If fashion is a language — the way we tell others who we are, or who we want to be; the armour and the illusions with which we make our way through the world — how do we speak when we’re alone? If clothes are worn only at home, with no audience beyond the occasional disembodied visitor on a computer screen, do they lose their power to transform; do they become merely clothes?
In the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, with lockdowns in major cities and large in-person gatherings suspended, the fashion industry found itself deprived of perhaps its greatest selling point: spectacle. Gone were the strutting models of the runway shows, the preening of the front row, the nervy snap in the air. Gone, too, was the pageantry of a night on the town, when half the pleasure is wondering who might walk in. Look, look. What are they wearing?
For the New York-based designer Anna Sui, who started her ready-to-wear label in 1981, the isolation was all the more eerie because she has spent her career in pursuit of total immersion. Her work brooks no distance. From the beginning, she repudiated the dominance of ’80s-era “Dynasty”-inspired top-to-bottom glitz and power suits with hulking shoulders, offering instead lithe, unabashedly feminine clothes with a vintage feel and rocker soul, whose carefree but meticulously and densely layered textures and magpie rummages through time and space captured that heady liminal state of the archetypal American teen, the one who, in her bedroom, is trying on different selves — hippie, preppy, punk, wild child and free spirit — rebirthing herself again and again. Sui herself is a creature of rebirth: When she came of age in the 1970s, it was in the crucible of New York’s downtown underground scene, in nightly pilgrimages to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. The clothes she makes aren’t totems of some inaccessibly glamorous life but an invitation: to join the party, to be one of those girls, careless of time and most alive in a crowd, in the crush and heave of friends and strangers who by the end of the night will also be friends. How could a virtual version of this fantasy ever compete with the real thing? But last winter this is what Sui was consigned to — presenting her collections at a remove, via digital upload, in lieu of the assault on the senses that is a runway show.
And so she made of her frustration a metaphor. The video for her fall 2021 collection, posted online last February, is a homage to Joe Massot’s cult 1968 British film “Wonderwall.” Part comedy, part hallucination, the movie opens on a lonely scientist returning home to a dim, cramped apartment, accustomed if not wholly reconciled to the dinginess of his days. That night, a little hole appears in the wall of his study, marked like a radiant X from the light leaking in. Through it he spies his neighbor, a model played in sultry pantomime by the British actress Jane Birkin. Suddenly the dead butterflies he’s kept as specimens in a box take flight, and he in turn awakens to this private cinema, entranced not just by Birkin’s beauty but by her world: her louche parties, her polychrome armoire painted with flames and rainbow rays. In a frenzy, the scientist makes more and more holes in the wall until he has a constellation of tiny vistas aglow, each a promise of a more vivid — a more lived — life.
In Sui’s video, the models walk out of a similarly psychedelic armoire (created by the backdrop artist Sarah Oliphant, a frequent Sui collaborator), wearing fuzzy cow-print bucket hats and windowpane tweed; ombré plaids and wide-eyed peacocks printed on crushed velvet; faux suede pants with frayed hems like fringed lampshades and boy-cut jeans hand-painted with clouds and stars; a high-necked blouse of geometric eyelets with slouchy sleeves and ruffled wrists, tucked into a sequin dress; a Lurex stripe knit vest that drops nearly to the floor, over matching thigh-hugging shorts and a ruched mesh top of flowers large and small; an almost bridal ivory caftan in prairie-proper lace. But unlike Birkin, these women know that they’re being watched. They’re a parade; they demand to be seen. And they stare at us, the voyeurs locked out on the other side of the screen, daring us to break through. Even in isolation, in the cloister of a closed set, Sui’s clothes are commanding. They still have power.
