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Sui: Conform Over Function

NEW YORK — While Anna Sui might have carved out a fashion look that speaks of counterculture and rock ’n’ roll rebellion, her message to fashion design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s annual career day Friday...

NEW YORK — While Anna Sui might have carved out a fashion look that speaks of counterculture and rock ’n’ roll rebellion, her message to fashion design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s annual career day Friday was that when it comes to business, it’s better to try to fit in.

Sui described her experiences as a student at Parsons School of Design, the steps she took to start her label and the lessons she learned along the way to about 400 students from around the country participating in a daylong seminar at FIT.

Sui started out working for several junior sportswear houses, where she learned the basics of the apparel craft as well as the importance of developing relationships and resources, important elements of her success.

In 1981, she made her first sales to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s after she designed a handful of looks to go with a friend’s jewelry collection, which were shown at a jewelry trade show. Her designs even got a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.

“That’s how I started my own business,” Sui said. “My boss at the time saw the ad and I was fired, so I used my $300 paycheck to finance my first collection. I didn’t know how to balance my checkbook when I started my business, but when you only have $100 and you owe $1,000, you learn very fast.”

Ten years later, with five employees, Sui’s reputation had grown to the point that her friends, including the photographer Steven Meisel, pushed her into staging a runway show. This was at the beginning of New York’s shining moment of runway shows and the height of the supermodel movement.

“The lesson was that you have to be in the right place at the right time, but you also have to be with the times,” Sui said.

Of course, that was a different time. Sui worked out of her apartment for a decade, paying $1,000 a month for a loft that could accommodate her business operations. Department stores used to have extra money to support new designers and weren’t always focused on the bottom line, which Sui expected would change the rules for many of the graduating students to whom she spoke.

“Business has changed a lot now,” she said. “If you don’t have your 70 percent sell-through, you’re out the door. But a lot of times, these different obstacles are what starts innovation. It’s going to happen in a different way, but you have to be there and have your finger on the pulse and be a part of it.”

Sui also had some more practical advice for students, such as staying true to their visions and using common sense when striking out on their own. Naturally, many of the students’ questions veered toward what Sui looks for in a job application or whether she always requires a portfolio.

“I don’t think I’d want a creative bookkeeper, but a creative designer, yes,” Sui said, noting that there are some boundaries. “I once got a doll in a coffin with a résumé attached. You think I want that person in my office?”