Anna Sui and Andrew Bolton, a major contributor to a new book on the designer, have a deep connection rooted in their love of fashion, music and the arts.
This story first appeared in the November 3, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Anna Sui has been a fashion force almost since her first runway outing in 1991. She is known for her bohemian, rock and neo-hippie aesthetic, her shy, endearing mien and her close friendships with musicians such as Jack White of The White Stripes, as well as Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.
Her romantic-with-a-touch-of-nostalgia world comes together in “Anna Sui,” a new coffee-table book published by Chronicle Books that is being celebrated with a signing Thursday at Rizzoli on West 57th Street in Manhattan.
Sui had no shortage of high-profile friends to lend their voices to the book. White wrote the preface and photographer Steven Meisel authored the introduction. The biggest contribution came from her close friend Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who analyzed Sui’s collection season by season. Sui, who is from Detroit, and Bolton, a native of Lancashire, England, have known each other longer than each cares to remember. Their chemistry is obvious. They complete each other’s thoughts, chuckle at the same fashion anecdotes and share a love of fashion, English pop music and the arts.
On a recent afternoon, the friends met in Sui’s West 39th Street showroom to talk and reminisce about everything from their first encounter to travels with Anita Pallenberg and the rise of supermodels.
Anna Sui: Andrew and I met through Vivienne Tam at the CFDA Awards. We chatted so much that night, and I think I was going to London.
Andrew Bolton: You were doing a scent launch at Harvey Nichols.
A.S.: That’s right, and you were still at the Victoria and Albert Museum at the time, so we got together. I kept making excuses to go back to London so that we could hang out.
A.B.: It was in the mid- to late Nineties, maybe 1997. You are such a great historian and she has this wealth of information and cultural references that you can see in her collections. That’s what made us really connect — our love of the arts, fashion and music.
A.S.: And pop culture, too. You would always tell me about all these new British bands. One of the times that I went to London, I was obsessed with this house that people call Peacock House, which is also known as the Majolica House. It has tiles that were created by [ceramic artist] William De Morgan, and when he went bankrupt, [architect] Halsey [Ralph Ricardo] inherited them as part of his pay. He figured out a way to use the tiles in this beautiful new house of the Debenham family. Andrew figured out how to see it and we went to visit it. We must have photographed every inch of the house. It was just the most beautiful art nouveau house I had ever seen.
A.B.: One of my strongest memories is going to Whitby with you and Anita Pallenberg. You were doing some research on your Gypsy collection and part of it was to find the King of the Gypsies, who lived somewhere on the way toward Whitby, where Bram Stoker also wrote “Dracula.” On that trip, we also went to the Yorkshire Moors to see an Ossie Clark exhibit in Warrington. We weren’t meant to stay overnight. I was map reading and got completely lost in that spaghetti junction around Birmingham. We got there two hours late. We ended up in some hideous hotel.
A.S.: …With a disco next to the reception desk.
A.B.: And Anita being the only one in there, dancing to ABBA.
WWD: To what extent has the music world shaped your aesthetic vision?
A.S.: When I started out, I didn’t have much more of a vision than to dress rock stars and people who went to rock concerts. I remember going to the Boutique Show, where all the boutiques that sold rock ’n’ roll fashions would shop. My first Boutique Show, I ended up with orders from Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and eventually getting my own windows and a New York Times ad, which got me fired from my job. I was working at a sportswear house and the man who owned the company called me into his office and said, “Why do you have your own New York Times ad when you are on my payroll? This has to stop.” I said, “I can’t stop. I have orders to fulfill.” “Then you’re fired.” That’s how I began my business.
A.B.: Had you met Anita Pallenberg?
A.S.: I met Anita the day I opened my boutique [in 1992]. I was walking through Macy’s because I needed some tights. I see this woman and thought, “Oh my god, that’s Anita Pallenberg.” I had met her once years ago in the women’s bathroom at the Mudd Club. She had on this big fur hat and fox fur coat and I remember her turning to me and saying, “Are you Anna?” Growing up in Detroit, I remember seeing little postage stamp size pictures of her in the newspaper and thinking, “Who is this person?” She has the most incredible style. I saw the movie “Performance,” and she became my favorite movie star. She set the standard for rock ’n’ roll fashion. So here I was, walking through Macy’s and thinking, “This is my once in a lifetime chance to see if it’s Anita.” I walk past her and say, “Anita,” and she says, “Hi.” I was having a store party so I invited her. She came with a bunch of friends and after that we just started hanging out.
