Fashion Designer Anna Sui'sTalkAsia Interview Transcript
Airdate July 31st, 2004
LH: This week on TalkAsia: A fashion designer whose bold and irreverent style appeals across generations and to women around the world. This, is Talkasia.
LH: Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. American Fashion designer Anna Sui is our guest this week.
LH: It's safe to say Anna has always loved designing. As a young girl, she would dress her brother's toy soldiers and create her very own version of the Academy Awards. She was already designing her own clothes in middle school, where she was voted best dressed. Anna went on to attend the Parson's School of Design in New York, but dropped out when she realized it wasn't for her. Instead, she struck out on her own, working from her small apartment through the 1980's. Anna held her first major show in 1991, persuading model friends Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell to help her out. The show was a hit, and Anna was on the list of "Hot" designers. Over the past decade Anna has slowly expanded her product line to include accessories, cosmetics and fragrances. Today the Anna Sui Corporation is worth over $200 million.
LH: Anna is here with me to talk about her life, and of course much much more. Welcome to Hong Kong Anna, thank you very much.
AS: Thank you it's nice to be here.
LH: You have worked many years to achieve what you have-from then, to now, how does it feel?
AS: Well it's so exciting-and it's especially rewarding to be able to travel and to see where my roots are. I just came back from China-and it was fantastic.
LH: Do you get to come out to Asia very often or...
AS: Well it was my second time in China - but Hong Kong I've been to many times.
LH: How would you describe your style? I know there have been a number of adjectives used to describe it, from funky to trendy to hip, but how about you, how would you like to describe it?
AS: Well I think that there's always rock and roll behind it all. I have this theory that if Keith Richards and Anita Palenberg don't like it then it's not cool. So I always keep it in the back of my head.
LH: Why, why rock and roll?
AS: I guess that to me those were my idols growing up. And initially when I started my business that was my only goal, was to dress rock stars and people that would do rock concerts. It quickly went beyond that but that was my initial reason.
LH: That's interesting I mean that seems like a pretty niche sort of market?
AS: Well as a kid that's what you're thinking about. Like that's the ultimate to you.
LH: You know Anna it really took you - what 10 years? - for you to really make a name for yourself. During those 10 years, was it tough to survive? I mean you could have just given up I presume, and could have gone and joined Vogue or some flamboyant magazine or even a fashion house for that matter?
AS: Well I thought about it many many times. And I think I would have had a much easier life if I had done something like that. But something about a piece of fabric - when I look it and I start seeing the clothes it's just like --I can't help myself. Every time that I wanted to give up, if I saw an interesting textile, print what ever, suddenly I would see a collection. And I guess this is why I'm here - to do these clothes and to do this whole style of - I guess life style sort of things - that I do.
LH: Yeah I was going to ask you: what is it about fashion that keeps some one like you-going?
AS: You know I'm just loving trends, loving seeing like a new look. Today like I met some people from Singapore: this young lady she had beautiful shoes on and I was asking her all about them-I love to see new things. I'm so excited by it.
LH: When you see people either wear your clothes, your make up or what ever, how does that make you feel? Obviously pretty good? (they both laugh)
AS: Well I mean it's such a dream come true. Because as a kid when I decided to become a fashion designer, I had no idea really what it was. I just thought it sounded good. And little by little I figured out what I needed to do. But to absolutely realize the things that you love-like accessories, make-up, clothing and put together like a total look-I mean that's really a dream.
LH: And when somebody has this look of yours, how would you like them to feel? Is there a particular feeling that comes with "Anna Sui"?
AS: Well, my whole thing is that I'm kind of like a show-off! If I'm excited about something - I want to pass on that same thrill. And I think what the cosmetics allow me to do is give the same thrill that my dress gives to a customer that maybe can't afford it-or doesn't have the life style to support one of my outfits-she can get the same thing from a tube of lipstick. And I think that that's really what it's all about.
LH: Tell me about this latest product, this "Ooh La Love Baby Doll"?
AS: Well the fragrances that I've been doing have all kind of been signature Anna Sui-but this was really the one that I wanted to do. This Dolly Girl with the bottle shape, the head of a mannequin, and Dolly Girl was such a huge success that we decided to follow up with a limited edition. So we played around with different names and we came up with "Ooh La Love". And it's flirty; it's very feminine, very girly. It's the same thing that all Anna Sui fashion is about.
LH: And your packaging, I was told you are very detailed, very precise in the packaging that you develop. Is that true?
AS: Oh yeah. I have this whole theory - and actually throughout my life I've saved containers and packages of things that I loved. And kind of put them in my files. And I want the customer to get the same feeling that I do - that the boxes are so beautiful that you can't throw it away. Use it to put your jewelry in, use it for something else but you can't throw it away.
LH: I see-so there's another use for it then!
AS: Oh yeah! (they both laugh)
LH: Now butterflies - the color purple - you're not wearing purple today...I'm disappointed (they laugh). Why - what's the connection here?
AS: Well I think that maybe I always like being a little different. To stand out in the crowd I liked the color purple. It was different than pink - butterflies I think they symbolize kind of a free spirit. And I guess maybe that's what I'm all about.
