2008.041.010 Oral History Interview with Anna Sui
Anna Sui is an internationally acclaimed fashion designer. Her hip, exuberant, original designs take you on a creative journey and mixes vintage styles with her current cultural obsessions. Whether inspired by Victorian cowboys, Warhol superstars or Finnish textile prints, her depth of cultural knowledge is always apparent. “When I am interested in something, I want to know everything about it,” she says. Sui shares the memory of her first trip to visit her grandparents in China, where she became interested in mixing beautiful Chinese textiles into her everyday fashion. Her parents came from Europe and settled in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, where grew up in a typical suburban environment. Her mother studied painting at the Sorbonne, and her father studied architecture. Through them, she was exposed to a very international influence of culture when she was growing up. Through natural inclination, Sui began collecting images that she liked of movie stars, dresses, interiors, and hairstyles and began organizing them into folders and envelopes. She feels that she was meant to become a fashion designer. Everything in her personality, her accumulation of thoughts and inspirations, allowed for that. Sui recalls the inspiration and thought behind two of her collections. The collection she did as a tribute to her Aunt Juliana drew what she remembered of her aunt’s tastes in textiles and her memories of her aunt and uncle’s wedding, in which her aunt wore dazzling qipaos with matching jewelry, shoes, and bags. Her Tibetan Surfer Collection was inspired observing the mix of styles of the audience backstage at the first Tibetan Freedom concert. Regarding fashion and appropriation, Sui believes that everything is influenced by something else and is always being reinterpreted.


I remember my first trip to visiting my grandparents, my grandmother took me to a textile store and we bought all these beautiful Chinese check cards and I had all these tops made and things so that I can wear them with jeans 'cause I thought that was so cool to have beautiful Chinese blouses to mix with my jeans. When my grandfather saw them, he's like, "That's like Chinese opera, like, are you going to go outside like that?"

My parents came via Europe. They settled in Michigan and had a house in downtown Detroit when I was born. But we soon moved up to the suburbs, to Dearborn Heights. I think I had a very typical suburban pop culture, sort of, up-bringing, but there were always influences of family and a lot of influence of European cultures that my parents experienced. My mother studied painting at the Sorbonne and I think that she surrounded herself with so many beautiful art books and we'd talk about them and so my whole life I remember hearing about her favorite artists. My father studied architecture so I would hear about Saarinen and different architects that he admired, so I think that we had this very international influence of culture in my family.

Along the way, and probably my natural way of inclination, I started collecting photographs of movie stars that I liked, dresses that I liked, hairstyles that I liked, interiors that I liked and I would keep them in this box under my bed. It was just a natural thing. I would see the T.V guide arrive and I would tear the cover off because I love the make up on the actress and slowly I had to start organizing them into folders and manila envelopes, and till this day, I still maintain that same system. I think that I was meant to be a fashion designer and I think that everything in my personality kind of allowed for that; this accumulation of thoughts and inspirations.

When I was a flower girl at my aunt and uncle's wedding, there was this whole ritual of getting ready. In a Chinese wedding, you change clothes a few times. My Aunt Juliana had the most dazzling Qipaos with matching jewelry and shoes and bags. And, I will just never forget, she used to always come to the garment center and look for textiles and one of her favorites were one of these burnt out velvets. So when I did my collection as a tribute to her, that was one of the fabrics that kind of like, sparked that thought.

One of my big theories in fashion is that, you can't be, like, the lone wolf in something, it has to be a trend, it has to be a feeling in the air, and I was out at a concert, the Tibetan Freedom concert, the first one, and I was backstage and looking out to the audience and I saw this sea of people with a mixture of army surplus and trinkets and things picked up from Asia, like from India or Thailand mixed with sports clothes, like bathing suits or surfer trunks or football jerseys. To me, like, that's what was in the air, that was what was happening and I tried to take all things and mix them together and it became my Tibetan Surfer Collection.

I think appropriation is something that we talk about a lot these days because I think everything is influenced by something else. No matter what anybody says, they didn't invite it, they're not the first person to do it. But it's always re-interpreted.

I'm Anna Sui and I'm a fashion designer.

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