In early May, I meet Sui, who is in her 60s, in her showroom above West 38th Street, in the garment district of Manhattan. The showroom is a world unto itself, of scarlet floors, lavender walls, replica Tiffany stained glass and flea market furniture lacquered black. Here and there are papier-mâché dolly heads with flapper haircuts, heavy eyelashes and heart-shaped lips. Inspired by the work of the Italian American artist Gemma Taccogna, they were handmade by Sui and a few friends to decorate her first boutique, which opened in 1992 on Greene Street in SoHo when it still had a touch of grime and offered haven to artists and creatures of the night. (In 2015, startled to find Greene Street subsumed in luxury, with Louis Vuitton as a neighbor, Sui moved the store two blocks south to the less forbidding Broome Street.)
Sui belongs in and to this room, a small, arresting figure in playfully elegant dark floral separates and chunky acrylic rings that invoke both toys and candy. It is hushed; we speak from behind masks. She is gracious but pensive, as if feeling the weight of this moment in time. “We have this beautiful showroom, and nobody has been here for more than a year,” she says.
At the start of the pandemic, she found herself spending whole days alone in her home in Greenwich Village. (She is unmarried; her father died in 2013 and her mother and two brothers live in Michigan, where she grew up.) Her apartment, which her close friend the fashion photographer Steven Meisel has described as her Narnia, was a lovely place to be marooned, a fantastical time warp of some of her favorite eras, with chinoiserie and elements of French Rococo, Victoriana, Art Deco and midcentury modern. Nevertheless, she was concerned by her inertia and began setting tasks for herself, like cooking, “which I never did,” she says. Her mom gave her lessons over the phone, and eventually Sui got comfortable enough in the kitchen to invite friends over for a soup whose recipe required simmering a whole chicken — only to belatedly realise she’d forgotten to remove the paper bag of giblets tucked inside the bird. “That was the end of my chicken soup,” she says ruefully.
There is a quietude to Sui, a gentle modesty and meditative intelligence at odds with the flamboyant, imperious stereotype of the fashion designer. Known for her warmth and kindness — she asks after my family and seems genuinely delighted when I tell her about my 13-year-old daughter’s obsessive passion for interior design — she is famously beloved in an industry where such qualities can be rare. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reason, she is often underestimated despite the breadth of her influence, which is manifest on both the runway and the street, from recent work by male couturiers who are heralded for playing with schoolgirl tropes and shape-shifting flirtation (as if Sui hadn’t been doing that all along) to the guileless, happy heyday of Coachella, the California music festival replete with latter-day bohemians, beading and macramé, and to the young collectors on the thrifting app Depop, buying and selling vintage Anna Sui tees.
As has historically been the case for women, Sui’s oeuvre is often viewed as an extension of herself, autobiography rather than art. That it is, in fact, rooted in autobiography is precisely what gives it much of its exuberance and verve. Sui imagined herself into being and out of a girlhood on the periphery in Dearborn, Mich., a predominantly middle- and working-class suburb of Detroit, in the ’50s and ’60s. At first, Sui’s parents were the only people of Asian descent in their neighborhood (their rarity then can be attributed in part to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively banned almost all Chinese from entering the United States until its repeal in 1943). Her father, Paul Wai Kong Sui, a merchant’s son born in Tahiti and educated in China, with roots in Shenzhen in the southeast, and her mother, Grace Kwang Chi Fang, a politician’s daughter whose lineage goes back to the 17th- and 18th-century writer-philosopher Fang Bao — a champion of the so-called ancient prose style, stripped of flourish and ornamentation — met in Paris as students (Paul in engineering, Grace in painting) and made their way to America after the 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution. There they raised three children, with Anna the lone daughter between two boys: Bobby, the eldest, who as a teen chaperoned his little sister to rock shows in Detroit, and Eddy, the youngest.
