Business

Women Leaders: Anna Sui on Launching Her Label

When I was 4 years old, I was already talking about becoming a designer. I'm not exactly sure where I got that notion. It was probably something I saw on television. It seemed like a very glamorous life.

In my second year at Parsons, I got a job at Charlie's Girls with Erica Elias. I was in heaven. That was probably the best job I could have ever landed because Erica gave me my very own design room to work in. I had sewing ladies. I had a draper. It had five different divisions where I could do swimwear, sportswear and sweaters. I learned how to do everything.

In 1981, I had the idea of doing my own clothing line, but I didn't know how to go about it. I had some friends who made jewelry and were going to try to sell it at a trade show. I made five pieces of clothing, and they asked me to share a booth with them. To my delight, I got orders from Macy's and Bloomingdale's (and was featured in an advertisement in The New York Times). The man who owned the company I worked for saw the ad and said if I didn't stop, he would fire me. So I got fired.

That's how I started my business. I had a loftlike apartment, so I worked out of a little corner of my living room. One morning I woke up, opened my bedroom door and saw boxes and racks everywhere. I thought, I can't live like this anymore. So I rented half a floor on 39th Street and moved my office there.

In 1990, I had been in the business for 10 years. All my friends at the time worked in fashion.

They got together to encourage me that it was the right time for me to take the plunge and consider producing a show. This was at the height of 1980s "power dressing" companies like Chanel, Lacroix and Versace. Competing against them was scary— I had to find my own voice.

My first show, for fall 1991, was one of the giant breakthroughs of my career. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. All the Japanese stores were coming to New York looking for American designers. The company that I finally chose was Isetan. It has been the most amazing partnership. It opened free-standing Anna Sui boutiques in Japan. I also got 12 licenses, including a cosmetic line. The German company Wella asked to develop perfume with me. That's what made me a global brand.

I give my parents a lot of credit for my success. My father was a structural engineer and my mother studied painting. They met when they were both students in Paris. I get the business side from my father and the artistic side from my mother. After they married, they traveled throughout Europe for three years and finally settled in the United States. I was born in Detroit.

Hearing them talk about all the different places they had lived prepared me for thinking globally. This perspective took away any fears of being able to function in a foreign country. Their experiences were a gift to me.

My biggest problem was always money. Starting with $300 is not a good business plan. I had to do extra design jobs to keep my company going for the first 10 years. I reinvested every penny I made back into the business. There were times when I didn't even have enough money for a subway token. You have to have an incredible focus.

I'm a very realistic designer. There's a big difference between a fashion show and the product that a consumer buys. In my own store, I see what women want. I hear what they're asking for. The biggest compliment is when someone tells me, "I have a dress I bought from you 10 years ago and every time I wear it, my husband tells me I look beautiful." You can't ask for more.

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