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Anna Sui on Her Favorite Models, the Importance of Brick & Mortar and Her New NYFW Venue

We chatted with the designer at the opening of her newly relocated boutique.
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Anna Sui and Tiana Tolstoi. Photo: Anna Sui

Anna Sui and Tiana Tolstoi. Photo: Anna Sui

Thursday was a big night for designers who also happen to be friends with Sofia Coppola. After Marc Jacobs's spectacular spring 2016 "premiere," I hopped on the E train downtown to check out Anna Sui's new store on Broome Street in Soho, which recently relocated from a space a few blocks north on Greene & Prince, where she opened her first boutique over 20 years ago.

After browsing the new location, we chatted with Sui — who showed a wonderful, tropical-themed spring 2016 collection of her own the night before — about rising rents, retail, Gigi Hadid and the magic of Google Image Search. Read on for our interview.

What made you decide to move the store?

Basically, the rent got too expensive so we had to find something else. We were lucky to find this... I think it's a happening area. I noticed that Tomorrowland just opened a big store down the block, which has incredible stores in Japan. Kirna Zabete's across the street, Isabel Marant's diagonal there. The flavor of where we were was changing and it's kind of moved over this way, so I think it was a good move.

Inside Anna Sui's new store. Photo: Anna Sui

Inside Anna Sui's new store. Photo: Anna Sui

Did you take moving as an opportunity to rethink or change the design or any other aspects of the store?

It was a difficult thing because so much of what I put into that store became iconic things for Anna Sui. The red floors, the purple walls, the black lacquer became the packaging, became the trademark colors, and so it was like, what do I let go of and what do I still keep? I think what helped me was I discovered this wallpaper when I was in Los Angeles and I thought it looked like I could have designed it. I tracked it down thanks to Google Image, which is incredible. You put in the images and it tells you what it is. It was [from] a company in England and it's been discontinued for a long time; I contacted them and we were able to use it. It gives a brighter element to the whole store and adds kind of an elegance, in a crazy art nouveau sort of way. Instead of changing, [the store] evolved. 

A hot topic now is how the retail landscape is changing with e-commerce and omni-channel and direct-to-consumer. Did you ever think about not having a store?

When I knew that we weren't going to keep the space, [I thought] maybe I'm not going to have a store because so many people are against brick and mortar now, but so much of my identity is my store. It's my world and I thought, I can't let it go because that's what put me on the map — the last time when I opened my store. 

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My friend Zack Carr that used to be at Calvin [Klein], he used to live down the block from me. We weren't really close but he kept saying to me, "I gotta talk to you, I have this idea, you have to open a store." I was like, "What? I can't afford a store!" And he said, "No, you have to open a store because [customers] have to get what you're about; they're not getting it, so if you opened a store you could show them." It was so true. The second I opened a store, suddenly all of the buyers knew what to do with me. They gave me my own areas. At that time, [the] designer [department] was Calvin Klein, Bill Blass... where was I going to hang? So it kind of helped to establish my whole world.

Outside Anna Sui's new store. Photo: Anna Sui

Outside Anna Sui's new store. Photo: Anna Sui

You have one of the best-cast shows of Fashion Week. What makes you gravitate towards certain models? Who are your favorites right now?

Obviously Gigi [Hadid], Tiana [Tolstoi], Jamie [Bochert]. They can wear things like nobody else right now. And I was lucky enough to work with all the supermodels who were the same way: you put something on them and it would be just magic, and I feel the same way about those ladies. I love being able to introduce new faces. There are so many beautiful girls this time. It changes from quirky to beautiful but I think this time the beautiful ones were a good fit.

Where did the collection's tropical inspiration stem from?

My family was going to Tahiti for vacation, but before we left I had to do all the prints, all the fabrics, all the colors. So I did an inspiration board and my walls were my fantasy of what I thought Polynesia was going to be like. Mixed in there was all the pop culture — Elvis in Hawaii, beach party movies, '40s sarong movies — so all that was thrown in to give it that kitsch element, which I think made everything a little more fun.

Gigi Hadid leading the finale of the Anna Sui spring 2016 show. Photo: Imaxtree

Gigi Hadid leading the finale of the Anna Sui spring 2016 show. Photo: Imaxtree

You're also known for having one of the biggest audiences at Fashion Week. Why open your show to so many people?

It just grew that way. In fact, this venue was, I think, two-thirds [of the space] I used to have, so it was hard this time deciding who to cut. We built this audience through all the years plus all my licenses and we have so much international press, it was really hard. The space felt great and I loved the venue and the backstage. I loved that it's nearby where the garment center is, it felt more New York.

This interview has been edited and condensed.