How Anna Sui created some of music’s most iconic looks
You can have the best sound engineer on the planet, but no matter how high you crank up an amp, a good outfit still hits the loudest onstage. It’s just as true for Olivia Rodrigo’s princess-core prom wrecks as it is for Dave Navarro’s leather-and-lingerie combos circa Blood Sugar Sex Magic, and Madonna’s black baptism dresses from her Like a Prayer era.
And behind the seams of all those looks? It’s Anna Sui.
Born in Detroit and fed on a steady diet of Zeppelin and Cream, the designer moved to New York City just in time for the sweet-tart collision of Ramones-era candy punk and the hallowed, girly growls of Blondie, Sleater Kinney, and the Bangles. “I was always too young to go to clubs back home,” says Sui, “so by the time I got to New York to study at Parsons School of Design, I was really ready.”
Sui’s early social crew included style stars like designer Marc Jacobs and photographer Steven Meisel; she’s often photographed with other mega-creatives like director Sofia Coppola and supermodel Naomi Campbell. But it’s Sui’s ability to riff along with rock ‘n’ roll’s endless rhythms that has kept her label at the forefront of fashion culture — and the top of “add to cart” lists — for nearly 40 years. (In other words, the lifespan of more than two Olivia Rodrigos.)
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Among the greatest hits: Sui’s famous “Grunge Collection” (1993), which homed in on the emerging influence of Kurt Cobain on MTV and Claire Danes on regular TV by taking slinky striped sweaters and floor-skimming floral dresses (worn with combat boots, of course) and cranking up their color saturation and ultra-femme details like butterfly embroidery and glitter accents. (The designs were so influential they now reside in several modern art museums.) In September 2004, Sui sent studded prairie skirts, fringe leather jackets, bandana head scarves, and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman blouses down her catwalk as Steven Tyler and Rufus Wainwright looked on; months later, two sides of the pop spectrum — Jennifer Lopez and Hilary Duff — performed in similar looks. And after Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean walked Sui’s Fall 2018 runway show in a sheer black dress dotted with tiny roses, the look became as synonymous with TikTok as the first five bars of a Doja Cat song.
“If you listen to the soundtracks for each show, you’ll know what I was playing in my studio during the design process,” Sui says. “And then when people were coming to me, like Courtney Love or the Smashing Pumpkins, I would design for them based on the scene happening around them, but also just based on hanging out with them personally.” And that merger between a musician’s day-to-day self and their larger-than-life ideal is what helped Sui make her magic.
We zoomed into the designer’s midtown Manhattan studio to get a look at her archives and upcoming collection, and to hear the stories behind some of the most iconic music looks from the ‘90s and Y2K to the present-day and the dreamworld of “rock ‘n’ roll heaven.”
“I was in Paris with my friend [photographer] Steven Meisel, and we were going to the Jean Paul Gaultier fashion show together. Madonna was friends with Steven, so we all went together. She was wearing a big Gaultier coat, and then when she took it off, it was my dress! I was like, “Hey!” She said, “Oh, yeah, I noticed when I was putting this dress on that it had your name on it!” So I don’t believe it was even a conscious thing; she just really liked the dress… After that, she’d be in our store quite a bit… but that black dress, at the beginning of her new era of music, was really an event for me.” [Editor’s note: Sui still makes a version of “The Madonna Dress.” It is always, always sold out.]
[Courtesy of Anna Sui]
CARLA BRUNI, ANNA SUI GRUNGE COLLECTION, 1993
“This was a moment when you could see what the models were looking for. They were like, “Oh, I hear you go vintage shopping every weekend! Where? Will you take me? What would you buy if you were me?” So I’m seeing these women, who will become style icons, discovering ‘40s fashion or vintage prom dresses at the flea market… And then on the runway, and in my store, I would mix a lot of vintage pieces with my own designs... So we identify this ‘grunge’ with Nirvana and other bands, but it was equally driven by the girls in New York who loved clothes and could find secondhand clothes for very cheap, and they would treat it almost like a social event. It was an activity you would do with your friends.”
