Anna Sui’s New Line Reveals Some Familiar Motifs: Romance, Optimism, Change

For fun, when they attended Parsons School of Design together in the

mid-70’s, Anna Sui and Steven Meisel would encamp with a suitcase of

vintage clothes to Playland in Times Square. “We used to dress up all

the time,” Ms. Sui remembered on March 3 as she looked into the

fevered eyes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s kaleidoscopically romantic

Venus Verticordia at the Dahesh Museum on Fifth Avenue.

“It was our favorite thing to do. it was sort of how Steven started

taking photographs,” she said. The fashion designer and the

photographer would style themselves and their friends in elaborate

ensembles, then pose in the photo booths. On other occasions, they would

dress up at Ms. Sui’s apartment, where Mr. Meisel had more time to

take pictures.

Those were the good old days before Ms. Sui and Mr. Meisel became busy

fashion tycoons. Later this month, Anna Sui will launch her first cosmetics

and fragrance lines at Saks Fifth Avenue, and then at Nordstrom, Sephora,

her shops here and in Los Angeles and Harvey Nichols in London, as well as

other stores throughout Europe. The products made their debut in Japan in

September and were, Ms. Sui happily reported, the No. 1-selling new item at

Isetan, the Tokyo department store.

The fashion designer stopped in front of Albert Joseph Moore’s

intensely orange Midsummer , a painting of two maidens fanning a

third woman. “The Victorians loved to dress up and have themselves

painted in ancient situations,” said Ms. Sui. “What I like about

these paintings is their quality of transporting their subjects to a time

more romantic and promising. People accuse me of that,” Ms. Sui


Her most recent collection, shown in New York on Feb. 17, celebrated the

folk singers of the 1960’s. Models such as Naomi Campbell and Kirsty

Hume, as well as a few guys wearing Anna Sui men’s wear, rocked down

the runway while Murray Lerner’s film Festival , about the

Newport Folk Festival, played on a large-screen backdrop. Tweed dresses,

black-and-white wool outfits with lace, slip and smock dresses, ponchos and

ribbon-laced suedes, among other items, drew raves.

“I’m always trying to evoke an emotion,” Ms. Sui

explained. “I wish people had that innocence now and sense of hope

that something new was going to happen. People are so jaded. We need to

have that kind of optimism. But I’m not creating something to wear in

1963. Maybe my shows confuse people. Take away the styling tricks and you

see I’m creating something for today’s life style out of fabrics

developed today from the newest technologies.”

Anna Sui wore fashionable black. Black boots, a black-and-white

embroidered pashmina shawl she’d fashioned into a skirt, a cashmere

twinset from Loro Piano, and a techno-fabric peacoat designed by Martine

Sitbon, a friend. “Some of my best friends are designers,” she

said, dropping the names of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Tam and Ms. Sitbon.

After the Dahesh Museum, Anna Sui’s next stop was Gucci at 685

Fifth Avenue to collect the latest pair of black slingback pumps decorated

with peacock feathers (about $380). “Hope I wear them. I have so many

shoes,” said Ms. Sui, shaking her head.

She was born in Dearborn Heights, Mich., the middle child of Chinese

immigrants. Her father is a structural engineer, her mother a homemaker who

studied painting in Paris. She has two brothers. Her family regularly

attends her fashion shows. As a child, her passion for fashion was first

observed when she would cross-dress favorite toy soldiers in tissue-paper

frocks to attend her version of the Academy Awards. As a teenager, she made

her own clothes and began her elaborate fashion archive with favorite pages

and ads from old Vogue s and Harper’s Bazaar s. She still

has them.

Ms. Sui left Parsons after two years to work as a stylist for Steven

Meisel and designed for a series of Seventh Avenue fashion companies. She

started her own business in 1980. In 1994, when international interest in

New York fashion began to bloom, Ms. Sui organized her first runway show.

She opened a boutique at 113 Greene Street the following year. The

1990’s were her decade.

“I was never about the status stuff in the 1980’s or how much

you could put on your back,” she said. “I’ve really come to

believe that you can dream anything and achieve it.”

Mission accomplished at Gucci, Ms. Sui waded upstream on Fifth Avenue.

“This business and now the cosmetics line and fragrance is what

I’ve dreamed about since I was 4.” Her goals for the new business

venture? “I have a certain fashion sense and spirit which I project.

Maybe not everyone can relate to it in the clothing, but they can capture

it in lipstick, a powder, the fragrance.” Ms. Sui said she also hoped

adding a fragrance and cosmetic line to her brand would help generate

bigger business in stores in the American heartland. “I’m very

well represented in New York and California, but not so well in middle


Ms. Sui’s next stop was F.A.O. Schwarz at 767 Fifth Avenue to buy a

present for one of her nieces. En route, she paused in front of the windows

at Tiffany & Company. Taxis and buses screamed and hollered. The artist

Brice Marden, collar raised against the wind, crossed 57th Street.

“This is how I do things in love!” a young woman sobbed into her

cellular. Ms. Sui ducked when a tourist, with a Metropolitan Museum of Art

poster stuck like an arrow in his backpack, suddenly turned and walked

backward so as not to miss a single sight.

In between runway shows and product launches, Ms. Sui is moving from her

apartment in Chelsea to new digs she is decorating in Greenwich Village.

She has been reading as much as she can about the late decorator Rose

Cumming for inspiration. Cumming favored huge hats and fancied shades of

mauve. For entertainment, Ms. Sui said she might watch a video of The

Looking Glass War , which stars one of her favorite new obsessions from

the 1960’s, the actor Christopher Jones. She surveyed the

anything-goes fashion scene on 57th Street.

“What excites me about fashion today is the fact that there are

choices,” said Ms. Sui. “You don’t have to dress in any

cookie-cutter way. The biggest change in fashion this decade is comfort. I

don’t think we’ll ever return to the formality of the


She paused and questioned her last statement. “I have mixed

feelings about that,” said Ms. Sui. “The greatest thing about

fashion is that it changes all the time. And the saddest thing about it is

it changes all the time.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Who is Joe Satake?

a. The Elizabeth Arden makeup artist who’s doing Monica

Lewinsky’s television appearances, including the Barbara Walters


b. An avenging sommelier and fictional hero of a popular Japanese cartoon.

c. The former associate of Peter Marino hired to decorate Ira

Rennert’s pile in Sagaponack, L.I.

2. Which recent Milan collection was Suzy Menkes describing in the

International Herald Tribune on March 3 when she wrote, “It

also showcased some of the most hideous and deforming footwear in the long

annals of female suffering”?

a. Gucci.

b. Versace.

c. Prada.

3. Ruffo Research is:

a. Candace Bushnell’s new book, an updated version of the popular

1960’s novel The Harrad Experiment .

b. the design team of Veronique Branquinho and Raf Simmons.

c. the trendy Upper East Side medical clinic dispensing various growth and

rejuvenating hormones, charging $50,000 for initial consultation and with a

six-month waiting list.

Answers: (1) b; (2); c; (3) b.

Anna Sui’s New Line Reveals Some Familiar Motifs: Romance, Optimism, Change