also completely different in food culture, right? The way they go about everything?
AS: Yes. There’s the Robata restaurants where they grill everything and when you walk in all the people that work there greet you and yell out. I just had this incredible dinner with Kansai Yamamoto – a designer from the seventies who actually did David Bowie’s tour clothes – when I was in Tokyo and it was one of those robatas. When we were leaving, Kansai stood up, and everyone that worked there was like “Kansai, Kansai, Kansai!” And I thought, oh my God, he must feel like a god every time he comes here. It was so cute.
TNP: When you’re creating your makeup line, do you keep your clothing and accessories heavily in mind?
AS: I think that all of our licensed products are inspired by my fashion world. The black packaging really came from all the things I collected since I was a teenager. The first thing I bought was that vanity over there. I went to the Salvation Army and dragged it home and my Mom said, “What are you going to do with that?” It looked like it had been in a fire. It was white but it was all sooty. I painted it all black and put it in my bedroom. And when it came time to decorate my store, I figured I would just go to the flea market; they have the most incredible pieces. So actually every piece of furniture here is from the flea market, and we painted it all black. The cosmetics company loved that idea of the rococo shapes of everything, and all the roses, and they took that and put it right into the packaging. They took pictures of all my jewelry and all the pieces of furniture, and that’s where all these shapes came from.
TNP: Do you think that’s why they’re considered collectors’ items? Was that on purpose?
AS: Well, I think it’s part of my whole obsession too. I, as a kid, saved packages and bottles and containers just because I loved the shapes. I kept them in a box. And I wanted to make my customer just as obsessive as me. You can’t throw these things away. You want to save them. The other thing that I realized is that not everybody has the lifestyle or the budget to afford an Anna Sui dress, or maybe they don’t have anywhere to wear an Anna Sui dress, but they can have the same fantasy in that tube of lipstick or that nail polish. You get the same excitement when you see it, so I feel like that’s my job, to put that into every product.
TNP: What are some of your favorite restaurants in New York and LA? And any other cities?
AS: In New York, my friends and I went through a whole period of doing all the real traditional ones like Four Seasons and La Grenouille. That was so much fun because it was always our fantasy. We would read about it in Women’s Wear Daily, that Jackie O. or Babe Paley was going to these restaurants, so it was just so much fun. We’d get all dressed up and go. And then of course it’s always fun to try the new trendy ones. But one of the things that’s really kind of crazy is the noise level of the restaurants now; it’s beyond. So we’re trying to find places that have a decent noise level now. One of the restaurants that we discovered recently is the Russ & Daughters Café. We were downtown at an art show and were like, “Where should we go? Where should we go?” And Marc [Jacobs] said, “Oh, I think Russ & Daughters has a new restaurant.” So we just went over there and we got a table, and everyone enjoyed it so much. There’s no noise; there’s no disco music in the background. And the food is amazing.
TNP: And when you personally have a dinner party and you seat it, what do you keep in mind?
AS: I don’t have a huge space, so I just worry about if everybody can fit at the table. (Laughs) I always tend to buy way too much, because I don’t cook, so I order way too much food. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had everybody over for Christmas, and it was so nerve-racking for me. I really admire people that are so easy with entertaining and whipping up something in the kitchen for friends. I was like “What am I going to get??” So then I ended up ordering way too much food.
TNP: Where do you order from usually?
AS: Num Pang. And then Lady M, for cakes. They’re so beautifully presented. I go there to get the traditional one and the banana cream pie.
TNP: In the same vein as the new black in fashion, what do you think the new potato is right now?
AS: One thing I noticed in Japan, is that it’s all about lifestyle. It’s not just fashion; it’s not just one thing. It’s a whole lifestyle. They have all these new stores that are called lifestyle stores. Usually there’s a café there, and a great selection of fashion, accessories, books, and furniture. Right now, they’re really into Scandinavian. All these different stores have beautiful selections of vintage Danish modern furniture, plus a whole clothing selection with the same feeling. Even the accessories they developed were Nordic and Scandinavian.
The other thing that they called it was ‘Portland’, which is how they imagine people in Portland to dress. There’s that whole lumberjack look. It’s funny because when I went home to Detroit, Shinola has this beautiful store in an old factory building, and next door they did a clothing store. Besides the beautiful bikes and watches that they had, they had revived some traditional brands like Filson, but it’s such a beautiful selection of Filson. There’s another store down the street called Detroit Mercantile and they had a traditional hunting clothes company called Stormy Kromer. Everyone in town was wearing the hunting hat, but they had done so many different fabrics. It was so funny; everywhere I went, no matter which part of Detroit, there was always some trendy person wearing one of the Stormy Kromers. And it was the same in Tokyo; everyone looked like Elmer Fudd. They looked like hunters, but in really trendy beautiful plaid coats from Woolrich or Filson, great leggings and Timberland boots, and then always these hunting hats.
The Japanese can do that so well, because they take that wool and they wash it, so it’s like gauze. They’re so into hiking and nature right now. It’s been a trend for a couple years. You go into their stores and they’ll have North Face and Patagonia, but in a selection that you have never seen, and in the colors that you have never seen. The way it’s presented, it could be Céline. It’s just so refined and beautiful, with such a point of view.
*Anna Sui, photographed in New York, NY studio by Danielle Kosann