It started with a forbidden trip to the cafeteria. The unwritten rule at Parsons, back when Anna Sui matriculated, held that design students should not hang out in the lunchroom. “It was considered a bad influence,” Sui recalls, “because you’d mix with everybody else. But guess who was always in the lunchroom?” Rebellious types? Yes. Wildly creative? Yes. Intriguing? You bet. “That’s where I met Steven [Meisel], in the lunchroom.“
Meisel was then a student of the apparently wayward discipline of illustration. After some mess-hall mingling, he invited Sui out dancing that night. She arrived with her then-boyfriend, and Meisel, with “his entourage.” At one point, he beckoned her over to his table and made a suggestion: lose the boyfriend and hang with us. Bye-bye beau, hello lifelong collaborator and friend. “We just started going out every night. My apartment became club central,” Sui says.
The relationship became more than social — Sui would style shoots for Meisel; he encouraged her as she navigated the creation of her own label. That trajectory started with a hiccup: Sui was working for an apparel company called Lenora. Inspired by punk-rock friends who made jewelry that sold at “cool rock stores,” she aspired to the clothing version of that market. She came up with a five-piece collection that was bought by cool stores and Macy’s, which ran a New York Times ad. Not surprisingly (except perhaps to her), Sui was fired. She was also on her way to defining her fashion aesthetic, a buoyant, retro-laced pastiche of archetypal tropes of youth — music and beach with dashes of Victoriana and wanderlust — with a fundamentally optimistic point of view. The vision has stayed remarkably consistent through the years. In an era when “authenticity” is one of fashion’s top four talking points (you know the others: diversity, inclusivity, sustainability), Sui wrote the book — and it wasn’t published last week.
As Sui made a name for herself in New York’s downtown scene, Meisel and then-super publicist Paul Cavaco (who would become super fashion editor Paul Cavaco) remained ardent friends and supporters. Fast forward to Paris 1990, when Sui accompanied Meisel to the fashion shows. En route to Jean-Paul Gaultier, they made a detour to pick up another showgoer: Madonna. The Queen of Pop teased that she had “a surprise” for Sui, and took off her coat to reveal one of the young designer’s babydoll frocks. That major sartorial endorsement nudged Sui’s aspirations, but the larger push came upon her return to New York. “Steven and Paul said, ‘OK, now it’s your turn. You have to do a show,’” she recalls. She was skeptical — how was she supposed to compete with the behemoths of fashion? Simple, Meisel and Cavaco explained: “We’ll help.” And with those two words, Anna’s family was born.
WATCH: Go Inside Anna Sui’s ‘Fashion Family’
This creative clan came together fortuitously, with each collaborator seemingly folding the next one in, just as kismet intended. “Steven said, ‘I’ll get you François [Nars] for makeup and Garren for hair,” Sui notes. (His superstar recruits weren’t confined to beauty. Meisel also enlisted Naomi and Linda for the first show and Christy for the second.) Cavaco provided the connection to jewelry designers Karen and Eric Erickson of Erickson Beamon, who in turn brought in milliner James Coviello, who just so happened to design knits as well. As for stylist Bill Mullen, he was a friend who often hung out while Sui worked, and started advising on looks. “It was very organic,” Sui notes. Nars parted ways with the family when his and Sui’s beauty deals conflicted; Pat McGrath stepped in in his place. Music maestro Frédéric Sanchez joined a bit later, in 1994. Apart from Nars, how many of the original crew remain today? “All of them.”
Sui’s in-house loyalty extends beyond her cadre of runway collaborators into more permanent back-of-house roles: production manager Heidi Poon and studio manager Akiko Mamitsuka, have both been with Sui for 31 years; Poon started right out of college. Personal assistant Thomas Miller arrived a year later. As Sui’s third employee, he started in production but transitioned into his status as Anna’s right-hand man after seeing her packing up her own orders and realizing she could probably use some help. (Sui proved an excellent shipping mentor; “she taught me how to tape up a box,” Miller says.)
Putting on a runway show is no small feat; doing so season after season while working with a group of creative, high-wattage collaborators without bruising some egos along the way seems herculean. Not so for Anna’s family. After 28 years, the creative process still flows seamlessly. It begins with Sui preparing her mood boards (among this season’s inspirations: Lila De Nobili and Nureyev’s “Sleeping Beauty” costume). Anna’s artful, eccentric boards are a significant touchstone from which everyone in the group draws inspiration. Eric Erickson recalled his first time seeing one. “I’d never seen four mood boards before that were each wall-size. I mean, Anna really gets a lot of information together. She gets photos, pictures, drawings, all of her people, the authors that inspire her, that’s going into the clothing.”
Still, some things do change. Packed schedules and modern conveniences have changed the modus operandi of Anna’s circle. “There isn’t that time anymore when everyone can come over in the afternoon and hang out. So now we do everything digitally,” she says. (That’s not to say e-interaction is the only point of contact. Sui sees Garren regularly for haircuts, and though she and McGrath must rely on rarer, scheduled meetings, they always start with a “big gossip session, catching up on TV shows and what’s going on.”)
