5 Design Lessons From Anna Sui, Fashion’s Enduring Boho Queen

Sui tells Co.Design how she keeps her nostalgia-infused brand relevant to modern women.

It’s 5 p.m. in New York’s fashionably gritty Meatpacking District, and as the day’s office meetings give way to loft parties, fashion designer Anna Sui somehow looks equal parts funky and professional. While publicists and photographers swirl around us, preparing for an event, she sits at ease, wearing an an embellished denim jacket, a blue-and-black print dress, and knee-high boots, topped by bold red lipstick and dark eyeliner. It’s not hard to understand why women around the world still flock to her polished-bohemian aesthetic, more than 20 years since her eponymous label’s first runway show.


In the lull after the storm that is New York Fashion Week, Sui took a moment to tell Co.Design about her design philosophy. Each time she sits down to create a new collection, she filters her love of the past through the lens of modern street-wear. “You have to mix in your nostalgia with what makes it relevant now,” she says. Here are her design secrets.

1. Embrace your obsessions.
“You pray that something is going to hit you like a lightning bolt,” Sui says, but most of her designs emerge organically out of research that she pursues with the verve of a trained historian. Inspiration for her spring 2015 ready-to-wear collection, for example, started with her interest in vintage rock posters. She started looking into buying a set of English posters, as a way to round out a personal archive that includes keepsakes from Detroit’s Grande Ballroom and San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, and soon found herself caught up in the history of Granny Takes A Trip, a London boutique famous for outfitting bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “Every rock star from that era shopped there,” she says. “It was like designing for their girlfriends.”

2. Design with something old and something new.
“I’m obsessed with the ’60s, I’m obsessed with the ’70s, but then I’m using scuba fabric, I’m using the technology that’s available–digital printing, laser-cutting, all those things–to bring it up to date,” Sui says. “What Anna Sui sells is printed dresses, so we’re always trying to find innovative prints, innovation in how it’s printed.” She now prints many of her patterns digitally–“you can catch all these details, all these colors”–and uses older screen-printing techniques to keep costs down or to achieve a specific look. Sui says she looks forward to the day when the U.S. garment industry catches up to Europe in its ability to digitally manufacture details like lace and sequins, but she confesses that she harbors an affection for handicraft, and sees in her customers a similar and resurgent “maker” inclination. “I still think there’s nothing more beautiful than handmade,” she says.

3. Study changes in your customers’ lifestyle and behavior.
To the untrained eye, the Anna Sui runway can look like a blast from the past, with layered, psychedelic patterns and hippie-era silhouettes. But Sui is attentive to the nuanced differences between then and now, and she reinterprets tunics, bellbottoms, and other tropes of the ’60s and ’70s with contemporary customers in mind. “There’s a certain casualness now that didn’t really exist in the ’60s even though it was supposed to be casual. It was a time when people dressed up to go to the airport, there was kind of a uniform,” she says. “Now we’re so used to leisurewear, we’re so used to comfort, we’re so used to dressing down. It’s a different time.” Even shifts in body type factor into her designs: “The body is completely different today than it was in the ’60s. Everyone has been to yoga class or done some sort of exercise at a gym. You don’t have that post-war anorexia, a Twiggy body.” Sui’s dresses never veer toward the androgynous, high-collared look that Twiggy popularized and instead favor gently draped fabrics in curve-friendly shapes.


4. Splurge with a cool head.
Sui is a matter-of-fact businesswoman as well as a designer, a dual role that influences every decision she makes as leader of her privately held company. “You choose what it is that you’re going to spend your money on, what’s going to make the difference. Sometimes it’s so subtle that it’s not worth it,” she says. When she does choose to invest resources in a passion project, she waits patiently for the right moment. She followed the work of shoe designer Terry de Havelland for years before finally inviting him to translate his rock ‘n’ roll style into a set of snakeskin and metallic Anna Sui platforms. “I always loved those shoes, and I thought this was the perfect collection to work with him on it,” she says.

5. Get comfortable with uncertainty.
Through it all, Sui has learned when to let go. “The funny thing is, the first thing you do are the shoes, even before the clothes exist. You get them back the week before the show, and you just hope that they’re going to work out,” she says. When shoes festooned with stars and moons arrived from Italy just before a recent runway show, Sui was delighted with the “beautiful” laser-cut, art nouveau shapes. And then she moved on to the next thing.


About the author

Senior Writer Ainsley Harris joined Fast Company in 2014. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.