Many designers are adapting their business models to offer see-now-buy-now fashion to give customers what they want, when they want it. Designer Anna Sui, on the other hand, is a firm believer in making them wait.
Sui, who began designing in the early ’80s, is known for her bright, bold and often punk-inspired collections. In addition, she is regarded as one of fashion’s best storytellers, thanks to her unique designs and standout fashion shows.
An important reason she has been able to maintain her creativity is that she always gives herself time, Sui said. She’s not in favor of shifting her business model to see-now-buy-now, arguing that consumers also need time to see and process designers’ collections. “See-now-buy-now is a concept, but it’s really difficult because it doesn’t allow time for production and manufacturing—or for the customer to absorb and digest what the newness is and then build a desire for it,” she said.
Sui’s brand has grown to incorporate fashion, perfume, cosmetics and homewares, and she’s involved in every single area of her business to make sure that her brand’s not diluted by all the different elements, she said. Anna Sui’s main markets are the U.S. and Japan; she has one New York-based boutique and a handful in Japan, and her biggest online retailer is Net-a-Porter.
Glossy caught up with Sui to discuss how she runs her company (which employs more than 40 employees), how the industry has changed since she began designing in the early ’80s and how younger designers can set themselves up for success.
Explain your production process. “We’ve programmed our collections so that we have shipments every month. I don’t really have an extra month to add, like, a pre-season. And then, as far as pre-producing, I don’t think I could do that. We almost cut to order: We show the fashion show, and then we show in our showroom, and then we get the orders, and then we order the fabric and produce.”
So, no plans of shifting your business model? “My product is so different every season; I don’t have something that I know I’m going to be able to sell a certain amount of every season. It’s always unpredictable what the best-seller is going to be, so it doesn’t fit into my business model.”
Let’s rewind a little. You had an interesting start to your career—you were fired from a job? “Back in the ’80s, my friends and I all knew each other from the punk jewelry scene, and they were doing this incredible jewelry and selling to rock-and-roll boutiques across the country and also in the U.K.—and I thought, ‘I want to do something like that!’ So they said, ‘Why don’t you share a booth with us at the boutique show and make some clothes?’ So, I did a small five-piece collection, and from that show, I ended up selling to major department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s—and then from that, I ended up getting a big New York Times ad and some Christmas windows. Then the man who owned the company that I was working for saw the NYT ad and called me into his office and said, ‘How can you have your own NYT ad when you’re on may payroll? It’s got to stop.’ And I said, ‘It can’t stop. I have to ship my orders!’ And so I got fired. It was pretty scary at the moment.”
You went to Parsons, and your collections got picked up by department stores—you could call it the traditional path of successful designers. According to many experts, that path doesn’t guarantee success for designers anymore. What do you think? “New designers really need to learn their craft, because that’s the backbone. They also need to learn their resources: Where are they getting their fabrics and their buttons? What zippers? All those things that go into your product. The other key thing is the financing, and designers have to understand that it’s not just one-person job. There’s a team you need behind you. It’s not Project Runway—there’s a lot more to it. You need a sustainable product and a product people want. You have to produce every season; you can’t rely on just one success. It’s like you start over each time, and for me, it’s never gotten easier season to season.”
Where does social media play into the wider fashion industry? “Right now, it’s so important. It’s what’s driving trends and popularity. From what you see with the bloggers and influencers, that’s what people are following. They’re the important information-givers at this point. It’s changed from fashion magazines to what’s on the internet and what bloggers are talking about.”
What does that mean for designers? “Not only do you have to be a talented designer, you also have to be a spokesperson for your brand. You have to work on it every day, presenting not only what you’re doing, but what the inspiration is behind your collection. Also, the audience demands glimpses of your personal life and your personal interests. They want communication with a brand; they don’t want just a one-line story, they want the whole package.”
You credit supermodels, including Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, with helping to get your name out. Does that happen today for young designers? “There are the Gigis [Hadid] and Kendalls [Jenner] and Bellas [Hadid], and when they wear a product, everyone takes notice. So, I think it’s the same thing. Before, the supermodels could sell more magazines when they were on the cover than celebrities. That was who everyone was looking at when I started. It’s the same as the focus people have on Gigi and Kendall.”