Anna Sui is unabashedly New York City's most musical designer. A proud survivor of its gritty punk roots, but also a connoisseur of global pop's most colorful movements, her shows provide a reliably strongminded vision of female dressing every season. Tonight's runway event, which begins at 6pm at Lincoln Center, is inspired by the moment weird dance and a penchant for American vintage hit 1970s Paris. Its soundtrack, always revelatory of Sui's seasonal aesthetics, will provide a similar, invigorating dose of Gallic-American hybridization. As you might hope, New York City's resident (and visiting) musical elite will make a strong front-row showing.
In anticipation of her Spring 2012 season, Anna Sui spoke to Rolling Stone about her latest collection, her punk rock heritage, why she hates Fleetwood Mac (but loves Stevie Nicks), and why the next revolution, live-tweeted or not, won't likely take place in her own neighborhood.
What is the story behind Anna Sui's Spring 2012 season?
I was inspired this season by Antonio Lopez, an illustrator and photographer in the 70s. I'm channeling the moment he went to Paris with some of his American muses, and helped introduce vintage fashion to that scene; it was a whole different aesthetic than French fashion at that time. A lot of these girls became top models – everyone from Jessica Lange to Jerry Hall to Grace Jones. He also introduced new music to the scene: the Philadelphia sound, that disco feeling, to Paris. I love that one person was able to do all this.
How does that translate into a palette?
Very strong colors. Very signature Anna Sui. It opens up with purple and black. The second grouping is an all time favorite: black, cream, and red. Lots of stars and hearts and rock n roll colors. Then, it goes vintage, then very soft.
I assume you were listening to some of that American-In-Paris disco music while designing this collection?
I was. But the soundtrack for the show is actually based on the whole late 70s ZE Records phenomenon. It was a product of globalization; this French guy came to the States and was very influenced by what was going on here and made a label around it. He had a stable of really talented artists: Lizzy Mercier-Descloux, Cristina, Suicide, James Chance, Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Very diverse, but when you listen to those compilations now, you see how focused it really was. It was rock-influenced, but a new form of mutant dance.
How did punk influence you growing up?
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. My first live experiences were Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, MC5, so how could you not be influenced? When punk really started to happen, it was a reaction against the disco craze of the time. When I moved to New York, I went to CBGBs and Max Kansas City, so I caught that whole wave of local acts. Then, I went to London for awhile and saw all the British punk bands. So yes, it was a reactionary phenomenon – a reaction against commercial disco and stadium rock – and I was a proud part of it.
Did that help shape your fashion views?
Oh yeah. Seeing the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones, it really introduced a whole new aesthetic in terms of how to dress. It really was its own secret dress code. That's why I love black, white, and red. That was one of the things you could wear. You could wear hearts and stars. Outside of that, maybe leopard. But there were definite rules.
And you dressed that way then?
Oh, totally. [Laughs.] I was working with other labels back then, but I bought and wore clothes in the prescribed style. Obviously, it still influences my own label's aesthetic.
Grunge is on everyone's mind again. You were seen as someone who helped shape the early 90s visual movement surrounding it. Looking back, how do you feel about it all?
I remember the season Marc and I both did a grunge-inspired collection. We went to see bands like Nirvana and their peers; we did, in fact, know the grunge music scene very well. We liked what it represented. Again, I viewed it as the opposite end of a spectrum; the pendulum swinging against something else. We were coming out of an era of power dressing and big gold jewelry. Suddenly, it looked great to do something the opposite of that: Courtney Love in torn babydoll dresses, Kurt in his plaids, Doc Martens instead of heels. You always go with what feels newer — and it's always the opposite.
Why was that a perfect storm? And could the 90s revival lead to something similar attempted again?
In the 90s, New York no longer had an underground because of economics, whereas Seattle was a perfect city for a cultural revolution at that time because you could actually afford to live there. And a group of kindred spirits were in that place at the right time, making a statement. I always say the next big thing will happen in unexpected places — up and coming cities that aren't necessarily boom markets. It won't be New York. You need to be an investment banker to live here. I mean, where are you going to rehearse? [Laughs.]
Do you miss that old NYC?
Yes, I mean the old Lower East Side was a bombed-out shell of a place. You could rent a room for $55 a month, which meant you stood a chance as an artist. It was pre-cell phone, pre-Internet, but we all stayed connected. We always knew where everyone was and stuck together. Uptown came downtown. Not like today, where, ironically, everything seems less connected than ever, despite how accessible it should be with technology.
Do you embrace the Internet?
I think it makes everything immediate, which can be great. The latest fashion, the latest music. For example, trying to source music for our show is now so much easier. It would be so tedious before and could take weeks: researching the songs, buying the albums, recording the sample or track from an album onto a mix CD, editing the lengths. Now you can youtube and google it and get what you need.
But isn't there a down side to that, too?
It's kind of disposable this way, when it's so instant. It doesn't stick with you. Longing and desire goes further than instant satisfaction. That's human nature. You used to read something in Rolling Stone – let's say you learn a great new album is going to be released in London in a month, so you get excited, you look forward to it, you call Rough Trade to order it, and then you can't wait for it to come. It's all you think about it. It's special. But when you can have it be yours in seconds flat, does its acquisition even mean anything to you?
Who are some newer bands that excite you?
Well, I'm going through the ZE records phase now, but last season I loved Tame Impala's album. I'm trying to remember more – but, there you go, it's hard to remember new things! But I do love sounds that remind me of what I used to love, so punk and stuff from the second British Invasion or garage music. The new Arctic Monkeys album is pretty special.
Who is the ultimate Anna Sui muse? Is she a singer?
Anita Pallenberg, but she's not a musician! But, weirdly, I'd have to say Stevie Nicks is probably the one. I have a funny story here, though. A long time ago, I mentioned in the press that I hated Fleetwood Mac, because they were a part of the stadium rock mainstream that I was railing against in the 1970s. She read it and called me. She thought it was so funny I would say that publicly, so she invited me to watch her perform. I've always loved her aesthetic; she's a true style icon. I did a whole collection based on her Rolling Stone covers!
What other female musicians have left a mark you can appreciate on fashion?
Julie Driscoll and Marianne Faithfull had great looks. I think Courtney needs to be given credit for what she did in the grunge days. The latest one I love is Natasha Khan from Bat for Lashes – such a great festival look, which is what it's all about now. And I adore Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine. I was so excited to learn she wore my clothes this summer!
See Anna Sui's Spring 2012 Mood Board Below: