Andrew Bolton, a curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, peppered Anna Sui with questions about her rock 'n' roll appeal and the sense of swagger in her career, often referring to images of the designer's runway looks to emphasize a point.
Guests also got a glimpse of the black-and-white film of what Sui and her friend Zoe Cassavetes imagined to be the ultimate party. Like much of what Sui does, the short was inspired by something grander — in this case Richard Avedon's photographs of Andy Warhol's factory.
The street style for which Sui has become known is rooted in a simple idea. "My main objective was to design clothes for rock stars and people who went to rock concerts," she said. "My work really reflects what I'm obsessed with at the moment — whether that be a new album, a film I saw or a place I have traveled to."
When Bolton asked about the 1994 runway shot of Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista in Sui's baby-doll dresses, Sui said her pals Steven Meisel and Paul Cavaco badgered her to have a show and the famous threesome were just friends with whom she hung out.
"The ultimate goal of making a show that is entertaining for people is always in the back of my mind," Sui said. "I also think, 'Is this collection going to be cool enough for people like Keith Richards to appreciate?'"
Asked about design inspiration, Sui referenced far-ranging subjects such as posters of Buffalo Bill Cody, the Tibetan Freedom Festival and Walter Crane's Victorian fairy-tale art. As for how she decided to use a bold shade of purple for the interior of her New York SoHo store, she said she has been a devotee of the hue since she was a teenager and saw an old Jerry Lewis movie with a character who drove a purple Rolls Royce.
Having a signature style is essential for every designer, Sui said. "If any of you are thinking of becoming designers, you have to come up with your own universe."
She also spoke about how the perception of her career choice has substantially changed since she was younger."My idea of being a designer was draping beautiful fabric on a mannequin and going out to lunch. I also saw an article in Life magazine about how Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton opened a boutique for two designers who graduated from Parsons," she said, not knowing one of the designers was Irving Penn's daughter.
The reality, of course, was more complicated. "I suffered for 10 years," Sui said.
When she first worked on her own, her home studio wound up taking over her loft. Even after Sui leased a Garment District design studio, there were still days when she walked to work because she didn't have enough money for a subway token. Freelancing for Iceberg for six years and working as a stylist for Meisel were some of the ways she made ends meet.
"Every experience led to something else — be it good or bad — you learn from it," she said.
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