A.B.: The rock ’n’ roll movement completely changed fashion from the Sixties on. I find that Anna has a very English take on fashion. Many English designers take a narrative approach. They love telling stories through their clothes. Americans tend to be non-narrative, but Anna pulls these incredible references together and tells the story through her clothes. I remember you telling me how Anita is one of your muses, but you also had Minnie Mouse and the Duchess of Windsor as a muse. It’s always rooted in this idea of cool, but you see cool everywhere and pull these references together and give them new meaning.”
WWD: Anna, how do you consider history when designing a collection?
A.S.: It’s all we know. If we don’t learn from the past, what do we learn from? It’s always so fascinating to understand where the initial inspiration came from, and usually, that has been inspired by something else, too. It’s not a coincidence that I love Aubrey Beardsley, who became such a huge influence on the psychedelic posters of the Sixties, which I also collect. It’s this common thread that I love to find and use to tell a story.”
A.B.: Every one of your collections tells a different story. It reads a bit like a fairy tale, maybe something Hans Christian Andersen, not Brothers Grimm. It’s never dark. It’s always light because you have this a great sense of irony, which is another very English sensibility about you. Whether its cowboys or gypsies in the 18th century, a lot of the characters tend to be outside mainstream culture.
WWD: Anna, your brand is so global, and you have a sizable business in Asia. What is it in your DNA that works so well overseas?
A.S.: There were so many identifiable icons that have been developed from the start, like my first boutique, with the shiny black furniture, the purple walls, the art nouveau elements, rock posters and red floors. We drew from those things to develop the cosmetics, the fragrance and, really, the identity of the brand. It gave people something they could extend from.
That’s what really helped me build the brand and kept my core customer always interested. They knew they would always find that romance, this kind of rock style mixed with nostalgia.
A.B.: And that youthfulness. There are so many signature designs, like the baby-doll dress, the slipdress, particular motifs and silhouettes Anna does each season. That friendly youthfulness has always been appealing to girls globally. My favorite moment is when Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington came out at the end of your Punk collection, the holy trinity of models wearing the baby-doll dress.
WWD: Speaking of Linda, Christy and Naomi, you are both well-versed on supermodels.
A.S.: I knew the models socially before I worked with them. Linda and Naomi, in particular, were so important in helping me get all the other models to do my first show. Everyone knows I am good friends with Steven Meisel. My house was like the clubhouse. We’d have birthday parties, gatherings and hung out at my apartment before we would go out. I had that Diana Vreeland mannequin…
A.B.: …Which is now at the Met.
A.S.: We’d dress up and pose by it. I went to the Paris shows for the first time in 1990, and Steven and I stopped at the Ritz on the way to the Jean Paul Gaultier show to pick up Madonna. She was wearing my baby-doll dress. During that trip, Steven said to me, “When we get back, we will start to talk about your first show.” He and Paul Cavaco kept pushing the idea. Then Linda and Naomi were in the back of Oribe’s car one day saying, “We’ll help you.” It was amazing to have all my friends come together.
A.B.: You always have the hottest models in your runway, and then you see them around town wearing your clothes. There is a correlation between you and their careers.
A.S.: That started happening even before I did my first show. Linda and Naomi went to the couture shows the summer before my first show, and they were wearing my cotton lace baby-doll dresses. All of a sudden, I started getting phone calls from Paris and other models like Helena Christensen were asking for the dress. I heard that Karl [Lagerfeld] was complaining. Everyone came into the couture fitting wearing my dresses, and he was like “Who is this Anna?”
A.B.: How has the model industry evolved?
