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December 13, 2013

Anna Sui, Designer and Brand Founder

By Chris Boyle

Anna SuiElite Traveler was recently fortunate enough to sit down with the trendsetting fashion designer, Anna Sui. A girl with a big dream has made the world of fashion step up to creativity, color and culture, constantly shaping the runway.

Today, Anna Sui has over 50 boutiques in eight countries with her collection sold in 300 stores in over 30 countries globally.

Elite Traveler: Anna, thank you for chatting with us. We are big fans of your work. Can you please share some of your background and how you have reached your goals?

Anna Sui: It’s my pleasure.  I was born in Michigan and knew that I wanted to be a fashion designer since the age of four. When I was little, I read an article about two girls that went to Parson’s School of Design in New York. When they graduated, Elizabeth Taylor opened up a boutique for them, so I thought, “Okay, I have to go to Parsons.” My babysitter had Seventeen Magazine at our house and in the back was an ad to enroll to Parsons. This is when I decided to do everything in my power to make sure I was eligible to go to Parson’s, and I did. Many years later I went back and read that article. What I didn’t understand as a child, the first time I read it, was that one of the girls had connections. I’m so glad I didn’t know that then, because I don’t think I would have pursued this dream as whole-heartedly.

ET: You must have had a supportive family to do this, right?

AS: Yes, I was fortunate to have parents of that generation that actually supported my dream. They didn’t force me into medical or law school. They told me to follow my dreams. Obviously Parsons is quite expensive and I had to uproot myself and move to New York City, so again, I was very lucky to have their support and sacrifices, otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here with you today.

ET: Please tell us about the time leading to your first boutique opening and when you opened your first boutique.

AS: I worked for some big fashion companies and worked on a special collection just for fun.  It was after I shared a booth with friends at a boutique trade show, featuring my very first line, that I received attention. I received orders from Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s; and subsequently an ad in the New York Times, and a window in Macy’s. I was working for a large company at the time. One day at work, my boss, the owner of the company, called me into his office and asked me how it was possible that I had my own ad while I was working for him. I told him it just kind of happened! He asked me to stop this and I disagreed. I ended up getting fired. And that is how I started my own business.

From that point, it took me about ten years to open up my first boutique. I basically worked out of my apartment, as I had no money, no business plan and no investments. Little by little I built up my business. In 1990 I went to Paris with my best friend Steven Meisel. He took me to my first fashion shows. On our way to a show we picked up Madonna at the Ritz Carlton. When we got to her room I saw that she had been busy that day, as she had shopping bags from almost every major fashion designer. We got to the Gaultier show and she said to me, “Anna, I have a surprise for you”.  She took off her jacket and there was Madonna, wearing my dress! Talk about a boost of confidence. When we got back to New York I knew what I had to do. Steven helped convince me that it was my turn to do a show, especially since I now knew what it was all about.

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I did fashion shows for a couple of years, but then wasn’t really sure where to go next. My designs did not look like the other big designers’ at that time in New York. A friend of mine from Calvin Klein took me out to dinner and urged me to open up my first boutique. It was 1994 and I still did not have money at this point, so my friends and I hit the fabulous flea markets of New York. Everything I ended up putting into my boutique became the icons of my brand. It all fell into place so nicely. Subsequently, I got a contract for distribution rights in Japan for cosmetic and fragrance licenses. That’s how I became international, in 1997. The fragrance was from Germany, a company called Wella, who then got bought by P&G. I had P&G cross-distribute my fragrance, which is really what put me on the map in Asia. I had heavy distribution in Japan, at one of Japan’s hottest times.

My fragrances are now made by the French firm, Interparfums.  My cosmetics are still made in Japan by Albion. We also have a distributor in Taiwan, and stores in China as well as Hong Kong.

ET: Moving forward 20 years, where are we now? How many stores do you have and what are you busiest with?

AS: I do shows in New York every season. I still have distribution in Japan, Taiwan, China and Europe. We do trade shows in Europe, and I am still selling to boutiques here. My biggest account at the moment is Net-A-Porter, and I still have my boutique in New York of course.

I’m hoping to open more stores in China. I’ve been working on some really interesting collaborations over the last couple of years which I am enjoying very much. I designed luggage with Tumi, bags with Coach, a sportswear collection with FILA in China, which will debut in early 2014. This has been so interesting as it allows me to work on products I would not normally do on my own.

ET: What inspires you most?

I think I have the perfect job.  Everything I’m currently obsessed with can serve as inspiration for my work; films, books, exhibitions, music, travel, flea markets.  My personal life is so intricately intertwined with what I do.  I love doing the research; learning about something new.  I always want to share with my fans all the things that I am excited about.  I want to take them on that journey with me.  I try to get my customer as interested and as inspired as I am.

ET: How does it feel to be an internationally renowned Chinese designer?

AS: I’m very proud and grateful. It’s something I don’t think anyone ever dreamed of because no one really knew China was going to explode like this. The first time I went there, I called my mother from Shanghai and said, “Mom, if I was younger I would move here. It is all going to happen here”.

ET: What is your advice for aspiring Asian designers?

AS: It’s a matter of time, patience and hard work. Put your best foot forward and if you’ve got the talent, you will be fine.

ET: Did you ever make a mistake that ended up in your favor?

AS: Off the top of my head, I would have to say that my decision to tell the perfume company that I would not work with them unless they cross-distributed with the cosmetic company, would fall into this category. Who was I to say that? They were the experts in this field, but it truly made sense to me. It meant the product could work hand-in-hand, could go together. The head of the fragrance company said that this was totally unorthodox and that no one does it that way. I wanted to try anyway, which in turn is what made me global. I think sometimes the innocence of not knowing and just making it up can work to our advantage.

ET: What’s a regular day in the life of Anna Sui?

AS: I work very long hours, usually seven days a week. I have someone that takes care of textiles, one person to look after prints, another in charge of embroidery and one main design assistant. This means that I still do most of the designing, as this is what I enjoy and why I am here today.

ET: Anna, thank you so much for your time. You are truly an inspiring woman and the world of fashion is better because of you.  We can’t wait to see what you do next.

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