Anna Sui (Chinese: 蕭志美; ) is an American fashion designer from Detroit. She was named one of the “Top 5 Fashion Icons of the Decade” and in 2009 earned the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), joining the ranks of Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Diane von Furstenberg. Her brand categories include several fashion lines, footwear, cosmetics, fragrances, eyewear, jewelry, accessories, home goods and a gifts line.
EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY ORIGINS
Sui is a first-generation Chinese born in Detroit, Michigan. Her father, Paul Sui (Chinese: 蕭惠光, pinyin: Xiāo Huìguāng) and mother, Grace Sui Fang (方光琪, Fāng Guāngqí) met while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris where Sui’s father was studying engineering and her mother, painting. Her paternal grandparents were Xiao Yulan (蕭毓蘭, Xiāo Yùlán), a Tahitian-Chinese businessman, and his wife Qiu Daidi (丘帶娣). Her maternal grandparents were Fang Chih, a Chinese diplomat and his Japanese wife Fang I-chih (born Masue Ueki).
Sui is a matrilineal descendant of the prominent Fang clan of Tongcheng, Anhui, notable for its many scholars and philosophers. She is an 18th generation descendant of Fang Bao, an influential Chinese poet who founded the Tongcheng School of literary prose popular throughout the Qing Empire. Notable ancestors also include Fang Gongcheng, tutor of the imperial palace, and Fang Guancheng, Viceroy of Zhili seated at Tianjin from 1749 to 1768 amongst other Qing era scholars.
By the time she was four years old, Sui knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. Sui’s mother taught her about putting together a wardrobe, bringing a young Sui with her to shop for fabrics. Sui would spend hours watching her mother sew and would collect the fabric scraps to clothe her Barbie dolls and her brothers’ army action figures. Through this process, Sui learned the basics of making clothing and soon she was putting together her own outfits. This was accomplished by buying pattern pieces for the sleeves of a dress, and swapping them to match other dresses, to create her own look for the garments. As a teen, she read an article in Life Magazine about the achievements of Mia Fonssagrives-Solow who graduated from Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and then moved to Paris, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton opened a boutique with the girl. Sui credits reading this article as a pivotal moment in her youth, which gave her clear direction on her goals for her future. Sui moved to New York and attended Parsons.
Caroline Trentini for Anna Sui Spring/Summer 2011.
After finishing her second year at Parsons, Sui was hired by Erica Elias’ juniors clothing label Charlie’s Girls, where she learned by designing for sportswear labels and doing styling on the photography shoots of friend and former Parson’s classmate Steven Meisel. Sui’s work as a stylist for Meisel’s shoots featured in the Italian magazine Lei specifically were very well received. After the closing of Charlie’s Girls, Sui worked for several other sportswear designers including Bobbie Brooks and Simultanee. During this time, she began designing and making clothes out of her apartment. Sui stated that she was inspired to branch out on her own by a desire to dress rock stars and people who attended their concerts. Indeed, during this period, the majority of her personal business was focused on targeting sales to music stores. While working for the sportswear company Glenora, she brought her collection of five pieces to a New York trade show, and caught the attention of New York department stores Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. A few weeks later, those clothes were featured in an advertisement in The New York Times. The manager at Glenora, where Sui was still on the payroll, was furious when he saw the advertisement in The Times and fired her on the spot. Left without a job, Sui took her $300 in savings and started a business out of a little corner of the living room in her apartment. For several years Sui ran the company out of her apartment, doing odd-jobs for spare income and reinvesting every penny of earnings into her business.
The 1980s was the height of “power-dressing”, with companies such as Chanel, Lacroix and Versace setting the standard. Sui struggled to stand up next to the big-name fashion houses. Sui was one of the few designers of the period who distanced herself from the traditional fashion houses and explored the grunge fashion scene together with designers such as Marc Jacobs, Daryl K and Todd Oldham. Around 1987, Sui got the opportunity to move her line into Annette B, a showroom curated by Annette Breindel. Breindel, who had a history of nurturing young designers, was a major influence for Sui and helped the designer emerge onto the fashion scene. During this period, Sui finally was able to move her operation out of her apartment and into the garment district. By the late 1980s, Sui had gained a global cult-like following, getting the attention of Japanese fashion powerhouses such as Onward Kashiyama. Sui would go on to majorly expand Japanese operations in the mid 90s.
In 1991, Meisel, Paul Cavaco and Sui’s supermodel friends, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, got together and encouraged her to try a runway show. Sui rented a small space in the Meatpacking District and paid the models by giving them the clothes. The successful show was the biggest breakthrough of Sui’s career, with The New York Times commenting in reference to Sui’s celebrity runway models: “That those beauties [Campbell and Evangelista] were then at the height of their fame helped stoke the reception Sui got from buyers and the news media.”