It was like going to church. It became a ritual, every Sunday morning at 10.”
The place to which Anna Sui referred — where she and her circle of arty, vintage-loving friends flocked with religious fervor — was the Chelsea Flea Market, a vast expanse of a parking lot on Sixth Avenue and 25th Street, that each weekend for years filled up with vendors hawking everything from tabletop tchotchkes to furniture to the clothes of yore, with a range from junk to major designer gold. The market attracted a dense cross section of the urban shopping demographic: professionally creative types like those of Sui’s circle, amateur vintage aficionados in search of the miraculous find, less informed bargain-hunters and the merely curious.
The market mattered to Sui and her friends — the dogged search, the thrill of discovery, the useful appropriation. She frequented the realm of Queen Esther, a gray-haired, heavy-smoking doyenne, who from her folding chair presided over a feast of early-20th-century-mocks-various-Louis furniture that Sui bought up and made her own, lacquering it in high-shine black. But the high-rises came, forcing Esther and her card-table cronies out, and with them, a long-beloved New York tradition.
Change. Sui has seen tons, and adapted deftly, maintaining and growing her brand, launched in 1981, in a most unusual manner. She recently vacated the SoHo retail location on Greene Street she’d occupied since 1992, uprooting to a spot further south, a cozy outpost on Broome Street between Wooster and West Broadway, that feels better suited to her indie sensibility.
Sui is one of fashion’s true originals, a pragmatic iconoclast who has stayed independent as countless others have either come and gone or sold controlling interests to major investors. One could argue that she championed cool-girl contemporary before the genre existed as a category. When she was getting started, New York fashion was comprised of the ultrachic ready-to-wear designers anchored by Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta; high-polished designer sportswear, and perky and cute juniors, with little in between. Sui arrived with an arty irreverence and price point that distanced her from the juniors arena, but in fashion parlance, still targeted a “girl” rather than a woman — that is, a young customer given to flights of sartorial fancy and experimental expression via clothes, someone largely overlooked by American fashion at its highest level in 1980.
Her longevity and distinctive identity have made her a mainstay of New York’s fashion universe, yet she is decidedly niche, with the lion’s share of her business done outside the U.S. — in Asia. Still, the essential visual representation of her brand remains her New York boutique. After deciding not to renew the lease on Greene Street in the face of skyrocketing rent, she mulled whether to forgo a store in New York altogether, but decided in short order that the store had long been the fullest expression of her brand, one that houses all her products, a considerable array. “I felt like that’s what put me on the map, when I did my store,” she says. “I have such a vast offering of product, I want to house it so that people can see it all together and see this world.”
The store retains the essential imprint of the original, yet with greater sophistication of execution. The first effort was genuinely DIY, since Sui had little money at the time. She notes that her special design sense has evolved since then, it’s more disciplined and exacting. What hasn’t changed: The black lacquered ceiling and red floor, the latter a Sui tradition birthed years ago, at the urging of her close friend Steven Meisel, when she was redoing an early apartment and was on the hunt for blond floors. “You don’t want a blond floor,” he challenged her. “What would Vreeland have?”
In between the red and black: “Tiffany” plastic hanging lamps, a wall of for-sale concert posters too plentiful to count (they give “the boyfriend something to do when the girlfriend is busy shopping”), and black-and-white swan wallpaper, a previously dormant pattern Sui found for her recent apartment renovation, and which Graham & Brown reissued for her. A pair of tufted Victorian armchairs (real or fake, who knows?) flank a small black-lacquered commode on which stands a lamp under a heavy, black-fringed shade. And everywhere, Esther and ode-to-Esther furniture, all high-shine black lacquer, displaying cosmetics, T-shirts, hosiery, umbrellas. Around the perimeter: tightly packed racks of florals, geometrics, feathers and other high-impact treatments. The scene is darkly euphoric, as if the work of a teen with a great eye and flamboyant flair who’s trying to reconcile aspirational angst with her yen for pretty, frothy things.
Sui loves her new location and retail neighbors — Tomorrowland, Pas de Calais, Selima Optique and Isabel Marant — “so it feels more boutique-y again in this area,” she says. More unexpectedly, she notes Sunrise, the Japanese grocery store, as “a huge draw.” Yet she acknowledges that destination shopping is a work in progress, and that her clientele since the move has been “a lot of people who either work or live in this area and they’re passing by.
Though limited, it beats what she fled. “SoHo has changed and turned into a mall,” she says. “It started with West Broadway and gradually the whole neighborhood changed; suddenly we have Tiffany on our block. It just brought a different customer. I don’t know that it brought that much business, but I think it also drove away a certain customer, too….Now, it’s just like, ‘oh, there’s one of these.’ It’s just not that special. Same with all of the cute little food places that used to be around.” Sui opened in SoHo at a time of retail malaise. With rent cheap in an area slim on stores and still big on galleries, she signed a long-term deal and stayed for 23 years. Her mission — undertaken at the suggestion of Zack Carr, Calvin Klein’s right-hand in the design studio who lived on her block and with whom she became friendly — was to open a store that would crystallize her vision in a single experience so that, he said, “people will get you.” It worked, drawing a local cool-girl, model-centric clientele while piquing the interest of major retailers who soon gave the collection floor space, though now, the only U.S. retailers to carry the clothes are Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor. Though Sui has no e-commerce of her own, the collection is sold as well on Shopbop. com, Net-a-porter.com, anthropologie.com and Amazon.com.