In later decades, the rising number of Asians in Michigan would bring a measure of unease to the state, but Sui says she never felt like she was stigmatised for being Chinese, although, she adds, “I also didn’t accept that stigma.” She was, after all, an American girl and, like millions of American girls, she was unable to resist the siren call of Barbie, introduced to the market in 1959 with a penchant for pink, specifically Pantone 219 C, whose formula is 88 percent red. Then, Sui says, “I discovered purple” — and with it, ambiguity. To this day, she’s drawn to the bruise of blue that belies the kittenish blush, the tension between the girl next door and the demimondaine, who are not so far apart, who may even be one. There is a shadow even in Sui’s most euphoric work, a hint of haze, of a plotline gone awry, but also its converse, the gleam at the end of the tunnel, the neon scrawl in the dark. “It’s a refusal to be beaten and bowed by the way things are,” the fashion editor Tim Blanks writes in “The World of Anna Sui,” published in conjunction with the first major retrospective of her work, in 2017, at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. “I can always find that silver lining,” Sui says. “I’m kind of the ultimate optimist.”
For Sui, optimism and artistry lie in excess — what Andrew Bolton, the chief curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in his 2010 book, “Anna Sui,” as her “riotous cacophony,” a piling on of fabrics, patterns, prints and every possible accessory. “I’m more camp American than intellectual Chinese,” Sui says. Which is not to say frivolous: Camp may be over the top — “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things being what they are not,” as the cultural critic Susan Sontag writes in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” — but at heart, it’s in earnest. Artifice can be a kind of truth.
Part of the potency of Sui’s vision is that she never forgets how much fantasy is anchored in yearning and anticipation. In the slink of silk and the slap of biker leather over lace, the fishnets disappearing into loafers and the beanies with swinging yarn braids, the promenade of humble gingham and workman’s corduroy alongside glimmer and plush, she channels a nostalgia for the maximalism of adolescent desire — to escape the most fearsome of fates (being ordinary); to discover the real life happening elsewhere. Of her suburban childhood, Sui says, “That was my dreaming period.” Her portal was Life magazine, which she scoured for pictures of models and proxy extraterrestrials like Twiggy and Baby Jane Holzer, who wasn’t just a pretty face but a protégée of the artist Andy Warhol, another of Sui’s idols.
Sui knew she wanted to make clothes, to outfit a life like those of the girl-women she idolised, but how? She’d read about two graduates of the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan who had moved to Paris and persuaded Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to help them open their own boutique. This wasn’t a story of striking out on your own — one of the designers was the stepdaughter of the prominent fashion photographer Irving Penn — but Sui, whose parents wanted her to be a doctor, took it as such. She found the address for Parsons on a back page of another girl’s copy of Seventeen and wrote to the college to request a catalog. When she saw the list of requirements for applying, she signed up for art classes and studied harder, to boost her G.P.A. After she got in, she swanned around high school with a Vogue tucked under her arm.
But once at Parsons, she was put off by its elitism. She and her classmates in fashion design were advised not to mingle with students in other departments (illustration, graphic design, environmental design). “Going to the lunchroom was forbidden,” she recalls. “So of course, what did I do?” The transgression paid off: In the cafeteria, Meisel, a fellow student who would go on to become one of fashion’s most virtuosic and revered photographers, waved her over. “Do you ever go out?” she remembers him asking; she replied, “I’d like to.” They made a plan to meet at a club, and when she showed up with a boyfriend, Meisel gave him a once-over, deemed him not up to Sui’s standard and whispered, “Get rid of the guy.”
After that, they met almost every night, Meisel’s friends — now hers — gathering first at her railroad apartment on East 53rd Street and Third Avenue, a block then known for the young hustlers who cooled their heels on the stoops, eyeing potential tricks, and immortalized in a 1976 song by the Ramones (who were also in Sui’s circle: In 1981, Joey Ramone posed for a rooftop photo shoot in a rakish buccaneer ensemble she’d designed). Sui had pasted leopard wallpaper in the kitchen and painted the living room red and the bedroom black, with floors and windows to match. “At that point, none of us had any money, but we figured out if you go to a club at 9 p.m., you don’t have to pay the cover yet,” she says. “So we’d go and hang out in the bathroom and wait until people started arriving at 11.”