A.S.: It’s a different time. We are now going through a period of a lot of Eastern European. It’s more about their look than their personalities. It was the most terrifying thing to do fittings with supermodels, because they would come in and look at your Polaroid board, and count how many outfits they had, what order they came out in and who were they next to. They would say things like, “She is taller than me and I am not coming out after her,” “How come she has three outfits and I only have two” and “I want that outfit.” They’d literally pull the Polaroid off the board and say they want to wear this. There was a reason they were supermodels, though. When they put on an outfit, everyone was floored.
WWD: The early Nineties were such a time for New York fashion. You had the models, you had the whole new breed of designers coming into their own, like Marc Jacobs, Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi.
A.S.: That’s part of what made it happen. Everything fell into place. Shortly after I showed, fashion became more centralized with the tents in Bryant Park and the international press became more interested in New York fashion. It was definitely a moment.
A.B.: Which very much paved the way for younger designers. Anna and Marc were part of that whole moment. You brought more diversity, and it opened up the international arena. The international press started to look at America again for new ideas. It reminds me a bit when the first generation, when designers like Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass went to Versailles and blew the doors open in 1976. Suddenly, here was this new spirit and energy in New York and people were really attracted to that energy. Do you think a lot of it had to do with the music scene too?
A.S.: For sure. MTV played such an important role. Remember how they had “House of Style,” and their music awards just before fashion week here in New York. New York was a little more “elite” at that moment. Now there isn’t that one place you know you can go to see everybody. We used to go to Cafe Tabac. You saw everybody at Cafe Tabac. After the CFDA Awards, everybody went there and stayed there until dawn.
WWD: You were very close to both Stephen Sprouse and Marc Jacobs, and are still a good friend of Marc’s. Did you sense at the time that the three of you would play such a significant role in New York fashion?
A.S.: Not at all. We were just kindred spirits. You can’t make this happen, it just happens naturally.
A.B.: You shared that youthful spirit.
A.S.: And music. The first few times I saw Stephen and Marc, it would be at clubs or rock concerts. That was the thing that we all loved.
WWD: You also shared a reverence to sportswear, even if it didn’t always necessarily come across that way.
A.B.: Within your clothes, there is still a sportswear tradition. You might think about Fragonard from the 18th century, but still translate it into wearable, functional fashion. The historicism is there but it’s infused with American sportswear. You have the romance but also functionality of the American sensibility.
A.S.: I like wearable clothes. I don’t really get turned on by clothes that are too tricky. I like Chester Weinberg, Geoffrey Beene and Scaasi.
A.B.: I find that surprising. Working with you on the book, I would see references to Chanel in the Thirties, as well as Schiaparelli and Poiret. I didn’t immediately see people like [Arnold] Scaasi, until I began to talk to you about it. There is a subcultural style that plays an influence. You are a huge fan of haute couture and high fashion, but you also love Goths and New Romantics. Your connections read like an encyclopedia of subcultural style.
WWD: Did you ever try minimalism or deconstruction?
A.B.: There was one collection. It was like an homage to Halston.
A.S.: It started out with clean jersey, pantsuits and coatdresses, and all of a sudden, there was a peacock on someone’s head. I couldn’t resist, though I really tried. Some designers did [deconstruction] so well. I think I am too reverent to the rules of construction. The seams always have to match and the stitching has to be perfect. I could never buy an old dress and chop it off.
A.B.: Thank goodness. That’s a curator’s nightmare, seeing a Madame Grès as a mini.
WWD: Anna, do you have a favorite collection?
A.S.: I would say the first collection was the favorite because of what happened with all my friends and how moving it was. Otherwise, one of my favorites was the Pirates collection, which mixes Marie-Antoinette with pirates and the New York Dolls. I had the initial idea for the collection, then traveled to Turkey and discovered Barbarossa, the pirate who became the admiral of the Turkish navy. I remember this whole dress and color code, but wanted to do them in this rococo kind of way.
WWD: Andrew, are there looks that you want for the Costume Institute’s archive?
A.B.: Probably pieces from the Gypsy collection, because it was the first time I saw how Anna’s process worked. It’s also hard to make taffeta new and contemporary.