Anna Sui has stood the test of time in the fickle world of fashion. She talks fairies and friends with P. Ramakrishnan
GLOBAL CITIZEN IS an oft-misused term. But for designer Anna Sui, the words fit comfortably. “My parents were born in China, but they met in Paris, lived in Europe and then moved to the United States. I was born in the suburbs of Detroit and grew up on pop culture, television and rock ’n’ roll,” says the eclectic creative. “Am I American or Asian? I think of myself as a global person, which in essence we’re all becoming.”
Sitting in a flower-festooned suite at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, Sui was in the city to launch Fairy Dance, the last instalment in a trilogy of perfumes known as Secret Wish. Fairies make dreams come true, notes Sui. The launch represents yet another mini-milestone in what’s been one long and rewarding career of them. Sui, whose exuberant designs meld influences as disparate as Victorian cowboy, Andy Warhol and Finnish textile print, is among an elite to have received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), whose lofty company includes Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Diane von Furstenberg. Named one of the “Top 5 Fashion Icons of the Decade” [TIME], her eponymous brand has grown to become a global fashion industry worth an estimated US$400 million by Forbes magazine. Comprising clothes, cosmetics, eyewear, and accessories, along with her line of sig-nature fragrances, Sui has more than 50 boutiques in eight countries and sells in over 300 stores in more than 30 countries.
Increasingly, and the irony is not lost on Sui, the potions have become brand enhancer and profit elixir. “Fragrance is the crown and glory of a design house,” she says. “It can reach further than your clothing and fashion. People now think of me as a perfume; it transcends a real person.”
Like any prescient creative Sui’s wardrobe – worn by luminaries such as Sofia Coppola, Zooey Deschanel, and Kristen Stewart – is the result of a wild mind and disciplined eye; she’s equal parts fashion student and research shopaholic.
Her latest collection, inspired by illustrator and photographer Antonio Lopez, reflects that approach. “Lopez brought the excitement of New York fashion to Paris along with a bevy of models, and they invaded all of its nightclubs. He inspired people like Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Because of Lopez, prêt-à-porter was born and European designers wanted to do more immediate and younger fashion. There was vintage inspiration too. Women like Paloma Picasso and [model/actress] Marisa Berenson, wore things from the flea market. All these influences exploded at this great time – and that was my big inspiration.”
Hence the intricate homage to vintage prints and sepia-tones that infuse the collection. “I love the way fragrance creates mood – so can colour. I constantly look at photographs, paintings and film from whichever period is influencing me and try to capture that colour and put it on the catwalk.”
Appropriating from her own palette, Sui’s collection also sees a return to flora and fauna with this collection. “For a few seasons I was trying not to do floral because people know me for it, but this season, it’s all floral.”
Fascinated as she is by narrative and cultural history, Sui’s story is like a re-spun Cinderella of modern-day mythology in which the evil stepsisters make way for glamazonian supermodels. A graduate of New York’s Parsons School of Design, she styled with photographer friend Steven Meisel, designed for sportswear companies and then launched her brand in 1980, which grew during the decade. So impressed were catwalk queens Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista they encouraged – and then offered – to do Sui’s first runway show in 1991 for free.
Sui, who still maintains contact with both, smiles at the recollections: “I don’t see them as often as before because they don’t do the shows. But I do see them. Naomi’s boyfriend has a place in New York so we get together for dinners. Linda lives in New York some of the time so I run into her every so often. We were pals. I knew them more as friends than as models and we fostered a great friendship over the years.”
The show’s success saw Sui open her first store in 1992 on Greene Street in New York’s Soho. With its vibrant mix of black Victorian furniture, purple walls, and rock ’n’ roll paraphernalia, it set the tone for all Anna Sui boutiques since.
Today’s face of Anna Sui fashion, cosmetics and perfume is Swedish sensation Frida Gustavsson, a dream fit for Sui.
“Frida’s the type of model that only comes along every so often, she wears clothes beautifully and so gracefully and doesn’t have to be retouched. She’s perfect.”
It’s hard to feel anything but joy and warmth for Sui in the face of her passion and enthusiasm. Fairy and godmother, fashion and dream, for one so grounded, she’s high fantastical.
Anna Sui’s Fairy Dance is the third instalment of perfumes under the title Secret Wish. “We wanted something that was light and fresh, the way the other fragrances were, but this one has an element of fruit: tangerine and mango,” she says, as a voluptuous bottle, topped with a fairy cap mists the air. “We wanted to evoke sunshine, when you see the juice itself, it has a sunny glow to it. We tried to capture a summer festival feeling with roses, and rose gardens and fairies, laughter and friendship.
” The seemingly lofty aspirations are grounded in reality, as Sui explains: “There’s a festival I go to every summer in Cornwall, England, a long weekend where we celebrate life with music, literature and now there’s a fashion element going on there. And I thought, why not do something inspired by all of that? All in all, it’s about friendship. See in this whole theme, a fairy-tale element.
Fairies are the ones that can answer your dreams, which can make your wishes come true. So why not have the fairy as a symbol?