Sui speaks wonderingly of the role of serendipity in her life, and the chance encounters that drew her into the orbit of artists and rockers, although I can see that this framing comes from modesty, since the narrative could easily be flipped — they were drawn to her. Stories like hers testify to the peculiar Zelig-like symbiosis of that era in downtown New York. Meisel’s best friend joined a band fronted by Patti Smith. The designer Norma Kamali, famed for her parachute silk jumpsuits, lived next door on East 53rd and sublet her apartment to the proto-punk rockers the New York Dolls, who invited Sui to their rehearsals and introduced her to David Bowie, first on vinyl, then in the flesh when she spotted him at one of their shows.
This was the milieu in which Sui began her life as an adult, dazzling and askew, all the brighter for its dark undertow. She staked a claim to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, nightly besieged by the famous, the soon-to-be famous and people who just looked famous, which was enough — and soon became one of them herself, wearing the highest heels, mixing motorcycle zippers and boho-style petticoats, thrift-shop finds and Saint Laurent, the handle of her handbag tucked “in the crook of her arm, and with her arm held up high,” Meisel recalls in the introduction to Bolton’s book. This was the template for the designs to come: As Meisel writes, “You see Anna’s life when you see her clothing.”
Yet she wasn’t wholly lost in the moment. She was insider and outsider at once, of the crowd even as she observed it, stowing away images in her mind — an archivist of the ephemeral. She took what she needed from the scene, all the while keeping an eye on her purse.
At Parsons, Sui rejected the primacy of couture. She was never drawn to $50-a-yard cashmere. “I’d rather pick out a gingham and think, ‘How do I make this look like a million bucks?’” she says. She wanted to make clothes destined for the clubs — that her friends could wear. So in the early ’70s she dropped out of school after taking a job at Charlie’s Girls, a line of hippie-ish crochet vests and shepherdess shorts. (The prodigal student was later forgiven: Parsons awarded Sui an honorary doctorate in 2017.) After that label closed, she did stints at a series of sportswear companies, including the all-American Bobbie Brooks.
In 1981, Sui sold her first pieces to Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s at a trade show. When her boss found out about her side hustle, he fired her. For close to a decade, she worked out of her apartment — she was now living downtown — and soon her supermodel friends were walking into fittings for Karl Lagerfeldat Chanel wearing her flirty, defiantly girlish frocks. (“Who is this Anna?” Lagerfeld reportedly asked.) In the front row at a 1990 Jean Paul Gaultier runway show in Paris, Madonna — whom Sui had met through Meisel, after he shot the cover of the 1984 album “Like a Virgin” — shucked off her coat to reveal one of Sui’s baby-doll dresses, black with a mesh overlay. The exposure gave Sui the courage to mount her own runway show the following year.
Sui took girlishness seriously because she saw the hope in it, a kind of faith in all that could be. Still, being a girl has always been a complicated proposition, and her shows recognized that ambiguity. It wasn’t clear if her models were women playing at being girls or vice versa, these cheerleaders in pompom hats and padlock-and-key belts, drifty-eyed hippie chicks caught between Woodstock and the Manson murders (events that took place only a week apart in the summer of 1969) and, most iconic of all, the giggling trinity of supermodels — Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington — who posed together for the finale of Sui’s spring 1994 runway show in angel-whisper organza baby dolls and tiaras fountaining feathers from their heads. (The three looks were featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2019 “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition, and one, with a pink fluffy stole, appears in the museum’s current show, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.”)
Sui’s versions of the same decade were more ethereal but no less subversive in intent. And she set a precedent. The form in its good-girl, bad-girl incarnation continues to haunt the runway: In 2013, Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent produced a baby-doll dress priced at $68,000, and last year, before lockdown, Alessandro Michele of Gucci sent male models down the runway in Peter Pan-collared baby dolls of their own.
Conventional wisdom tells us that a true artist is not beholden to the demands of commerce. In fashion, this means that only the couturier, endowed with seemingly unlimited freedom and funds by a corporate overlord, can be considered an auteur, producing garments so expensive that few people ever actually wear them; whose very wearability may be beside the point. Sui, who focuses on ready-to-wear and has always maintained her independence, lacks the security of a major financial backer, relying on the market to support her vision. Yet in many ways she’s been able to work like a couturier, following her whims. For each season, she does obsessive research (“the most exciting thing,” she says) and revels in details, like the melancholy lines from the Victorian-era poet Christina Rossetti written on the walls of the scientist’s apartment in “Wonderwall.”
