DESIGN FOR LIFE I grew up in Michigan, in the suburbs of Detroit. My parents are French-educated Chinese immigrants. It was when I visited New York, aged four, for my uncle and aunt's wedding that I was taken in by the city. I said to my parents, "When I grow up I want to be a fashion designer." My whole life was geared towards that - I would watch my mum sew and choose fabrics, and at school I learned how to work with patterns. One day in the back of Seventeen magazine I saw an ad for the Parsons School of Design, in New York. I had read about two young ladies who went to Parsons and, when they graduated, the actress Elizabeth Taylor opened their boutique for them. I thought, "That's the key, I've got to go to Parsons!" So I spent my high school years making sure I had the right qualifications to get into that college, and I was accepted. I got hired before I had finished studying and started working for a big firm in 1981. It was the punk rock days and some friends were making great punk jewellery and I was like, "Oh, I want to do something like that." So I put together a collection for a trade show and got orders from Macy's and Bloomingdale's, which were the fashion-forward stores at the time. I ended up getting the windows at both stores but my boss, who I was still working for, wasn't happy. He said I was still on his payroll, so he fired me.
LUCKY STAR For the next 10 years, I worked hard and struggled to build my business. I did a lot of freelance jobs and also worked in Italy for seven years - that opened me up to global thinking. I went to my first Paris fashion show with (fashion photographer and former Parson's classmate) Steven Meisel and on the way there we stopped at The Ritz to pick up his friend, Madonna. She came out of her dressing room with a coat on. While I was waiting for her, I was sitting in her room looking at the racks and racks of clothes that designers in Paris and all over the world had sent her - shopping bags full. We got in the car and when we arrived at the fashion show she took off her coat and said, "Anna, I have a surprise for you." She was wearing one of my dresses! That gave me confidence. That was 1991 and, when we got back to New York, I did my first show. Through Steven I was also friends with models Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista and they helped me get all the other models together for the show - everyone pitched in. After that a lot of the international press and stores were abuzz about New York fashion looks. I was scouted by many Japanese companies. Japan really opened Asia up for me - the fashion fans there are fanatical.
DARK FANTASY My look was for a particular woman, one with a sense of fantasy, like a fairy-tale princess, but there's also a darker side, like you could never tell whether she was a good girl or a bad one. Throw into that mix some rock 'n' roll and nostalgia and it was something people could relate to. When I opened my first boutique I had to figure out how to make it unique, so I did red floors - like those in my apartment - and purple walls and black lacquered furniture. That black furniture came out of necessity - I didn't have a lot of money at the time so everything was bought at a flea market and we painted it all black so it matched, like a suite. That became my signature look - you can see that in all my packaging. My first perfume bottle was black laquer and I've used black Rococo shapes for the furniture in my store. That's another key to my brand: it is very recognisable and I've stayed loyal to that fantastical look, to my world.
JOB INSECURITY I always say to students that you have to figure out your time and your moment. Nobody does it the same so it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I struggled for 10 years so it wasn't an overnight success. I think it's even more competitive and complicated today because a lot depends on work experience - your first job gets you other jobs so make sure you really understand and know what you want to do. Today there are so many graduates and so few jobs. Young designers have to know how tough the competition is. The key is to get into a really good design school like Parsons and London's Central Saint Martins - they've given birth to really famous designers.
HARSH WORDS When I was at Parsons, the school's head was Ann Keagy - she was very old school and "gave birth" to Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and other designers of that ilk. All of a sudden here was me, into street fashion, and I was looking to all the French and London designers and wanted to do "boutiquey" sort of clothes. When she looked at my portfolio she said, "You know nothing about fashion." But you have to find your time and era and focus and believe in yourself. That focus got me where I am. I think I have the greatest job in the word. If I'm obsessed with something then I can put it into my work. I can research it more. My last collection was inspired by Polynesian style. I was travelling to Tahiti with my family and I had to research the trip - that research gave me the essence of my collection. I love travel. I go to Shanghai every two years and it's such a fast-growing culture - the landscape changes so quickly.
Anna Sui is collaborating with Starbucks this Christmas to present a coffee accessories collection.