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."
Yet, Sui can't fully hide her intellectual side. "She's so well read, and she's so eager to learn," Bolton says.
When you look at her designs, you'll see references to fine artists, American explorers, Victoriana and classic fashion designers, both in European couture and American sportswear. Bolton picks out Arnold Scaasi, Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel as particular influences.
But then there's the bits of "Beach Blanket" movies, "Hansel & Gretel" and punk star Siouxsie Sioux, too.
Her current concert calendar includes Gorillaz and Phoenix, so maybe there'll be hits of hip-hop and electronica in the new fall collection that will debut next month at New York Fashion Week.
Work starts on the next batch of clothes even before the previous ones have digested with retailers and the press, Sui explains. Believe it or not, her collections often start with the shoe that will be worn on the runway because getting shoes made takes longer than garment samples.Comment on this story
Maybe that's because for clothes, it's one-stop shopping at her Garment District studio, which houses a frilly, luxe showroom, Sui's office full of fabrics and photos, and a small, old-school-yet-buzzing manufacturing space, filled with sewing machines, patterns, and racks and racks of clothes.
She's a passionate supporter of the midtown neighborhood that was the heart of fashion when she first came to Parsons the New School of Design in the '70s, when she first met Meisel. She has seen local resources dwindle and full globalization of an industry that she worries can seem impersonal. Impersonal just isn't her way.
"I have to see everything I make, touch it, feel it. I love the draping of the fabric, the muslin, to see how a sleeve flutters," she says.
"This is my life, this is all an extension of my life."