The store also became a beacon for young tourists from Asia. As such, it proved essential — a template for Sui’s other boutiques, now 54 freestanding and 150 shops-in-shop, all in Asia: Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. This concentrated distribution speaks to Sui’s particular savvy opportunism and her willingness to go where the business took her. This year marks her 12th in Japan, site of a fiercely loyal following. “The last time I did a perfume launch two years ago, there would be moms with a teenage daughter, so the mom was a teenage daughter when I first met her, or the grandma with mom and a young teenager,” she recalls. “So I’m kind of crossing three generations now in Japan.”
If one looks at Japanese street style — and there are countless Web sites and print vehicles dedicated to it — it’s easy to get why Sui’s oeuvre resonates. Young, fashion-obsessed Japanese women dress with a fearlessness you don’t see anywhere else. Their cross-cultural sourcing, explosive trending and rampant experimentation lend themselves to Sui’s girly flamboyance with its vast range of references, whether Victoriana, screen sirens, Art Deco, or her recent visit to Tahiti, always with a hippie-boho grounding.
Sui thinks that her own Asian heritage — first-generation Chinese on both sides — made her quickly relatable to young Japanese women at a time when Western brands were just starting to tap into that market. “People always want to know the story, how did I do it,” she says. “So many people dream about being designers, and I’m kind of exceptional because I did it without a backer, I did it on my own. I still, independently, own my company. I think they see it as a role model for them.”
Their interest was her opportunity. Early on, Nobukazu Muto, then-president of Isetan, came to her with a proposal that would form the back-bone of business. Her collection, she says, “came along at a time when Japan was looking for New York designers.” Impressed with her work, Muto offered her a deal for distribution in Japan, along with the promise that “in order to support it, I’m going to get you 12 different licenses.” Two decades later, Isetan retains the license for producing and distributing the women’s collection in Japan.
“If those two things didn’t happen, then I don’t think I could have stayed this independent. That’s kind of a designer’s jackpot, to have a cosmetic line and a fragrance line,” she says. “It’s very hard to make money on clothes. The licenses make it possible to do the clothes that I do.”
The first of the supporting licenses, with the Japanese firm Albion for cosmetics, took three years to launch. Fragrance followed soon there- after, with Wella AG, later acquired by P&G for its Prestige Products division. Currently, Inter Parfums holds the license. At a time when the concepts of chic and minimal were conjoined in the fashion psyche, Sui broke through a sea of bland beauty packaging with the trappings of celebratory Goth — high-shine, black bottles and compacts with deeply articulated roses that mimicked the luster of the boutique’s furniture. It was a huge hit. The fragrance deals have produced a whopping 17 fragrances, nine of which remain live. With names like La Vie de Bohème and Secret Wish, and bottles featuring, respectively, a gold filigree butterfly stopper atop a flacon of two sculptural purple roses and a fairy stopper emerging from an aqua oval, they charm. Sephora carries both collections worldwide.
Yet Sui subscribes to the premise that not every win must be a blockbuster, and in this world of global reach, some elements of life remain consummately local. Of her 17 licensed categories, only perfume, cosmetics, eyewear, lingerie and, most recently, swimwear, introduced in July with Onis, are available worldwide.
Additional products from universally in-demand categories — leather goods, legwear, jewelry — are available across Asia. Still more register as delightfully offbeat on Broome Street but are mainstays in certain Asian markets, specifically, hankies and hand towels intended for on-the-go. “They don’t put towels in restrooms,” Sui says. Japan-only deals cover aprons, slippers, fans and yukata, wearable versions of traditional Japanese clothing. As Asia has a huge tradition of gifting, many of the products are designed for that purpose, and come in specially designed boxes.
Through the years, Sui has worked numerous freelance jobs, including an early seven-year stint with Iceberg that helped keep her business going. As her reputation has grown, she’s signed on for various high-profile, one-off and limited situations, including those with Coach, Victoria’s Secret, Tumi, Target and the surf line O’Neill.
As conversation meanders from present to past, the question of “what do you miss” comes up. After considering for a moment, Sui offers that what she misses most is “all of the nonconformist individuality. Everything got so conformed….It was the whole casual factor.” But she stops herself. “I think there are some really exciting things going on right now,” she says. “I’m crazy about what the Gucci stuff is looking like. They’re quirky and very special. I love the androgyny and all of that embellishment. It’s beautiful.”
It’s also 180 degrees from where it was under Frida Giannini, and the flip-flop hasn’t hurt Gucci’s brand equity at all. “That’s what fashion is,” Sui offers. “It flips like that. [Someone] does the unexpected. It’s exciting and new because it just catches you off guard and it’s like ‘oh my God, how did that happen?’ It’s good.”