The story of Anna Sui is pretty synonymous with New York, but if the designer were coming up in the industry today, she thinks it might take place on the other side of the world.
“I think if I were in my 20s, I would move back here,” the designer shared while in Xi’an, located in China’s Shaanxi province. “There’s so much opportunity.”
Elaborating further in a conversation with WWD editor in chief Miles Socha, Sui explained that when she attended Parsons years ago, her class size was 35 — but now the school sees around 350 graduates each year. Coupled with a battered retail sector, landing a job and climbing up the industry ladder is proving increasingly difficult.
“Back then there was a huge, huge industry — so many places you could work. Now it’s limited, especially in New York,” said the Detroit native, who is also Chinese by descent. “People have to understand the competition is so much [greater], the challenges are so much [greater]. I think you have to learn Chinese.”
Other than overall economic growth, China also has technological ingenuity and a level of advancement that she feels is “probably further [along] than any place in the world.”
“I just went to a very remote place in Guizhou, everybody had a cell phone,” Sui said. “They went from bartering with chickens to paying with WeChat almost overnight. We are all looking toward China for our businesses and for progress.”
One example of that is the digitization of the design process. “I grew up with the old-fashioned way of draping with a pattern maker and checking the toiles and now everything is kind of digital,” she said. “It’s hard for me to design that way because I like to see how that fabric’s draping, it’s hard for me to visualize something flat.
“I think people who grew up with computers, they get it more and they are going to take that innovation in a different direction with laser cutting and 3-D printing. There is so much advancement in technology right now. There are fabrics that cool you down and warm you up. It’s a different time,” Sui said.
While on that same trip to Guizhou, Sui had a chance to examine the traditional costumes of the Miao people, a Chinese ethnic minority. Visiting during the region’s Sisters Meal festival, a kind of Valentine’s Day, she said “every village had their own style.”
The area’s handicraft techniques are slowly being eroded by the rise of machinery, but Sui, who was there with her mother, visited with a woman who was preserving the regional varieties in costumes.
“She has a class you can take if you go there for a week. “You can visit the villages and learn the handicraft so I’m trying to find a way to do that,” Sui said.
Besides personal trips, Sui is devoting attention to the market in other ways. For spring 2019, she plans to debut her ath-leisure line, which is first and foremost, geared to the Chinese market, before starting distribution elsewhere globally.
Especially in Asia, Sui is known for her cosmetics but she’s hopeful her fashion in the region will also gain a stronger profile.
Recalling how the cosmetics side got up and running, she said that the Japanese department store Isetan pursued her and in addition to agreeing to distribute the brand, arranged for 12 licenses, including beauty.
“Before I would sign any deal, I asked, ‘Can’t you cross-distribute the cosmetics and fragrance so that we have the same distributors everywhere?’ Everyone thought I was crazy but I insisted on it and that made my brand global and there was a strength behind it,” Sui said.
Now celebrating 20 years for Anna Sui cosmetics, the winning formula was to make not just great and functional products but packaging that could double as an accessory in the form of Sui’s now signature carved roses on black lacquer.
“They said, ‘We don’t want you to do a beauty product’. They wanted to make it an accessories product,” she said. “Everything was so minimal and almost indistinguishable between brands. Everything had gotten so plain.”