It’s been two decades since Anna Sui, one of the biggest and most enduring names in New York fashion, first used denim in her eponymous ready-to-wear collection. “It was spring 1994, and it was a punk collection,” she said most certainly. “I did barn coats and kilts mixed with screen-printed t-shirts that were cropped. Carla Bruni wore one of the looks in the show. Short jean skirts and long jean jackets. We used big, gloppy rhinestone jewelry, and little punk tees with religious imagery on them. I always like to mix stuff like that.”
Anna, who is not a denim designer proper but knows as much as anyone we’ve talked to about the inner circles of the industry, does to our favorite fabric what an artist might, making it her own by appliquéing, embroidering, and decorating it with techniques old (like needlepoint) and newer (like air-brushing). Piecing, patchworking, jacquard-ing, studding, and rhinestone-ing…she’s put denim through all of it. One need only flip through the slideshow of pieces from her archive below to understand how extensive Anna’s experiments with denim are. “You really can’t go wrong with it,” she said, walking us through her Schiffli machine-embroidered chambrays and other one-of-a-kind pieces, their embellishments sewn-on by the hands of dedicated assistants. “Denim just takes to techniques so well, it’s so comfortable to wear, and it showcases whatever you mix with it or put on top of it,” she said.
We love it when the people we talk to feel a need to share more than their clothes or closets with us. And Anna did just that, going back to her library at the very end of our chat to find three books that she thought we absolutely had to see. The first was what looked to be an original copy of Native Funk and Flash, the seminal book of outrageous seventies style. The second was American Denim, from 1974, which spotlights 50 artists and their elaborate works-on-jeans. And the third book was actually not a book, but a page-by-page photocopy of the catalogue of winners from a denim-art contest hosted by Levi’s way back in the day. We marveled with Anna at the pictures in all of these expressive tomes, and at the imaginations of the individuals whose groovy jeans appeared in them, quietly wondering (to ourselves) if a book of Anna’s own collection wasn’t long overdue.
Tell us about the jacket you’re wearing. It’s from a recent collection, is that right?
Yes, it’s from the spring 2013 collection, which was a punk collection. [Jamie Bochert wore it with matching pants in the show]. I mixed denim and punk styling in that collection, but I also jeweled a lot of it. I love embellishing denim – it’s such a great showcase for any kind of handcrafting. And it really gives a certain casualness to almost anything. Like the jet beading on this jacket – on denim it’s something you wear all the time. It’s not just an evening thing.
Click on an image to see the slideshow
Do you have a favorite pair of jeans?
I do, and I wore them out, and they’re not the same anymore. That’s the problem with jeans – they get to a point where they’re your favorite…and then next thing you know they’re too worn, too stretched out, and you have to find another pair.
I remember I had a pair of Levi’s in high school and I just loved them. I think I wore them until they started fraying and split at the knee. As much as I like it on other people, I don’t like wearing torn clothes, so that was it for those. Then I had another pair that I found at the flea market. I used to call them farmer jeans. They were really oversized and really baggy with all these pockets. I guess they were workmen’s jeans. I used to wear them very, very baggy but with beautiful forties tops; I loved that. But again, I washed them so much that they just weren’t the same anymore. I think that’s the beauty of denim, but it’s also what makes us want to refresh it.
Where did you go to high school?
Was wearing jeans considered a fashion statement there at that time?
It was for me. It was the sixties. Most everyone was very hippie – they would wear their jeans until the bottoms were frayed, with t-shirts. That wasn’t really my look.
What was your look?
I was into vintage. I would mix vintage with other stuff. I’d find the perfect jean jacket that fit well and put lots of pins and broaches and stuff on it. I loved that.
So you were embellishing your denim back then, too?
Yes, definitely. One summer I collected all of these enamel flowers. I still have the jacket, it’s just encrusted with all these gorgeous enamel flowers in a palette of black, white, red, and yellow. One whole side of the jacket is just covered with them.
So cool. Where did you find the flowers?
At the flea market. I’d go around to different flea markets and thrift shops and buy them.
What is the jacket?
It’s Levi’s, and it’s black denim.
