Detroit fashion designer Anna Sui recounts life at Penny Stamps Lecture

Sunday, October 11, 2015 - 4:19pm

The world of Anna Sui is ever-evolving, consistently arresting and above all, unlike any other. For the past 34 years, the Detroit-born fashion designer has absorbed the intricacies of countless cultures and rendered them wearable, an approach best epitomized by her official Instagram bio.

“I invite my friends around the world to share a peek into my mind,” it reads.

Last Thursday, a near-packed Michigan Theater caught a glimpse of Sui’s wordly psyche as she shared her story of breaking into the fashion industry, creating an enduring international brand and staying true to herself. As part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series collaboration with The Institute for the Humanities and Detroit Creative Corridors Center (dc3), Sui spoke in a conversation format with Detroit-based fashion stylist Paulina Petkoski. 

“We’re always happy when we can find people from the area who have gone on to find success,” said Chrisstina Hamilton, director of the speaker series. “She’s been so successful internationally and across markets.”

Hamilton prefaced the discussion with a synopsis of the recent New York Times article by Guy Trebay, “When Fashion Shows Were Fun” — a wistful recount of the industry’s incipient years of playful spectacle, a far cry from today’s over-commercialization. And yet, Trebay applauds Sui’s everlasting contingency on exuberance and lauds her as the high point of New York Fashion Week.

“Today, the most fun is always to be had at an Anna Sui show,” Hamilton said. “Her collections take you on a journey that’s unparalleled in the fashion industry.”

Sui’s initial fashion fascination is a familiar tale — a childhood marked by lusting over the glossy pages of fashion magazines, adorning bedroom walls with captivating snippets and industry profiles. She recalled her formative years as a time of obsession for all things rock ‘n’ roll, television and of course, fashion — inspirations that continue to manifest into her collections.

“I think growing up in the suburbs, I was just purely a product of pop culture,” Sui said.  “As a kid you just think you have to find the magic key and I think, from that point on, I was really living my dream.”

Along with collaging her dream world, Sui diligently researched design schools and ultimately decided on Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she mingled with noted fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who remains a dear friend. Parsons also allowed her to break into the industry by way of eavesdropping.

“I overheard two seniors at Parsons talking about a job opportunity when I was still a junior,” she recalled. “It was with my favorite designer Erika Elias’s line for Charlie’s Girls … so I took my portfolio over to see her and I got hired.”

Under Elias’s strict direction, Sui learned everything from sewing techniques to drape work. To this day, Elias’s mantra resonates — “if you’re talking, you’re not working.”

“She would say, ‘just inspire me, do what you want,’ ” Sui said. “She was a really tough boss, but I learned so much from her.”

Sui then went on to cultivate the decade-long foundation of her first collection. She took on various freelance jobs and spent seven years working on men’s collections in Italy, alongside bourgeoning designer Marc Jacobs.

 “He was just a young kid obsessed with fashion, the way I was obsessed with fashion,” she said. 

After an experiential education within the industry, Sui debuted her inaugural collection. Soon after, she took her first trip to Paris to observe Paris Fashion Week in action alongside Meisel and a remaining slew of stylish companions. During their adventures, Sui and Meisel attended a Jean Paul Gaultier show with Madonna — an experience that lent her the confidence to keep pursuing her craft.

“We got to the show and she leaned over and said ‘Anna, I have a surprise for you’,” Sui said. “She opened up her coat and said ‘I’m wearing your dress!’ That was one of the big things that gave me confidence.”

By 1992, Sui established her flagship boutique in SoHo, the first of 50 eponymous edifices. The decorum of red floors, purple walls, black lacquered furniture, paper maché dolls and all things art nouveau became longstanding Anna Sui motifs.

Though Sui’s work ethic speaks volumes to her success, she insists that a majority of her business ‘just happened’. Though it wasn’t always a straightforward path.

“Practically every penny I made went right back into the business,” she said. “As the business grows, you need more capital. It’s a hardship worrying about money all the time.”

She also refers to 2008’s financial crisis as a reality check for the fashion world, but believes it prompted an era of analyzing and strategy planning in the ever-changing industry.

Perils aside, Sui believes she has the best job in the world. Her knack for translating any facet of the current zeitgeist, whether it be modern phenomena or her recent travels, is positively uncanny. She absorbs the essence of everything from Victorian cowboys to her recent Tahitian travels and stunningly refracts it.

“I think the thing I love most is the research, it’s kind of like my continuing education,” she said.

To those aspiring a fashion-centric career, Sui stressed the importance of travelling and the willingness to relocate, two markers of her own career. Her idiosyncratic aesthetic has also helped her elevate her business.

“You can never tell if it’s for a good girl or a bad girl,” she said. “I think that’s part of the appeal.”

For those who were unable to attend the lecture or Sui’s tropical SS16 show in New York, a sample of her distinctive clothing is on display at the Detroit Historical Museum as part of the Booth-Wilkinson Gallery exhibit, Fashion D.Fined.