LH: Anna we're going to take a very short break and talk more about your creations. Just ahead on TalkAsia. How Anna Sui has carved her own space in the competitive fashion industry.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia and our conversation with fashion designer Anna Sui. Anna grew up as the daughter of the only Chinese immigrants in her home-town of Dearborn, Michigan. I have never been there Anna: what's it like to be a Chinese growing up in that area?
AS: Well you know at that time, we were the only Chinese family so we weren't any kind of threat, so we were kind of novel, and that made us special. And I think that that's the way I looked at it. Everyone knew who I was: everyone knew who my family was and it set us apart.
LH: But do you feel Chinese at all, or do you feel sort of American?
AS: I think I'm a global citizen. My parents came from China, were educated in France and emigrated to the United States. And I think that opened up my mind to be able to live and work anywhere. And in fact I work in Europe. I worked in Japan, and now I've been spending more time in Asia. So I think I'm global.
LH: With your parents having met as you said earlier in France, did they actually raise you and your brothers in a very traditional Chinese family or was it again-this sort of very global, open-minded family?
AS: My parents were very westernized. In fact, I don't think my mother had grown up in a Chinese household either. My grandfather was a diplomat so they had western furniture, and they saw western films. So I think again that helped my whole open-mindedness.
LH: Does any of this Chineseness, as you grow older and obviously learn about culture a bit more, creep into your fashion designs at all?
AS: Oh I think I can't help but have a Chinese vision. And people say that the color palette that I work with is very Chinese. I think even the prints that I'm attracted to. Certainly the peony, which is on the packaging of the skin-care: I think I'm very Oriental.
LH: That's interesting isn't it? I mean, where did it come from?
AS: I think it's a spirit, and I think again my parents certainly introduced me to it and those are probably my ideas of what is beautiful. So it's something that's very ingrained.
LH: Yeah and you look very Chinese: you have the China doll hair-style obviously right? ("Yes"-they both laugh)
LH: Childhood fantasies I mentioned earlier on - you were dressing your brothers toy soldiers and pretended...
AS: Playing the academy awards....!
LH: That's true then.
AS: Oh yeah. That's really true. And that's when I thought - this is a good job. I want to design clothing for the stars.
LH: And how old were you then?
AS: I think I was six! (they both laugh)
LH: Six years old and you already had this obsession!
AS: Yeah-I've always kind of been that way. I've always kind of like figured out something and focused on it: the same as going to Parsons. I read about two young ladies that went to Parsons, and when they graduated Elizabeth Taylor opened a store for them in Paris and I thought okay-that's all I have to do! Well years later I re-read the article, and I realized that it was one of Irving Pen's daughters. Now there was something about connections there but as a child you don't realize that. And that's part of my whole theory of living your dream. I think a dream can take you farther than anything,
LH: Do you spend a lot of time Anna, researching your collections or is it a whim or a fancy like you walk around and you see something and it just grabs you?
AS: I love research. When there's something that I like, I want to know everything about it. I want to know exactly what was behind it, and where it went from there. So every collection I really take the opportunity to really learn things that I'm really interested in.
LH: That takes time.
AS: But I love it.
LH: And you have deadlines! (she laughs)
AS: I love it. And its just part of what makes my job fun for me.
LH: Where do you go for research? Do you go to the internet-do you go to flea markets?
AS: I go to the country, I go to the museum - I go to the source some times. I guess that's the obsessive part of me. If there's something - when I was researching rococo I went to Germany - and saw all the rococo palaces. And that's what gave me my idea for my '96 Spring collection and also for my apartment design.
LH: You know when somebody like me goes around to the market or something to see things - we often see a lot of junk. It's very hard to determine what is cool and what is usable - correct?
AS: Well I think I see treasure in a lot of things that people - kind of think as old and junky.
LH: Parsons. What were those school days like?
AS: Um... it was quite challenging for an 18 year old with no parental supervision. So...
AS: I had a good time!
LH: Been there done that? (they both laugh)
AS: I had a good time. And actually my saving grace was I got a job after my second year and started working so I didn't have to go back my third year.
LH: No regrets?
AS: No - I think that I learned so much more working that it all fell into place. And I think it really gave me a chance to learn my craft. Because I think that's what's behind good design. It's really understanding how clothing is made.
LH: Anna what is this about your genius book?
AS: My genius files are things that I've saved since I was a kid. If there was a TV Guide cover that I thought the movie star looked great, I saved it. Rock and roll band, I save pictures. And I started putting them in folders. And eventually those folders fit in a box, under my bed - then the box got too big. And now I have a whole book-shelf filled with files! And I constantly refer to them.
LH: So you do go back to them?
AS: Oh yeah. Every collection! It's like okay - which file should I look at? (they laugh)
LH: Stick around - what does Anna do when she's not designing and would she ever consider selling her company?
LH: You're back with TalkAsia and our conversation with fashion designer Anna Sui. Some of her fans include Madonna, Britney Spears and Sofia Coppola, correct?
AS: Yes (she smiles).
LH: Is it important for you to dress these celebrities for you and your branding?
