New book highlights Sui's career of cool catwalks

By Samantha Critchell

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

This Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 photo shows fashion designer Anna Sui during an interview in her showroom in New York. Each runway show is a chapter in Anna Sui's life. It's a commentary on her interests, passions and mindset of the moment. Now each runway show is also a chapter in the new book, "Anna Sui," which, she says, is an autobiography in pictures.

Richard Drew, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Each runway show is a chapter in Anna Sui's life. It's a commentary on her interests, passions and mindset of the moment.

Now each runway show is also a chapter in a new book, which, she says, is an autobiography in pictures.

Seeing it all together, Sui notices some commonalities — especially the influence of rock 'n' roll — and some aberrations — like the joint surfer-hip hop moment — but it all makes her feel both humbled and proud.

"All I ever wanted to do was design clothes for rock stars and people who go to rock concerts. That I've been able to do that for so long is pretty amazing," says Sui.

It's also pretty amazing that Sui can define the single moment her career took off in 1990: Madonna, on her way to a Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show in Paris, wore one of Sui's dresses.

She could have chosen any one of the hundreds of designer frocks littering her hotel room, but the pop star-fashion diva picked hers. "It was the first in a chain of events that gave me the confidence to stage my own fashion show," Sui writes in the forward of the book, published by Chronicle.

And she's been staging fun, lively shows ever since with Naomi Campbell wearing a feathered headdress, Carla Bruni in knee-highs, Linda Evangelista in a polar-bear cap and Helena Christensen in a tinsel-like scarf. More recently, Agness Deyn rocked a guitar and Isabeli Fontana piled on turquoise bangles.

Any show, any year, you'll see models smiling in the photographs, a rare catwalk combination.

Sui has carved out a niche in romantic, bohemian dresses that double for daytime and cocktails, as long as the wearer is young and hip. But she also broadened her appeal with a Target collaboration, fragrances and cosmetics.

"What people look to me for is a whole look," she says. "People come to me for icing on the cake, not a basic stretch pant."

Sui was there with Madonna when she wore a sheer black babydoll at the Gaultier show, linked by mutual friend and top photographer Steven Meisel. "She came out with a coat on, and I couldn't wait to see what she was wearing. I thought it would be some outrageous outfit, and then she said, 'Anna, I have a surprise for you.'"

Madonna also wore Sui when she was photographed by Meisel in 1992 for Vogue.

Meisel, along with other high-wattage friends, including Campbell, Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Sofia Coppola, and Jack White and his wife Karen Elson, certainly help keep Sui part of the cool crowd, which seems a bit at odds with the shy, cherub-faced woman who opens up her Garment Center office with her own keys for an early morning interview and spends her downtime in a Detroit suburb with her parents.

She also doesn't wear her glasses when she takes her bow at the end of the fashion show so the faces in the crowd will be blurred because it's too nerve-racking. "I think to myself, 'Oh my god, how can I follow these most beautiful girls in the world out there?'"

Her collections wouldn't be what they are if Sui didn't have this yin-yang personality, a full life and such loyalty to herself and her group of diverse friends, says Andrew Bolton, curator at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He counts himself in Sui's inner circle, and it's mostly his words in "Anna Sui."

"In her world, personal and professional always overlap," Bolton says.

They met in the mid-90s at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards when they were both seated at Vivienne Tam's table. "We became quick friends. We'd take weekend trips and talk a lot about music. We're both such huge music fans and fans of street style," Bolton says. "Our friendship didn't develop over high culture."

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