While a modernist minimalism has been taking hold in some fashion circles over the past few seasons, there's a new proposal coming down the pike: According to acclaimed American designer Anna Sui, bohemian romance and nostalgia are on the rise. Her celestial-themed vision for spring, rooted in idealism and psychedelic street art, features whimsical vintage prints and iridescent fabrics. It's a look that her legions of fans around the world are bound to lap up. At 50 – and with her finger still on the pulse of pop culture – Sui understands what it takes to get to the hearts of the young women who adore her; she woos them incessantly with a wide range of accessories, cosmetics and fragrances. The Detroit-born former stylist, who first fashioned doll clothes out of Kleenex when she was a little girl, has tapped into fashion fantasies so comprehensively that she's managed to build an international brand empire for herself, estimated to be worth over $400-million.
Sui's appeal is also about authenticity: Since she first began presenting her collections in the early nineties, her shows have been one of New York Fashion Week's hottest tickets. It was her good friends Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell who first urged her to stage on the runway. In those days, Sui would pay her supermodel friends with clothes, and the best models in the business were always vying to open her shows. Her front row was peppered with rock stars and artists, and the backstage scene was one huge party. I caught up with Sui when she visited Toronto recently, and we talked about the old days, fashion's new fast nature and how she continues to find inspiration.
You always seem as if you've only just begun to riff on this vision that you've had for decades. How has it felt to be in the trenches during such an evolutionary time in fashion?
It is ever-changing. With globalization and the Internet and the immediacy of everything … the amount of information that's flying around is [creating] whole new frontiers. That's exciting and also a little scary. But I think you need that fear to keep on your toes and to keep being creative. I think all of that has been important to keeping me going.
You've always referenced the music scene in your collections, turning new generations on to that kind of nostalgia. Do you ever think that maybe we've seen the best of it and it's all downhill from here? Or do you think that what's happening today is even more magical and interesting?
Well, I think I'm attracted to new music because it reminds me of old music. My last collection was inspired by psychedelia, but I chose it because there were so many new psychedelic bands coming up. I love Tame Impala and Temples and Melody's Echo Chamber – very young bands that somehow are channelling that great music of Cream and Led Zeppelin. I think that's great. That means it's still relevant and people are still really wanting to hear it. I just saw Jimmy Paige. He's doing a book tour and oh my god what a gorgeous man! He's so inspiring because he's so eloquent, so excited about what he's doing and, again, so relevant.
That's exactly what's going on with fashion. It's always referencing the past but pushing it forward in bold new ways. It's almost cyclical.
I think so. It's all this resurgence of all this bohemian stuff now. It looks so right again. I mean we went through a very minimalist sort of thing, but now what's going to knock that off the planet is bohemia. And you can see even collections like Céline, which was known for that very minimalist stuff and all of a sudden had those huge cabbage roses coming down the runway. That's what fashion is. It's what makes it look new, what looks fresh and what's kind of the opposite of what's been going on.
Do you ever really get nostalgic for the days when the scene was such a party? It was a golden era in my mind. How does it measure up to the vibe of the scene today?
Well, it was a different time. Actually I just had lunch with Sofia [Coppola] and she was talking about her friend, who had shot a video of when she first came to see my shows in the nineties, and how intimate it was. There were a lot fewer people [in the audience] and then there were the models, maybe about 10 of them, and everyone seemed to be part of that same world. Now, everything is fragmented because it's so much bigger, so much more about big business, and so much more corporate. I think that's what happened with art, sports, fashion: Everything became corporate. And I miss those days. I miss when it was kind of family and I would see you and I would see all of the same journalists every season and we kind of were all going through this together. But it's just a different time now.
What – if anything – worries you about fashion today?
The speed of it. And the fact that it is so immediate at this point. I don't know if that's good. I miss those days when you saw a show and you would have to wait six months for the clothes to get into the stores. Now I feel like a lot of shows are offering it up for sale while it's going down the runway. And the other thing that is a total bummer for me is that, all of a sudden, all the celebrities are wearing the clothes before they're available to the customer. So that makes it dated by the time it's available in the stores. And then you kind of think, "I don't want to wear that. I've already seen it on so and so and so and so …" It's been at every awards show, so it kind of puts a damper on things. It takes the "special" away.
This interview has been condensed and edited.