For 16 years, Anna Sui has been keeping a big secret from her fans: Behind that groovy exterior lurks the sensible mind of a business executive, one who peppers her conversation with buzz words like “market” and “product.”
“I built this business by myself, with no partners or backers,” Sui says. “I’ve always been very aware of the fact that I do a product for consumers. I’m not an artist; I make clothes, and I need to sell clothes. People need them, and I’m very aware of it. Plus I’m such a consumer myself — I love to shop, and I love to have the newest thing.
“You have to think about what fashion really is. It’s not about creating something that’s never existed before, or revolutionizing culture. It has to reflect what people need, and what they want to wear.”
In the collection she showed for fall, Sui was very much in tune with that philosophy. Thrift-shop chic may no longer be a hot trend on other runways, but there was an unmistakable vintage air to the collection she showed at the Landmark on the Park church on Wednesday evening. Anna characteristically weaves an amusing narrative throughout her collections, finding inspiration in all sorts of themes — a Max Reinhardt fairyland, Bloomsbury, suburban L.A. schoolgirls.
This season, she took her cue from Lola Montez, the notorious Victorian courtesan immortalized in a film by Max Ophuls. “What I love about her,” Sui says, “is how liberated she was for Victorian times — this young convent girl who seduced her mother’s lover to get away from home, then social climbed, slept around and ended up on the lecture circuit.”
Sui understands such indiscretion — her clothes have never been about wallflowers. Instead, she loves a kind of overt, hip fashion that manages to be both saucy and sweet, and she has a knack for combining the familiar and the frivolous in a way that makes perfect sense.
For fall, perhaps inspired by Lola’s mysterious image, the collection is darker in mood than one generally expects from Sui. The fabrics have a faux-antique attitude — brocades, tweeds, animal spots, often mixed together and trimmed with elaborate braiding or Mongolian lamb.
There were chic little suits and quirky suede bed jackets, smart leathers and baby-doll party dresses in lace or tulle. And Anna staked a claim for nonbasic sweaters — meaty-textured jacket cardigans with braid trim made for her by James Coviello and worn with mini-kilts. Everything was shown over fishnet catsuits — a provocative touch Lola would no doubt have loved.
Sui is well aware that her particular take on what people want to wear isn’t exactly going to put her in the mainstream. Still, she says, there are “pockets of fashion” everywhere, adding that she gets fan letters from “kids growing up in these little towns who say they want to come here and be a designer, which I think is great.”
While the pace of Sui’s business moves has picked up recently — she added deals for bags, shoes, eveningwear and jeanswear to her legwear and bridge licenses in the last year — she doesn’t want to be a megabrand.
“I don’t appeal to as vast a market as Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein,” she said. “It’s a little more selective, more alternative. I would be fooling myself to think there’s a market in every little town for Anna Sui.”
In addition to her U.S. distribution, Sui says other hot markets include Asia, particularly Japan. There, she has a five-year deal with Isetan for distribution and manufacturing, and expects to hit $5 million in the first year. Isetan is also opening boutiques for Sui; the first two are scheduled to open in Osaka and Tokyo before the end of 1997.
Her deal with Italian manufacturer Gilmar for her secondary Sui by Anna Sui has brought her more exposure in Europe. She’d like to open a store in Italy as well but said it’s not on the timetable yet. She would, however, like to get moving on some cosmetics and fragrance products.
“That’s what I love,” Sui says. “I think cosmetics are really interesting right now, with the resurgence of all these unusual colors.”