Anna Sui Fall 2009 preview

Vika Kuropyatnikova/Supreme wearing Anna Sui Fall 2009:

Photo: Paul Park
Testing Her Strong Suit

Published: February 11, 2009

“IT’S survival of the fittest at this point,” the designer Anna Sui said cheerily last week, as she glided around her Garment Center workroom, a space crammed with vintage mannequin heads, clothes racks, books and trimmings. She was referring, of course, to the nine days of fall collections that begin on Friday in lofts around the city and at the Bryant Park tents.

It has been many seasons since Ms. Sui first showed clothes on a runway, starting in 1991 when she unveiled a feminine style that evokes an addled ingénue unafraid of a drink or of letting her knickers show: Lily Allen almost before the British singer and It Girl was born.

The clothes in Ms. Sui’s first show were modeled by pals, among them Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell. That those professional beauties were then at the height of their fame helped stoke the reception the designer got from buyers and the news media, and it also insured industry embrace of a talented designer who had, until then, been working quietly and anonymously on other people’s lines.

Encouraged by other friends who included the makeup artist Pat McGrath and the photographer Steven Meisel, Ms. Sui hacked out a niche, to which two decades later, she is holding tight.

Unlike Marc Jacobs, Ms. Sui is not the designer the press looks to for cues to the immediate future of style. Compared to the $13 billion juggernaut Ralph Lauren forged, her business is relatively mom-and-pop. Critics have carped about the sameness of Ms. Sui’s designs, calling them overly thematic, too whimsical and — design death — cute. Yet her fan base remains loyal, and that is partly why Sui’s career seems to represent the kind ardently sought by design school students and “Project Runway” aspirants.

It is a career that, it almost goes without saying, is now buffeted by the deepest consumer retrenchment in a generation, the kind of economic wind shear that has already driven some designers into involuntary retirement and caused others to abandon the idea of earning any profits at all this year. Ms. Sui — neither household name nor dewy upstart — is part of the broad middle of the 200-designer Fashion Week spectrum, an emblem of the many creative talents facing a new runway season with a mixture of cautious optimism and outright dread.

Born in Detroit and educated at Parsons School of Design, Ms. Sui made all the journeyman stations of the cross before achieving overnight success when she was close to 40. Her company is privately held and remains profitable, she says. (Dun & Bradstreet estimates annual sales of $20 million.) Her clothing label is substantially underwritten by earnings from the 14 global fragrance and cosmetics licenses she operates in partnership with Procter & Gamble and her 42 store franchises in China, Japan, Taiwan and Kuwait.

Unlike many designers faced with imminent catastrophe, Ms. Sui is able to ride out a bad season and perhaps a bad year. Yet, like everyone in the trade, she feels the Darwinian chill that recession has cast on businesses of all kinds. “It’s never a sure thing,” she said. “I have a big responsibility to my licenses. All my licenses draw from and take ideas from the runway.” Thus, a show that will spotlight cardigans and dresses will also provide the pattern for a handkerchief sold in Tokyo.

“It’s not just designers who are affected,” by the impact of the economy on fashion, she said. As a longtime advocate for preserving the Garment Center, Ms. Sui is attuned to the perils to the industry over all when any designer or collection fails. Long before the recession hit, high rents had driven businesses out of the area. Employment in the apparel trade has shrunk drastically from its 1950s peak of 250,000 jobs to fewer than 20,000 today.

Without a production core, it becomes increasingly difficult for young designers to set up shop in the city, Ms. Sui said. “When I was starting, there were wool mills in the U.S. that could make you anything,” Ms. Sui said. “The U.S. used to produce the most beautiful cotton denim in the world. Now all that is gone.”

A person walking down Seventh Avenue runs little risk anymore of being mowed down by a pushcart. Just a handful of workrooms remain that can whip up custom trimmings, and there are few skilled workers capable of operating the bulky machinery required to make gossamer fripperies like Schiffli lace. Come 2010, when the runway shows move from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center, the last symbolic link between Seventh Avenue and Fashion Week will also be lost.

Fashion was a radically different business when she was starting out in the 1980s, Ms. Sui said — less corporate, more subject to the whims and intuitions of gifted merchants and also influenced by the fact that department stores could still afford to showcase unknowns thanks to open-to-buy budgets.

“Every decision is harder for everyone to make now because things are so expensive,” Ms. Sui said, referring both to the steep cost of retail goods and the expenses designers incur to produce and mount collections two times a year.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is it worth the investment’ ” of paying $50,000 to rent space in the tents at Bryant Park, an additional $100,000 on production elements that include hair and makeup and dressers and sets and lighting and music, and even the food backstage.

A budget for models can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars per show, although it is an open secret in the business that there is no such thing as a fixed rate for a model’s services. These line items are all separate, of course, from the outlay required to create and produce the elements of a collection — the trims, shoes, boots, bags, accessories and hosiery.

“It’s all scary when all you hear is that nothing is selling,” Ms. Sui said. Yet, “no on has ever found a solution for not doing a fashion show,” she added.

And so late in 2008, she began building up mood boards, the inspiration flashcards created from tear sheets, postcards and scraps of cloth, and abstracting from a visit to the Fortuny Museum in Venice the germ of a collection based on beauties of the Belle Epoque.

She devised a striped floral jacquard print reminiscent of a Vuillard interior. She began conjuring “a Proustian feeling, although I knew nothing about Proust,” she said, by reading “Swann’s Way” and scouring Netflix for Max Ophüls films.

At the Linea Pelle leather fair in Bologna last October, Ms. Sui began making the first of countless small decisions that go into each designer collection, shoes always preceding clothes because they require a long lead time to produce.

“You have to try to predict where things might go,” Ms. Sui said. Because designers have to calculate for shifts of taste within a season, she has also staggered the colors of her new collection to jibe with a shipping cycle that alters every six weeks, the hues becoming brighter as winter turns into spring. “I don’t have the luxury of making clothes just to make an effect,” Ms. Sui said. “It can’t be something totally frivolous, because my distributors have to have a successful season, too.”

THE task facing Ms. Sui, and all designers, in the current climate is “how to shake it up and make it different” without going too far, she said. “More than ever, you’re mindful of things that didn’t work in the past. You’re mindful of fabrics costing $5 more a yard. Once you start putting in markups on things like that, it turns into two or three times that at retail. And you are not going to sell something that is out of a reachable range.”

It is safe to say that what captures the attention of the 1,200 or so people who will pack the space known as the Tent — one of two runway spaces under the big top in Bryant Park — for Ms. Sui’s show next Wednesday, will be the lace-trimmed frocks, the piled on leggings, the sexy girls loping down the runway to the quirky rock soundtrack that is a Sui signature.

Backstage, waiting to take her usual modest bow, the designer will be focused on the question of whether this show will find a sweet spot and if it can stimulate enough interest to generate the $6 million in wholesale orders called for in her business plan.

“All you can really do at this point,” she said, “is hope for a collection that will send you to the moon.”