The latitude Sui has is in part because of canny business decisions: In the ’90s, she jury-rigged a global empire out of fragrance, fashion and cosmetics license agreements in Japan and Germany, brokering unorthodox cross-distribution partnerships. But on a more fundamental level, she’s simply attuned to the mind of a teenage girl and that exultant, never-forgotten tumult of feeling you get when you emerge on the sunny side of broody, recklessly, shamelessly sure of yourself and ready for the world. Most years, she says, she’s sold 85 percent of what she shows on the runway.
At times her own popularity has unnerved her. “If everybody gave me a good review, I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I’m too commercial. I sold out. I’ve got to shake it up,’” she says. In 1992, she dispatched Campbell down the catwalk in studded suede backless chaps, with a temporary butterfly tattoo on one cheek. Five years later, she asked the swaggering guitarist Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with his devil’s goatee and black halos of eyeliner, to make a cameo on the runway. “He said, ‘Sure, if it involves lingerie,’” she recalls. And so she outfitted him in a royal purple camisole and leather pants that, mid-strut, he pushed down just enough to show off the lace panties beneath.
Sui tends to return to familiar themes, but her world of references is so capacious, she might never exhaust it. She’s also constantly adding new, shining strands, be it the spirit of the Wiener Werkstätte, the early 20th-century Austrian artisans’ cooperative that sought to exalt the everyday through the power of design — which served as an inspiration for her resort 2022 collection, unveiled in June — or the collage of images delivered by Instagram, leading her to collaborations with young artists like the Seattle illustrator and muralist Stevie Shao and the Brooklyn jewelry designer Bonnie Robbins of Daisy Chains, both of whom she met simply by DMing them. Blanks has described Sui as a “cultural archaeologist,” sifting through the sediment of other eras, taking scraps from history and turning them into clothes relevant to how we live now. I’d go further and call her an anthropologist, a scholar of pop culture’s many tribes. She thrives on the cross-pollination of ideas, whether across time and borders or among her peers, and her oeuvre is perhaps best understood as an ongoing collaboration with the larger world — the eddying of human life, on the streets and around her.
New Yorkers are a possessive lot, adamant that no one knows the city like we do. We live in a perpetual state of mourning, each generation in thrall to the map of private memories. The city as Sui knew it in the ’70s and ’80s was New York at its most romantic, or most romanticized — all stumble-down streets, desperate and ecstatic, sucker punch and glory, dirty, dangerous and blessedly cheap. “It was a dismal time,” she says, and in the next breath recalls friends with giant lofts in the then-ghost town of TriBeCa, “walk-ups with no hot water and the toilet was in the middle of the room, but you paid $200.” She witnessed the theatricality and hedonism of glam rock and disco give way to the iconoclasm of punk, and then punk taking its rejection of authority to its logical conclusion to reinvent itself as the avant-garde, until the specter of AIDS in the ’80s cruelly brought the curtains down, the great beauties and wits, artists and impresarios who had lent the night their luster disappearing one by one from their booths in the clubs, and with them the splendor that had defined her New York. Sui has never been overtly political in her work, but the joyfulness of her clothes may in part be a refusal to accept so much loss. Sometimes we need fantasy to survive.
By the mid-90s the city had lost its pulse and become tamed, a safe playground for neoliberalism’s victors. “We’ll never have that underground scene again,” Sui says. For her, the city’s starkest change followed the market crash of 2008, when the economy rebounded and went into overdrive. “Everything became so much more corporate,” she says. “Suddenly stores weren’t owned by a family anymore.” (Her own team remains tightly knit: The head of the sample room, Akiko Mamitsuka, and the director of production, Heidi Poon, have been with Sui for 32 years; the acclaimed makeup artist Pat McGrath and hairstylist Garren have created looks for her runway shows for more than two decades, Garren since her first show in 1991; her brother Bobby is C.F.O.; and her three nieces, the sisters Chase and Jeannie Sui Wonders and their cousin Isabelle Sui, all in their 20s, work in various roles, offering their skills in filmmaking, photography, modeling, illustration and accessory design.)
