Getting the fashion industry excited about an event is no plum task. And yet season after season, Anna Sui does it with her thoughtful and fun runway shows. Blame it on her ability to transport her audiences deep into her world full of references that range from Pre-Raphaelites to Diaghilev to disco. (Of course, the retro soundtracks and top models don’t hurt, either.)
Lately, Sui’s been sharing her passion for fashion history with a wider audience by taking on many collabs, the latest of which is with O’Neill, in stores now. Just in time for summer, the designer crafted a selection of swimwear and cover-ups that echo the bohemian mood of her main collection but also target a new kind of customer. We caught up with Sui at her Soho store to reflect on her career, her favorite muses, and texting with Anita Pallenberg.
You’ve been doing more collaborations in general lately—why is it important to you to diversify into these arenas?
Well, there are certain limitations that we have as far as production for what we’re able to do. A great way to overcome that is to work with somebody who has the expertise in that product. So working with Frye, they make the coolest, sturdiest boot that you can imagine, and so I think this is my third time collaborating with them. They’re just dreams to work with. It takes you to another place. And also you learn so much, because we’re so limited as far as resources now that it opens up new avenues. I did the same with the Coach bags and with the luggage with Tumi and now this collection with O’Neill.
How did you get involved with O’Neill?
Our sales manager knew somebody at O’Neill, and she started thinking that it would be such a great pair-up between O’Neill and Anna Sui because O’Neill is very much our girl. They’re very print-oriented and known for their surfer style, but we wanted to incorporate our bohemian style with it. I think that we’ve blended it so well. The clothes are just so dreamy; we were all just oohing and ahhing over these lace pieces.
That perfect white lace dress is a very necessary summer item.
It’s so true. I remember one summer I was looking at Naomi [Campbell] pictures on a yacht on Daily Mail or something, and every day she had the most beautiful, little white baby-doll dress. I thought, Where did she find all those?! But she can just zero in on something, too. That’s always been my dream, to have all those gorgeous white baby-doll dresses.
You have the best references season after season—who was the beachy surfer girl that you looked to for this collab?
We wanted to capture that true bohemian feeling of the ladies of Laurel Canyon: Joni Mitchell, Michelle Phillips, all those girls you put pictures on the wall and are like, “I hope I grow up and look like this.” So what we tried to capture was that dream.
I think fashion in general is really swinging toward the Anna Sui vibe, very bohemian.
It’s exciting. It’s kind of like a new beginning again. We’ve had so much reaction from all the stores and press—it’s like when I first started. It’s got that same feeling. It’s wonderful.
How do you define who your customer is and continue to change and grow with her over the years?
I think that somewhere I never grew up, and it’s still that same dream as when I was looking at the pictures of Michelle Phillips. It’s still always that same thing, and no matter where I go with the collection, Vikings or Pre-Raphaelites, there’s still that bohemian girl there. That was always my ideal. As much as I try to veer away from it, there are always a couple of those Michelle Phillips and Joni Mitchells in the collection. Through every collection you can find them.
So what’s the secret to staying young forever then?
I think loving what you do. You can’t ask for more. This is what I wanted to do since I was 4 years old, and just the fact that I’m able to do it and do it globally—I work in Japan and I work in Europe and I work in New York—it’s kind of a dream. It’s a lot of hard work and I’m very, very dedicated to it. I do a lot of sacrificing of other things, but it’s what I’ve always wanted.
As someone who’s been in the business for so long, how do you stay inspired and not get worn out or jaded?
One of the things that I love the most is research—learning new things and exploring new things. That’s what I do when I work on a collection: I find something that sparks my interest and then I’m obsessed with and I just go into it. It’s like going into the rabbit hole. Then all of a sudden you find out all these other things because one thing leads to another. Like when I did the Ballets Russes collection [Fall 2011], I saw that beautiful Diaghilev exhibit at the V&A; and I thought, OK, now I can be inspired by those Léon Bakst drawings. I remember one of the Ormsby Gore sisters was telling me that the way they started wearing vintage was because of a sale of the Ballets Russes costumes in, like, 1968. They couldn’t afford the principal costumes, but they could afford the costumes of the Sugar Plum Fairies, all these crushed velvets. So they started wearing them on the street, and all of a sudden the Beatles and the Stones and everybody else started following what they were doing. Well, don’t you know, in the Diaghilev exhibit, there was a film of that auction. I was just like, “Oh, my God.” That’s what sparked that whole thing where everyone was looking romantic and medieval. I love finding that connection. That makes my day—that makes my season when I find that out.
Do you feel like it’s harder or easier today to communicate that to your customer? I feel like with the pressures to make Instagrammable moments, it’s become very hard to get people excited about the history of fashion.
There are so many levels in what I do. Somebody like Tim [Blanks] will get the really intricate things, but then the obvious things will be the things that people talk about the most. I always try to bring it all back, make it current, and tie it in to something that’s happening in our pop culture, like the Viking thing. It’s really true—I was watching [the History channel TV series] and I got that idea. It wasn’t an intellectual idea, but that’s really how it happened. I think that you have to put it on different levels.
Is there one specific era or muse you feel like is the most Anna Sui?
My biggest idols are Anita Pallenberg and Keith Richards. So at the end of the day, it’s always like: Is there something that Anita would wear? Is there something that Keith would wear? Is it cool enough for them? And then I usually send Anita an image and say, “This is the outfit that I did for you.”Read more here:marieaustralia.com | www.marieaustralia.com/evening-dresses