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Inside the Designer's Studio: Anna Sui

It's hard to balance fashion-as-art with fashion-as-outfit, but Anna Sui welds the compromise each season. When her clothes go down the runway, there

It's hard to balance fashion-as-art with fashion-as-outfit, but Anna Sui welds the compromise each season. When her clothes go down the runway, there's a chain reaction in your gut: A gasp - the patterns are so deep you're dizzy. A breath - the shapes are so fresh it's fun. A stare - the dresses that might save your season. A crush - it's not all for you, but there's one thing you have to have, and you'll tackle Irina backstage to get it. At least, that's how we've always felt. To find out why, we sought the designer herself...

Hi Anna, how's your summer? It's great. I just got back from Thailand. I'm there for work a lot, but this was just for vacation, when I really got to explore the country. It was wonderful. Did you see any Thai girls in Anna Sui dresses? I saw a few girls in fake Anna Sui dresses. That has to change. Yeah, that must be frustrating. And now, is it all Spring '08, all the time? We are so busy. What's the first thing you do for a new collection? I guess it’s really thinking about what’s made me excited, and what’s made me interested. I’ve got the best job in the world, because I’m allowed to get inspired by what I like. My process is more visual than anything else. I make an Inspiration Board. It varies from season to season, but sometimes I won’t put anything clothing-related up, just architecture and graphics. But this season, there’s a lot of clothes – a lot of people that I think have style, so it’s more about that. Do we get a hint? Who's on your Inspiration Board? Well... I love Jean Harlow! We do too! Can you describe your design process? Even before we do the Inspiration Board, I choose colors, because I have to pick out leathers – that’s always the first thing, what will you do for shoes? It’s really a nightmare, because you don’t know what the clothes look like yet, and you have to design their accessories! But the concept and the colors of those shoes lead into what your fabric, print, and silhouette choices are for the season. We read you have "Genius Files" - a giant book of clippings that go back for like 20 years. Do you still consult them before you design?: Oh yes. It started off as a box under my bed as a kid, but now it’s like a closet full of images. I’m constantly making Xeroxes, or taking out pages from magazines, saving postcards – there’s just that visual thing that I love having around me.

Your new t-shirt collection is inspired by concert posters. Do you remember the first time you fused music and fashion together? My life in fashion started from going to see bands. I would dress up, all my friends would dress up, and that was the biggest excitement. So my number one goal when I started my business was to dress people to go see concerts. It grew bigger than what I originally planned and we had actual rock stars calling, so it jumped beyond that, but initially, it was, dress the girls for concerts! You know we have to ask what you wore to concerts... I had a feather boa – this is glam rock period, remember – and silver platform shoes. Did growing up near Detroit influence your work? I think that one of the biggest things about growing up "not in New York" is that longing feeling. I came to New York every summer because we had relatives here, and I knew since I was five that I would move here. I learned my way around the city, knew all the stores, went to visit Parsons and got the application forms when I was a teenager – it’s that longing where it seems almost unattainable, so it seems like a dream. And that, intensified, helped make me a designer – if everything’s too accessible, it loses it’s value. You always have the best models in your show. How do you choose them? I have help from friends, and that’s part of what’s exciting about casting – you want a little bit of everything. You have your favorites, the quirky and interesting ones – like Morwenna Cobbald last season, her style was so perfect for the collection, and that makes the show exciting. When it gets too predictable, it starts looking like every other show. And the girls contribute to the excitement in the show. One of our first Fashion Week memories is speaking with Karen Elson in the makeup chair at your show! Yes, she opened for me on my first season, my Goth collection. But Agyness opened last season, and Naomi Campbell has opened more of my shows than any other model.

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Fill in the blank. Five days before your fashion show, you are doing____: Fittings. Five hours before? Probably just watching them pack up the clothes. It’s almost a meltdown at that point because you’re going on adrenaline for so long. People say "You’re so calm" backstage, but it’s because you’ve been working for so long – sometimes I have to drink coffee and then go to the show! What happens after the show? So many members of my family come to the show, so we have a big dinner. It’s kids and parents and grandparents and cousins – it’s really nice. There’s like 30 people at dinner. It’s a very nice family gathering. Have your parents always encouraged your designs? My mother studied painting, but my father’s an engineer. It’s a good combination because you get the artistic side and the practical side. And fashion is both creative and technical. And really, really hard because you have to design on cue! We have to create on a schedule without fail – that’s the biggest challenge, that schedule. No other artists have that. Why do you think your brand has been so successful? I kept really, really true to all the aspects of what personifies Anna Sui. Every product looks like an Anna Sui product. We have purple and black icons, Art Nuoveau shapes, a rock and roll toughness, a real girliness, a little bit of glamour, and we constantly question each product that way. When you buy a tube of lipstick, it gives you the same thrill as buying an Anna Sui dress. You may not have the budget for a dress, but you can be just as excited about a tube of lipstick. So we constantly go over that with every product, the same fantasy behind both.

AND NOW, THE PROUST-ISH QUESTIONNAIRE. Anna Sui, What's your favorite word? Yes. Is your least favorite word "No"? Yes. What's your favorite noise or sound? It depends on my mood, but sometimes I love hearing loud rock music – like when friends call me and the Clash is blasting at 8 am, and they’re like, "Are you having a moment?" But I love silence too. It's one or the other. What's your least favorite noise or sound? I hate when people scrape silverware against their teeth. Living in New York, not too much bugs me, horns and sirens are fine. But that one can really bug me. What makes you feel creative? It’s seeing a fabric. I can’t do a collection until I see a fabric that I can see clothes coming from, or seeing a beautiful object, and somehow it kind of develops in my mind. That’s why I love museums and things I’ve never seen before – it’s objects and fabric that inspire me. What makes you never want to work again? Going on vacation. It’s hard to come back from that. What profession, other than yours, would you want to try? A rock star. What profession would you never want to do? I guess any type of 9 to 5 job. I like not having a solid routine. What's your favorite swear word? The F word. If Heaven exists, what would you like god to say to you when you arrive there? I hope he says, welcome, there’s a lot of people here that want to see you.