The New York Times called her “fashion’s favorite daughter.” Renowned fashion journalist Tim Blanks proclaimed her “one of fashion’s best storytellers.” And the head of the Met’s Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, once said about her that “there is not one art movement or artist she hasn’t touched on in her work.” Anna Sui, the American fashion designer known for constructing a one-of-a-kind, rock-inspired fantasy world, has stood the test of many a fashion trend, and now, she’s taking on China.
She established herself in 1990 with her first runway show, thanks to the support of supermodels like Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, and her big catwalk hit — the baby doll dress — was worn by seemingly every iconic woman of the era, including Madonna at the peak of her fame. From there, she became a huge business and received international attention, particularly in Japan where consumers raved about her too-cool-for-school style. That led to a lucrative contract with the Japanese retailer Isetan.
Now, roughly 20 years later, the legendary designer is venturing into China with a list of initiatives, such as debuting her sportswear line, Anna Sui active, in Shanghai and opening a new store in Beijing’s experiential art mall, SKP South. Sui has also recently appeared on CCTV’s Fashion Master Program and is now preparing to move her lauded retrospective exhibition from New York’s Museum of Arts and Design to China.
The Chinese market is an alluring but challenging one. It’s a big piece of the global pie, but the competition there is now fierce. Market entry costs are rising sky high and are even daunting to a designer with Sui’s background and status. Meanwhile, most mainstream consumers in China don’t even know Sui’s legendary status — they merely see her as the auteur of her lipstick and perfume lines (which are a hit in China), having yet to experience her complete visual world.
And, conversely, China is still somewhat foreign to Sui, even though she’s Chinese-American and has traveled extensively. “I grew up in Michigan and lived most of my life in New York,” she said, “but I am a very global citizen. I was raised on pop culture.” Thus she is able to approach China with a refreshing eye. She has taken extensive trips to China’s second and third-tier cities, and rediscover the local artisan for inspiration for her fashion line.
So what does the future hold for Anna Sui in China? It’s likely too early to know for sure. Nevertheless, we sat down with the incomparable designer at her newly-opened SKP South store to discuss her China plans and how she’s been exploring the country’s history for inspiration:
Since you’re Chinese-American, did you ever feel the urge to incorporate Chinese elements for your designs?
I have from time to time, but I’m really a product of pop culture. I grew up in Michigan and lived most of my life in New York, but I am a very global citizen. I think it’s hard for people to see that I’m American. I was working in Italy before ‘global’ was a concept. I didn’t speak Italian, but I worked there for fourteen years because I needed to freelance to support my collection. The same thing happened in Japan. I never learned Japanese, but I worked there for 20-something years. I was able to adapt to different cultures and work within their structures.
How has traveling in China inspired you?
Actually, this last trip, a couple of years ago, I traveled outside of Beijing and Shanghai. I went to Guizhou, Dunhuang, Xi’an, and Da Lian. It was so exciting to see second- and third-tier cities and see how advanced those cities are. You go into a village, and there’s a superhighway, trains, and skyscrapers, and it’s like, ‘what happened?’ We went to all the little villages, and we went to the Sisters’ Meal Festival [where] they were doing the dance. We went to visit every town, and the whole town came out and sang and was dressed in their local customs. I want to experience those things more and more because you know they’re going to disappear because of technology.
You have been scaling down in Japan and investing heavily in China by debuting your active line there. What’s the strategy behind these moves?
Things are changing in Japan, and we are changing our strategy there, too. It’s not that we’re scaling down — we are going to have our own distribution and boutiques there.
At the same time, I have been coming to China with my fragrance and cosmetics for more than 20 years now. In the beginning, we had a few boutiques here, but then the whole structure of China changed, and we became a shop in SKP Beijing and Xi’an. Our [new] SKP South is the third location. We also have two Anna Sui stores in Shanghai.
I’m Chinese, and people are familiar with my name — knowing my lipsticks and mirrors — but not my fashion too much. So this is a great way to enter the fashion market in China. The latest trend there is activewear incorporating fashion, and I think we have done such an exciting job presenting the concept of Anna Sui in a very new way.
Why did you choose to debut your line in China ahead of other global markets?
It’s a natural progression. I did a collaboration with FILA for a few years here, and it was very successful. That gives us an indication that maybe Anna Sui active can be very popular in China.
What do you see the differences between the Japanese and Chinese consumers?
When I started [in fashion], everyone was looking to Japan for inspiration, products, and fashion. A lot of magazines and brands came to China, but you learned about [fashion] from Japan. I think the world has changed, and communication is different now. A magazine isn’t the first thing people looked at anymore; it’s more the Internet, and I think no country is more advanced with the internet than China.
I think the Chinese way of embracing new technology is the latest thing. Chinese consumers are savvy online shoppers — we didn’t learn this from Japan. China holds the key to the new retail, and then you see a shopping mall like this [SKP S], and it opens your eyes to what [a mall] could be instead of what it traditionally was.
Where do you see Anna Sui 10 — or even 20 — years from now?
I think we are evolving quite naturally by first starting in the US, then Japan, and now China. The big potential now is Asia. We went to southeast Asia for perfume and cosmetics, and you know that’s going to be the next boom because the general population is largely under 25, and there are so many natural resources there. It’s going to be the same progression: They are going to hear about Anna Sui in China, and China is going to be their inspiration.
The interview has been revised and edited for clarity.