Shared cultural interests often go a long way in creative partnerships. For the show music, Sui sends Sanchez the inspiration, thematic concepts and a track recommendation or two, and he curates a “big, long tape” that includes Sui’s own picks and selections from his deep archive of references. (Sanchez’s pop-culture expertise is not limited to music; he also knows his movies. He once launched into a mini-dissertation on Godard’s cinematic oeuvre, actor-by-actor, after Sui referenced one of the director’s dance scenes.)
Members of Sui’s creative circle know their dynamic is something special. “I love her attention to detail. I love her compassion,” says Karen Erickson. “I love that when she walks in, she wants to see each person and look them in the eye.”
Mullen, too, relishes his long friendship with Sui. “She’s very generous as a person, and I know I’m very lucky to be her friend and to be immersed in her world,” he says. “You know, working with her is magic.”
The word “genius” is used liberally (but never lightly). Says Miller, “She’s such an encyclopedia about movies and art, decorative arts, fashion. I learn things all the time.” As for Sui’s work ethic, Mamitsuka sums it up perfectly: “She’s a superwoman. Anna is full of energy. This design, all the work, is like, really perfect.”
Still, it seems inevitable that within any group of strong, opinionated creative people, serious clashes of opinion would be inevitable. But not with this group, and there’s one reason beyond Sui’s open, collaborative ways: At points of difference and for all-around approval, Sui looks to a higher authority. “I’ll say, ‘I’ve got to check with headquarters,’” Sui chuckles.
“Headquarters” means Meisel. “He sees every Polaroid,” she notes. (Sui uses the word “Polaroid” out of habit. Now, they’re digital images.) Meisel signs off on all of the show’s nuances. “Who has better taste and a better eye than Steven?” Sui muses. “I have to trust what he’s saying.” Even when what he says isn’t an unqualified rave. “The worst [response],” Sui says, “is like, ‘She’s very pretty, isn’t she?’ And it’s like, ‘What about my clothes?’”
What about the clothes, indeed? While in some fashion realms today the clothes are often secondary to marketing or overall messaging, they are Sui’s primary focus. “The clothes come first,” Garren says. “[Anna’s] thoughts come first and then the editing is next. Then there’s a conversation about the hair in my department and the same with makeup.”
The various steps coalesce into one of fashion’s most distinctive runways. “This doesn’t come from looking at someone else’s collection. This is a brilliant mind,” Mullen says. “So sometimes I’m there just to go, ‘You’re right. More, please.’ You know, ‘Give me more.’”
More Sui? Step right this way. Her quixotic and unmistakable style is the subject of a major exhibit at New York’s Museum of Art and Design. “The World of Anna Sui” has its preview on Tuesday night and opens to the public on Thursday. New York marks the third stop for the show, which debuted in London before moving to Tokyo.
Much like the formation of Anna’s little tribe, the exhibit’s arrival Stateside happened in a way that just seemed meant to be, as if touched by destiny. In 2017, Sui dropped in on “Counter-Couture,” a show at MAD. The exhibit resonated both emotionally and practically. “I couldn’t believe it,” Sui says. “I know all of these clothes from underground magazines, I’ve seen them on rock stars. I never thought about the actual person behind the outfits…but [the exhibit] talked about who the people were that created them.” Moved by the celebration of underground fashion, she returned a second time, and had the good fortune of running into the show’s curator, Barbara Gifford. A private tour ensued, followed by the germ of an intriguing idea. Had Anna considered her own exhibit? Considered? She had one open at that very moment in London; yes, she’d be happy for it to travel.
One thing led to another and ultimately, to the New York run. While overall the show remains true to the vision of original curator Dennis Northrop of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, spatial considerations required some reconfiguring of mannequins and exhibit items.
In addition to a major assortment of Sui’s work, the installation features pieces from designers who have inspired her, including Norma Kamali, Betsey Johnson and Zandra Rhodes. It tells the Sui story via a series of recurring themes. Some, are no-brainers — punk, grunge, rock, Mod. One proved surprising, even to Sui. While curating the original show in London, Northrop pulled at the thread of Americana in Sui’s work. “He drew that out,” she says. “I was always a closet suburban kid, and that drifts out [in my work]. I’m referring to me growing up in the suburbs and country clubs, [experiencing] Americana — square dancing, cheerleaders. All those things existed in Michigan, not that I partook in any of them, but they were there and you could see it.”
Of course, essential to any study of Sui’s work is an acknowledgment of her creative family. The London show featured a specific section dedicated to her work with Meisel, Cavaco, the Eriksons, Garren and McGrath. While the New York installment is configured differently, rest assured, the family is well represented. Sui wouldn’t have it any other way. “All their things will be there,” she says. “All their credits will be there.”