AS: Well it's so much fun I mean like it's such a big thrill when you get a phone call from Mick Jagger, or Cher or Madonna and they want something of yours. It's a thrill.
LH: But they're so different...
AS: No they're like all of us. They like something new and I think that they're always looking.
LH: Now you're a huge success in Japan. Why do you think that is - in the Japanese market any way?
AS: Um - you know I think that I appeal to the girliness in all of us. And I think Japanese girls love that kind of girly, feminine fashion, and they like the whole rock and roll element behind it. And the whole dress up quality. So I think that that was one of the first markets that that was my signature.
LH: Now when you come to Asia it's so much more different isn't it? The feel - and everything about Asia compared to North America?
AS: I don't know I think the world's gotten so much smaller. And I think that we have all the same inspirations and influences, now with CNN and MTV, fashion looks the same in every major city. Everywhere I travel now you could be in any major city in the world.
LH: Anna I talked to you earlier about your early days working out of your apartment. What were those days like? Was it difficult? Was it a struggle?
AS: You know, I didn't know how to balance my cheque-book when I started my business. Those ten years really gave me a chance to learn my craft. And really learn how to make a business work. And realize that fashion design is not art. You're making a product for consumer. So it has to sell. Like when all is said and done it has to sell.
LH: Well that's difficult right? Balancing creativity with practicality?
AS: Yeah but I had to learn that. And I had a lot of people I was responsible for - and little by little I started enjoying the business side more and more than just the creative.
LH: And you focused yourself on just designing and working on the technicalities. I mean how did you feed yourself? Did you have to borrow money or...
AS: I did a lot of freelance. I did some freelance collections. And I did styling with my friend Steven Meisel - it's when he started doing photographs he'd call and say "Anna, can you come help me?" So for about a year every month I did work for him for Italian magazines.
LH: When I read about your fame - it really was when the Macy's ad came out. Is that really true, is that when you hit it big?
AS: That's when I really started my own business. I had some friends who did jewelry and they sold at a boutique show and I thought that would be fun to sell something at a boutique show. So I did a line of clothing while I was working for a big company. And those clothes were sold to Macy's and Bloomingdales and consequently I got Macy's Christmas windows. And a big New York Times ad. So the man that owned the company that I worked for called me into the office and said how can you be on our payroll and have your own New York Times ad! This has to stop! And I said but it can't I have orders to ship. And he said well you're fired. And that's how I started my business.
LH: Would you put it down to luck, persistence, timing?
AS: And stubbornness...(they both laugh)
LH: And your run-way shows: you had some pretty big names.
AS: Well, this was in 1991, and don't forget we were into power dressing. Branding was so huge at that point. Versace, Chanel, everyone was head-to-toe designer. Kind of similar to where we are now. And everyone kept saying you have to do your own show. And I had my friends Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell pushing me and saying "oh we'll get you the girls" and Steven saying to me - you have to do it now. What are you going to do if you don't try it. Like what are you going to think - five years from now, ten years from now. And they all like stayed behind me. Linda was backstage helping the girls change. I mean it was fantastic. It's still maybe the best memory I have throughout my whole career.
LH: And the tough moments that you look back on. What was the hardest part in your life thus far?
AS: You know in those ten years when I was working out of my apartment, it was really the financial area. And realizing that some stores were just not going to pay you. And never had any intention of paying you. And a thousand dollars back then was so much money. And if a store just burned you, you had no recourse. And that was difficult with.
LH: Where do you see Anna Sui going?
AS: Well I'm so excited about the success of the fragrances and cosmetics. And I'm hoping that we're going to do more licensed products. I would love to do Anna Sui home-ware, and children's clothing. We just started doing lingerie in Japan so maybe that's going to go worldwide also.
LH: Wow I'd like to see that! Anna you know there are a lot of Asian designers coming out now - gaining more and more recognition worldwide. What advice would you give to them?
AS: Well, nothing happens overnight. And it's really important to understand the business that you're in. And the craft that you're working with. And stay with it. And you'll find your time. Everyone has to find their time. You don't have control over that. You have to be at the right place at the right time.
LH: And you life's philosophy - is it still achieving that dream --fulfilling that dream?
AS: Yeah I do a lot of signing when I promote my products and I always write-live your dream. And I think having that dream took me so much further than I would have ever imagined. But the journey along the way has been the most wonderful part of it. You never really sit back and think-oh, I've achieved it. You're still dreaming.
LH: And you're still moving. Are you still achieving that dream, or have you achieved it?
AS: I'm still dreaming.
LH: What is next for you?
AS: I think we're introducing more products into markets. We just came from China - I think it's so exciting what's going on in China. And throughout Asia I think there's such a huge interest not just in my cosmetics and accessories but also my fashion. So I'm looking forward to bringing them over and making them more and more available to people.
LH: Well we wish you all the very best. Anna thank you very much - appreciate it. Fashion designer Anna Sui. And that is TalkAsia this week. Be sure to check out our website cnn.com/talkasia for upcoming guests. And you can let us know who you'd like to have on the show - that address email@example.com. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.