MICK JAGGER, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, 1993
“The first time we introduced men's clothing in my collections was when Mick Jagger happened to be hosting Saturday Night Live. He wore one of my one of my pieces on SNL and then Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran came into our LA store… I try not to think too much about men’s or women’s when it comes to music and dressing musicians, because it’s really just all about creating the fantasy of who someone wants to be, and the world they’re trying to create with their music and their performances.”
[Photo by Gene Shaw]
DAVE NAVARRO, ANNA SUI FASHION SHOW, 1997
“I met him at a music festival! I was coming out of the elevator; the doors open, and there was Dave Navarro. I went, ‘Hey, Dave Navarro!’ and he went, ‘Hey, Anna Sui!’ and then we both ran in opposite directions. I remember thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I was so stupid!’ So when I saw him that night at a party, I went over and we started talking. Finally, I said, “You know, would you ever think about being in my show?” And he said, “Yeah, if there’s lingerie involved!” And that’s what triggered the whole look. He literally requested it! So we started corresponding, and I was surprised at what a great email writer he was! Then just before my show, he came and walked into my office, took off all his clothes, and said, ‘You're the artist. I'm your clay. Mold me.’ Everyone in my office just about fainted. We made him a custom leather jacket and pants, and Anthony Kiedis took the pleated satin skirt and wore it onstage. But we still have the runway camisole in our archives. I’m not sure about the panties.”
[Photo by Gerardo Somoza]
“We’d used guitars in our shows and photo shoots before, but they’d just be, like, old guitars that we’d buy at Goodwill and then paint on. This was our one and only official collaboration with a guitar company. So Michael Economy, an artist I worked with a lot, he made the graphics for it. But so far, it was a one-time thing!”
[Courtesy of Anna Sui and Gibson Guitars]
“I first met Karen when she was modeling, before she had any albums out. But I’d heard from other people that she had a wonderful voice. Eventually, she told me she was working on an album at Jack [White’s] studio, and when I heard it, I remember thinking, “Oh yes, you do have a wonderful voice,” but also that she’s not just a singer, she’s an artist! And watching her evolve as an entertainer has been incredible. She headlined [Café] Carlyle a few months ago and she was just a star.”
[Photos by Raoul Gatchalian]
READY, STEADY, GO! 2022
“I saw this documentary on Ready, Steady, Go! which was a music TV show in the UK in the ‘60s, I was totally intrigued and fascinated; I even bought the book and really, really studied it. I said, “What if we tried to recreate this at Bowery Ballroom?” in downtown New York. Not only the atmosphere, but the stark geometric graphics they used as set pieces? I love the low-fi of it all, and having kind of an imaginary rock show at a real rock space.”
[Courtesy of Anna Sui]
OLIVIA RODRIGO, 2021 + 2022 + 2022
“I think she's amazing and [has] like the most incredible style. I think it's her style and not somebody telling her, ‘Wear this; wear that.’ And you can see that her personality matches the way she looks. I think she's very true to herself, so I was really flattered when I saw that she started wearing my pieces! I love to see a mix of the old stuff and the new, too. It’s great to know that girls are still dressing the way we used to do it when we were just out of school.”
THE PEPPERMINT LOUNGE, 2023
“Back in the ‘60s, there was an Italian restaurant on 45th street in New York. They decided to turn it into a dance club after-hours, and it became one of the hottest clubs in the world! And when I was a kid, we used to watch television and learn what the teenagers in New York were dancing to. We would aspire to that!... So for this show, I thought about Jane Holzer, who was a party girl in the pages of Vogue, dancing away in her couture outfit… We found a video of the [‘Peppermint Twist’] dance they used to do at this club online, and we had a choreographer teach the models for about an hour before the show. We wanted it to recreate that kind of party.”