The subcultures that once inspired Sui still exist. But they can no longer thrive in the heart of the city, and the very idea of cool — that you’ve stumbled on something singular, that you have knowledge and access, by virtue of whatever dark alleys or obscure paths you wander, that others don’t and never will — has become a full-throttle capitalist pursuit, with the distance ever shrinking between cult object and mainstream commodity. This presents a particular problem in fashion, since being fashionable often means spurning the mainstream — keeping one step ahead, glancing back with a wink, defying others to follow. “In the beginning you’re a bit like, ‘Never, that’s so ugly,’” Sui says. “Then it’s like, ‘Wait a minute.’” Once there was time, in the months it took for a collection to reach stores, to mull things over and accommodate change; to incubate desire; to submit. Now, with the immediacy of the internet, the waiting period is gone, and the quicker we are gratified, the more impatient we become. Demand is always for the next thing, to the point, Sui says, that “newness is a kind of conformity.”
The day after our interview, Sui invites me to take a trip to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie, one of her favorite retreats, but it is still closed because of the pandemic. So instead, we head downtown to the Whitney Museum of American Art to check out the exhibition “Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019.” Sui has long championed independent artisans, especially those of New York’s century-old garment district, whose livelihoods have been threatened by ever-accelerating mechanization and rising rents, and whose work in close quarters made them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. In the ’50s, almost all apparel sold in America was made in America, much of it in that blunt, unhandsome neighborhood halfway between Midtown and Chelsea, a patch of blocks less than a square mile, crammed daily with hundreds of thousands of workers. Today, only around 5,000 people still ply their trades there, and almost all of the country’s clothing is imported.
Sui has come to see the Los Angeles-based artist Liza Lou’s “Kitchen” (1991-96): a simulacrum of an archetypal American kitchen, built to scale out of plywood and papier-mâché and resplendently unutilitarian. Every surface — from the dirty dishes half drowned in the sink, in what looks like a roiling sea, to a pie half-popped out of the oven, studded with cherries — is covered in millions of tiny sparkling beads, tweezed and set one at a time, by hand, over a span of five years. It is garish yet reverent, a compulsive beautification that evokes the intricacy of church mosaics, at once a paean to domesticity and a demolishment of it, reminding us of the labor behind the shimmer.
Sui lingers here for a while, wanting to see the installation from every angle. Afterward, we head downstairs and sit outside, Sui’s face alert, alive to the runway of the street, the city slowly flickering back to life. In the middle of a sentence, she breaks off and her voice drops to a whisper: “Look at those shoes.” An androgynous figure, all in black, is gliding past on platform boots with clinging calves and a high, ouroboroslike heel. We both peer after the boots, longingly, as they vanish up the stairs to the High Line.
During New York’s pandemic lockdown, one of the things that kept Sui going was a series of nostalgic sketches, titled “Places I’d Rather Be,” posted to Instagram by her friend the celebrated stylist Bill Mullen. His idylls include Studio 54, with Bianca Jagger in a crimson beret; the late, lamented East Village bodega and egg-cream landmark Gem Spa, with the New York Dolls posing out front; and the uptown cafe Serendipity 3, with Sui, under a Tiffany lamp, of course, wearing an aquamarine fur coat accessorized with a bird in matching aquamarine (Mullen’s pet parrot, Morticia). “They’re gorgeous,” Sui says of the pictures. “But — ”
For a moment, she is silent. Then she says, “I’d rather be there.”
Hair: Garren and Thom Priano for R+Co Bleu. Makeup: Jonathan Wu and Jen Evans. Production: Hens Tooth Productions. Digital tech: Nick Ventura. Lighting tech: Sebastiano Arpaia