Anna’s Dollhouse Playtime with Anna Sui
There’s nothing like playing dress up with a worldclass fashion designer, especially when invited into her very own life-size dream home.
“She’s always very feminine, but a little bit rock and roll, too. She’s very vintage but very trendy. There is always a defiance behind it all. Is she a fairy princess or a witch, or both?” says Anna Sui of her ideal customer, as we browse the eclectic closet of her New York apartment. Perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps even deliberately, she’s just described herself. This is a woman who thinks nothing of running up two flights of stairs in her party dress (anything from a kaftan acquired from a Liz Taylor auction to a vintage Zandra Rhodes) to the entertainment annexe of her Greenwich Village digs (when her own apartment on the ninth floor overflowed, and another became available on the 11th, she took it). She calls it her dollhouse. “All my friends say that this is Anna’s dollhouse. It’s really true because I’ll travel around the world and find little objects and things to put up in this apartment. It’s a little display place.”
If you’ve ever been to an Anna Sui store (a veritable boudoir of intrigue where floors are invariably painted scarlet red and walls mauve) you’ll find it hard to believe that her own inner sanctum actually follows a strictly monochromatic scheme. “I had so many black and white things that for some reason I got fixated on making it all black and white, which people probably found different for me, because they probably expected me to do everything in purple and red!” Anna laughs. Every design element, from the chinoiserie wallpaper (introduced to her by design icon Iris Apfel) to the furniture comprises an anthology of anecdotes. Most of her pieces are flea market finds and Anna is proud to admit many even come from Anthropologie; although everything was swathed in black lacquer with gold accents, reflecting Anna’s signature style and her proud Oriental roots.
And then there’s all that’s on display. There is a collection of rock portraits given to her by photographers such as Linda McCartney and Jim Marshall, a menagerie of papier mâché heads from Gemma Taccogna and an array of decorative objet, including, but certainly not limited to, black Viennese carved crystal lamps, a Korean inlaid table and a curious collection of trade signs – a pair of over-scaled scissors and glasses among them. She’s got a story to tell about the pillows that cascade over the chaise. “One of the young ladies that worked in my store in LA made those one year and gave them to me for my birthday. They were such a treat!” In fact, there’s even a story to the chaise – it’s upholstered in a fabric from one of Anna’s own collections.
But the scene in her first apartment was far different. It was an archetypal Chelsea loft (the Chelsea of decades past, mind you, not today’s home of hip and Highline). In one corner stood a rack of Anna’s creations (this rack spoiled her floors so badly that she was forced to redo them, choosing her now signature red over a boring wood tone), and there was little furniture. “I never wanted furniture, I never wanted a couch, I wasn’t into any of that,” she recalls. She had other priorities having just been fired from her job at Glenora because she had the audacity to share a booth with friends to showcase her designs at a local trade show, garnering the interest of department stores and (gasp) The New York Times! But what Anna lacked in interior adornments and employment she made up for in house guests – the likes of superstar fashion photographer Steven Meisel and supermodel friends Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista.
It is this motley crew, combined with a little coaxing from none other than Madonna that prompted Anna to go all out in her very first fashion show (conveniently Naomi and Linda were on hand to walk for her). “The first fashion show I went to was in Paris with Madonna. We had picked her up at the Ritz and she came out wearing her coat and we drove to the venue. Once we were seated she took off her coat and she said, ‘Anna I have a surprise for you’, and she was wearing my dress. That gave me confidence. I thought here’s someone who could have anything in the world and she was wearing my dress,” recalls Anna.
Then it was time to open her own store, which she did in SoHo, the Capitol Hill of the fashion capital. “One of my friends had dinner with me and said, ‘I’m kind of psychic and I think you need to open a boutique.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I don’t have any money. How am I going to open a boutique?’ He said, ‘Just figure it out. Once you showcase yourself, it’s all going to happen.’ That proved to be true. People really got it then. We didn’t have a lot of money so we made all the papier mâché heads, we got all the furniture in the flea market and painted it ourselves, we painted the walls ourselves. It was just my brothers, all my friends, and I. Even my dad would come to help me set up,” she recalls of the flagship whose singular design set the tone for some 300 international retail locations to come. Recognition followed, with Anna being named one of
Time’s top fashion designers and winning the prestigious CFDA Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. “I have never been part of the mass of fashion, I have always done my own thing. I’ve always been seen so separate so it was a big surprise to me when I was given the Lifetime Achievement award because I never expected it. I never even thought about it! It was one of the most thrilling moments when I got that phone call from [CFDA president] Diane von Fürstenberg,” she says of fashion’s ultimate honour. But she’s showing no signs of slowing down. Her Autumn/Winter ’14 collection, inspired by Oriental design and Chinoiserie through the Deco lens of the Western world, has already received plaudits by fashion critics. Based on the success of her fragrance La Vie de Bohème, a duo of more intense scents aptly named La Nuit de Bohème launches this summer around the world. As our play date in Anna’s dollhouse comes to a close, I spritz on some Nuit de Bohème and am ready to face the world, richer from the inspiring success story that Anna has imparted to me. Which Anna Sui girl am I? Perhaps the rock star for this balmy Greenwich Village afternoon.
Furniture from Anthropologie is covered
in black lacquer with gold accents Inspired by Gemma Taccogna, Anna has a penchant for papier mâché dolls in all shapes and sizes – even as vases, as seen here
A carefully curated collection of jewel boxes and dolls gathered from Mexico
Anna’s new fragrance, La Nuit de Bohème
A collection of books along the hallway