Anna Sui: The Passion Of Anna

What designer do the more whimsical, adventuresome movie stars turn to when they need a break from Armani? Meet tiara-happy Barbie doll enthusiast Anna Sui.


The Academy Awards have nothing on Anna Sui's fashion show. An hour before the doors to the tent in Bryant Park are to open, hundreds of people are milling around, wearing their finest, checking each other out and clutching their Day-Glo tickets as if they were passes to the New World. Which they may well be. Anna Sui, darling of the fashion world and the new fashion-girl-of-the-moment in Hollywood, is about to present her Fall '94 collection.

Not that long ago, the only people who cared passionately about high fashion were the pros who understood bias cut and drape, the writers and designers who made their livelihood from the schmatte trade and the overprivileged "ladies who lunch." But now, when models are the most talked-about people in our culture, and actresses care more about whom they're wearing than whom they're dating, the fashion world has garnered the kind of popular cachet that used to belong only to Hollywood. Suddenly, the fall collections are what every living, breathing participant in the culture of America must see.

A young boy with a pierced nose, pierced eyebrow and multiple holes in his ears approaches me and tries to buy my ticket to Sui's show. Two hundred bucks he's willing to pay to be part of this spectacle. I'm tempted--I could watch the whole thing later on tape. But when this kid talks again, I see that his tongue is pierced, three shiny metal balls bobbing like buoys in the ocean, and I think, nah, he shouldn't subject himself further to the beauty of Kate and Naomi and Linda--it'll just rot his brain right down to the stem.

When they finally start letting people in, there is complete pandemonium. As I make my way to my seat, I spot Francis and Sofia Coppola, Kyle MacLachlan, the young, reckless Stephen Dorff, and Jaye Davidson, wearing ripped and filthy cutoffs. (During the course of the show, Davidson will throw wadded-up papers at people, light a cigarette and generally make an asshole of himself because he's dissatisfied with his fifth-row seat.)

The show is half-an-hour late to begin, but when it finally gets going, the place starts thumping to the best of "I'm Beautiful, Dammit," and Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista and Carla Bruni sashay down the aisle in fake fur, sexy little tuxedo jackets and rubber shirts. They are beautiful, dammit. When the diminutive, dark-haired Anna Sui is brought out, the whole room is hers for the asking.

A few weeks later, I'm sitting in Sui's New York store, in SoHo. Between the racks of dresses and jackets are overstuffed Victorian sofas, lamps that look like they'd be right at home in a Parisian whorehouse, and a whole array of what can only be called Suisms--those wacky finds that she picks up on her forays to the flea markets. Although Sui has been in business for over a decade, she really hit it big just in the past few years, when her collection of chiffon print baby-doll dresses started attracting the likes of Winona Ryder, Geena Davis, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah and Kim Basinger.

Okay, I'm gonna ask Sui the question you've been dying to ask her yourself: Why is everyone so interested in models these days? I mean, why does anybody really care what, if anything, these women have to say?

"They are the new movie stars," Sui answers without the slightest hesitation. "They're the only ones that are offering glamour right now. I think that the movie stars have all kind of retreated, and they're not dressing up--it's not fashionable for them to dress up. But the models--no one looks better in clothes than they do. They're our living Barbie dolls. They're our goddesses now."

Gee, that's funny. I remember the days when our goddesses did things like give great performances in films directed by people like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. What have these models done for us lately? "They make more money than anybody," says Sui. "They live such a privileged life. They're flown here and there, and they're paid for flying time--on the Concorde--and they're given clothing, and they're pampered. I mean, when they go to a shoot, head to toe is taken care of. And they'll sit there and talk on the telephone while people are doing their makeup and their nails and their hair and their clothing. These are the people who were just born so special. It's not something that's acquired. It's not enough just to be pretty, and it's not enough just to be skinny. It's the combination, it's the package." Sui is positively bouncing up and down in her seat, and if you think she's kidding, or overstating, you've got her totally wrong.

"And then you have someone like Naomi Campbell," she continues, "who is a living Barbie doll. I mean, her body is amazing. It's like no other body you've ever seen in your life. She doesn't work out, but she has the most incredible muscles."

Sui is the only person I know who, when she describes someone as a Barbie doll, means it as a compliment.

"As long as we're praising models," I say, "tell me what's so great about Kyle MacLachlan's squeeze, Linda Evangelista?"

"There's a reason why Linda is the best model in the world," Sui jumps in. "We love doing fashion shows with her because everything fits her. You put it on her, fine, she can wear anything and make it work on her body. And she works harder than anyone I've ever seen. She works just as hard as the photographer and the stylist and the hair person. And if something is bothering her, she'll say, 'Do you really think I need both these necklaces? Don't you think I should take one off?' "

My goddaughter, Molly, now six years old, has been telling me that I wear too much jewelry since she was two-and-a-half. Does this mean she's going to grow up to be a model? Yikes. What about a fashion designer?

"When did you first show signs of being able to appreciate the finer points of mannequins?" I ask Sui.

"My favorite thing as a kid was to go fabric shopping with my mother," says Sui. "Then I would take the scraps of the cloth and make doll clothes with them. I spent hours on Barbie. We would set up these Barbie villages on people's Ping-Pong tables. And I had to have all the outfits, and my cousins would come visit and I'd make clothes for my cousins' dolls. When I learned how to crochet and knit, I'd make them sweater sets. I would take those little fur collars and make them into fur wraps for Barbie. I loved buying all the miniature stuff for her accessories, and, at Christmas, my favorite thing was to get all these miniature foods, so she had all this stuff to serve..."

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