Anna Sui became a fashion trailblazer in the ’90s, when supermodels like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell were regulars on the catwalk. Her fresh and funky designs inspired by the club culture and rock ’n’ roll scene were a bold departure from other American designers at the time, who drew much inspiration from high society.
Now, a retrospective of Sui’s designs, with aesthetics ranging from grunge to rockstar to fairytale to Americana, is on view at Mint Museum Randolph, the last stop on an international tour that debuted in London in 2017. The World of Anna Sui features more than 100 of the designer’s looks from runway shows, along with mood boards that provide a window into the design process, mementos, accessories and more. SouthPark Style Editor Whitley Adkins sat down for an interview with Sui during the exhibition’s opening weekend in November.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.
I understand you were very clear on your interests and career pursuit at the young age of 4, and that you once worked several side jobs to invest in your brand. What is your advice to other artists chasing their passion?
AS: I always knew this is what I wanted to do, and I always did what I had to do to make this happen. So, of course there were sacrifices along the way, of course it was a lot of hard work. At one point, I was flying back and forth to Italy doing freelance every two weeks and running my business. There were times when I didn’t even have enough for a subway token to get to the garment center, so I would walk. There were a lot of hardships, but it’s what I had to do to make this all happen, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything, because I feel like this is what I was put on Earth to do.
As I get older I realize that everything my parents said was true: When you work hard for it, and you earn it, you appreciate it more. Can you relate to that?
AS: Yes, I’m really grateful that I was able to do what I’ve dreamt of doing. I’m grateful that I was able to stay independent, which I think is very rare. Things fell into place, like my fragrances license, my cosmetic license and distribution deals. They all helped me stay in business and ahead of the expenses. Along the way, I met so many incredible people, including (hair stylist) Garren and (makeup artist) Francois Nars, my friend (photographer) Steven Meisel, the models Naomi (Campbell) and Linda (Evangelista), but also the manufacturers that I worked with … All of these things wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t doing those extra things to make it happen.
I’ve always felt that the grace of the good Lord, luck and timing are three ingredients that can help things along for an artist.
AS: Yes, and being able to react to the right moment. Because so many people hesitate and then miss it.
That’s great advice. We are all excited to have you here in Charlotte, so I have fielded questions from our own artist community.
Brandon Owens, creative campaign design manager for Belk Inc.: In a busy world, designing as a storyteller, what brings peace and helps clear your mind in order to reset?
AS: The completion of discovery and creativity — once I see it coming down the runway, I think that that gives me peace of mind. All those months before that I was just losing sleep every night trying to think, “How is this going to work? Is this going to fall into place? How am I going to solve this problem?” There are so many obstacles that you have to overcome in order to get that 12 minutes of the fashion show.
Ruth Runberg, owner of R. Runberg Curiosities: Do you approach designing your living spaces with as much creativity and energy as your fashion designs?
AS: I approach it exactly the same way. I came up with a concept, saved a lot of pictures — references to things that I love — and I did a lot of research in finding the furniture pieces or accessories for the rooms. I put it all together the way I would a collection, so that everything works together.
Amanda Moody, artist, Bombshelves: How do you feel about evolution as an artist — do you allow ideas to flow organically, or are you calculating your next moves?
AS: Everything about my career has been organic. There’s never been a strategy. It’s more reacting to opportunity and seeing new doors open and being able to respond to that. It’s never been a master plan.
Olly Yung, fashion photographer: What do you look for in photographers and models for your campaigns? What personalities best exemplify the Anna Sui world?
AS: I’ve had the luxury of having my good friend Steven Meisel shoot almost all the fragrance and cosmetics campaigns. He was always such a part of creating every collection, so he always knew the aesthetic, and also he helped me cast every show. He always knows the type of “Anna Sui” idyllic model … so I really have to attribute that all to him.
Hope Nichols, owner of Boris & Natasha clothing boutique: Have any of your textiles been vintage?
AS: In the beginning when we started doing prints, every print company had an art studio, and they would paint designs. That all went away, and we started buying vintage swatches from people. Then we manipulate them and create our own designs from them or combine parts of them together.
Daniel Coston, photographer: How has the music scene, especially in the late ’90s and early 2000s, influenced your ideas in fashion?
AS: At that point, especially in the late ’90s, I was still going out to see a lot of bands. Plus, my brother, Eddy, listens to a lot of music, so he’s always telling me about bands. [My niece] Isabelle loves music, and she tells me about bands, so especially when I’m designing on the weekend by myself, I’m always listening to new music or old music but always trying to get inspired. It’s something that I enjoy doing, and the only magazines that I subscribe to are rock magazines.
Windy O’Connor, artist: What has been the highlight of your career?
AS: Oh, that’s a hard one. I just think I’ve been blessed. It’s really what I wanted to do and what I set out to do. My whole career has gone beyond what my dream was. I never thought it would be international like this. I never thought there would be museum exhibits. It’s just so rewarding. It just keeps giving back, which is so nice. SP
The World of Anna Sui is on view at Mint Museum Randolph through May 1. 2730 Randolph Rd. mintmuseum.org