FLASHBACK HALL OF FAME On the runway at Anna Sui. Left: Carla Bruni and Linda Evangelista in the designer’s very first denim looks, spring 1994. “It was barn coats and kilts mixed with screen-printed t-shirts that were cropped. I always like to mix stuff like that,” she said. Center: Maggie Rizer in Anna’s appliquéd bootcuts, fall 2002. Right: Mariacarla Boscono and Elise Crombez in denim suiting in the spring 2005 show.
Do you wear jeans proper today?
I do, but it’s been a while. I went through a phase where I wore jeans all the time, and again, with beautiful feminine blouses. I love Victorian lace blouses…or my versions of that look. For two years I wore jeans or a denim jacket all the time. Somehow I fell out of that and started wearing dresses, but now I’m feeling for it again.
Can you describe your denim for us in one word?
What do you need denim to be always?
I see it as the palette that you can put something else onto. Like, if you have a great pair of jeans, then you give it some elaborate sort of blouse. If you have a great denim fabric, it’s something that you can put some sort of handcrafting on top of. I see denim as a canvas.
If your jeans could talk, what would they say about you?
I think jeans definitely tell you when you’re gaining weight because you can feel it [laughs]. And then when you’re losing weight you can feel it, too, because all of a sudden the legs feel a little looser, the waistband feels looser. So, I mean, jeans are like your little confidante. They express your personality. There are the people who wear ironed denim, like with the crease down the front of their jeans, and people who are very casual with it. I love seeing the girls who wear the hot shorts that are frayed. That was never my look, but I love it. Or I love when people embroider or patch their jeans when they start falling apart. They can really tell a story.
They really can. What’s the most memorable place your jeans have taken you?
I guess the runway. I think that so much of my life is my work, so it’s really about the runway and how I use denim in different ways to tell different sorts of stories.
Was there ever have a pair that got away?
Only in the sense that I wore them out, or they lost what I liked about them. They either got too stretched out, too worn out, or too soft. If you wash them too much they get flimsy. To me, that’s getting away. You wash them and then suddenly you don’t have that thing that you had a year ago, or two years ago.
Is there a pair that you should have broken up with sooner than you did?
Yeah. Muffin top [laughs]! That’s always the trick, finding the jean that fits you well in the middle. I hate seeing a bad fit on the street. I think that’s something to think about.
Do you have a pair of jeans that only you could love?
Sometimes when a pair goes past the point of me wanting to wear them, I still save them. I have a whole stack and I don’t know why. I think I have some really old Levi’s – I just love the way they feel because they’re so broken down, but I don’t wear them anymore. I don’t know why.
We hear that a lot. You keep them because they have sentimental value, and they remind you the times when you did wear them.
And sometimes you go back to them! And same with a jean jacket, sometimes you can go back to it. You can live in it, and then never wear it, but you keep it in the back of your closet, and sometimes bring it back out.
THE JEANS OF SPRING More recent looks from the Anna Sui runways. From Left: Natasha Poly in an embellished caplet and matching toy soldier hat, spring 2010; Ginta Lapina in Schiffli machine-embroidered shorts, spring 2011; Karlie Kloss in a pearl-sewn denim evening dress, spring 2013; Sam Rollinson in a chambray sunburst shift, spring 2014. “A friend of mine gave me a book about sunsets, and I just loved that whole idea, so I did it in chambray combined with a silk/nylon blend,” Anna said.
Is there a jean shape or fit that you are feeling for right now?
I’ve always liked that traditional Levi’s shape – straight legged, boyish. I’ve always like that. The classic shape. And I like a cropped look right now, too.
What does the denim that you wear reveal about the way you live on a daily basis?
Well, I think it’s consciously stylish.
Is there something that you do only in your jeans?
I can’t really say that there is.
If you had to replace denim with something else, could you, and what would it be?
I couldn’t. Nothing does it like denim. Nothing gives it that—there are so many things that you think of when you think of denim. It’s Americana, but it also has that touch of workwear. Like what I was saying before, it kind of brings down any embellishment. [Gestures to the jacket she’s wearing] If you put this same beading on another fabric it would look too dressy.
Fill in the blank, without my jeans I am…
I am without a good canvas to apply my craft.
In denim I am…
Feeling the fantasy of a combination of Americana styles. There is hippie thrown in, a little workwear. All of these things come to mind when I think of denim, and they help equalize whatever else it is I’m doing to it.