To mark the release of The World of Anna Sui, Culture Trip’s India Doyle catches up with author Tim Blanks to discuss Anna Sui’s work, her legacy and the future of fashion.
Tim Blanks’ knowledge of fashion is intimate and expert. Currently Editor-at-Large at Business of Fashion, he is one of the most revered journalists and commentators in the fashion industry, with a reputation for eloquent prose and precise criticism. Born in New Zealand, Blanks started out presenting Fashion Files, consequently moving to become critic and Editor-at-Large of Style.com. From Style.com he moved to BoF, where he now resides. As such, he’s also the guy you want to tell your story to, as the iconic New York-based designer Anna Sui might testify in light of the recent release of a new book about her work and brand, The World of Anna Sui.
Aware of Blanks’ long list of accolades ahead of our call to chat about the book, I hover by my phone in a state of febrile paralysis before diligently dialling his number at the exact hour agreed to with the publisher. It rings long enough for my feverish excitement to transform into nausea, but when he picks up he is expansive and generous, in spite of some initial technical glitches (there’s nothing more humbling than repeatedly trying to introduce yourself through the echo chamber of speaker phone).
The technological issues immediately draw a parallel between the world that Anna Sui entered into, and the one we live in today. Indeed what’s remarkable about the designer is that she has overseen a brand that thrives on the flux of contemporary culture, and is inspired by nostalgia for the past while fusing the crucial happenings of the present. Divided into 15 chapters, the book harnesses this nimble, transformative energy well, presenting pools of influence as opposed to a chronological survey. Given the fast paced nature of the digital age – in which new designers fall in and out of favour in the space of a few years – it’s sometimes hard to comprehend just how long and how important established brands have been at shaping and feeding into the cultural canon. Anna Sui is one of these designers, and alongside the exhibition at Fashion Textile museum in London, this new book offers a long-overdue celebration of her world.
Culture Trip: How did you get to know Anna, and how did you come to collaborate on the book?
Tim Blanks: I’ve known Anna for a long long time. I’ve been covering the shows for about 25 years and I’ve written quite a lot of stories about her for magazines over the years. When she signed on to do this book we talked a little bit about me doing a piece for it, and then it became clear there was a need for a little more writing and she asked me to do it. She’s a designer that I have an enormous amount of admiration for and who I think has been vastly underrated over the years. She has lived an extraordinary life and that’s been a wonderful source of material for the work, and it just seemed like a really good opportunity to find out all about her.
CT: The book is put together thematically as opposed to chronologically – why did you want to present it like this, and also how come it was told to you rather than written by you about her?
TB: I think this is as biographical as she would let herself be, because her life has been in pictures in a way. This is not a chronology but it is a fairly detailed journey to the centre of her mind. When other designers do a book they sometimes say ‘oh I’m saving this for my autobiography’ but I don’t think that was the case with Anna on this book. I think there’s quite a lot in this book already, and if it’s not on the page then it’s between the lines.
CT: Was there anything in her stories that surprised you?
TB: Most of my interviews with her have been about the collections, and that’s always a real insight into why she’s inspired by the things she’s inspired by, and all that. But that was always snapshots of individuals collections, so when you put it all together – my memory of shows from 25 years ago isn’t that good – it was nice to be reminded that something I may have loved last season was an idea that she had looked at a couple of decades ago. It’s fabulous to be able to talk of fashion in such huge sweeps of years because everyone is so focused on the moment and it’s nice to be reminded that a career in fashion is a whole enormous sweep of moments that all go together to make a career.
We used to laugh that we’re kind of the same person. Obviously, we’re radically different in that she’s a Chinese woman and I’m a New Zealand guy, but we grew up in satellite cities. She grew up in Detroit and I grew up in Auckland. They weren’t cities that you felt life was happening in – the kind of life you were interested in – the Warhol factory or whatever David Bowie was doing. You were reading magazines avidly. In those days there were so few opportunities to access people you were obsessed with; you had to really really work hard to get access. I think a big connection with us was music. I loved her stories – in Detroit she had the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges and Alice Cooper. I mean Iggy would play at high school dances for God’s sake! Anna also has an amazing memory – I mean the best stories about the Sex Pistols and the Warhol crowd. When she was finally in a position to experience it in New York, she sought it all out, she didn’t wait for it to come to her. And she ended up with people like her – like Steven Meisel – who shared the same obsessions. They had such a long and wonderful friendship. You know, I just love sitting and listening to her talk. The whole experience was incredibly pleasurable.
CT: Music plays a central role in the narrative of the evolution of Anna’s brand – do you think that fashion has become more performative and collaborative?
TB: I think there was a moment when, at the beginning of the nineties, and it coincided with the supermodels – it might have been sparked by the supermodels – when fashion had a very different kind of media presence then. All those models had rock star boyfriends and there was a sort of symbiosis of art and fashion and music and all of this became this huge bubble which burst sometime in the mid-nineties. Then Kate Moss walked out of the wreckage as the kind of icon of the times, and she would go on and date pop stars and so on. Everything that was happening in the early nineties, that big stew, kind of fizzled away and there’s less interplay than there used to be. I think it all got a lot more controlled and then the relationships between the different mediums became more like publicity ploys than a genuinely organic relationship. I don’t think you get that sense of excitement that there was then. Even in Anna’s shows: when you went to Anna’s shows the front row would be full of people like the Smashing Pumpkins and you don’t get that anymore. That frenzy of fashion kind of dropped away, but maybe it didn’t because if you look at the you look at the way urban wear infiltrated fashion, now you have people like Travis Scott and Kanye West creating the buzz at fashion shows. The cast of characters change, but my feeling is that it became it a lot more managed.
CT: The first chapter is all about interiors – thinking about how brands and fashion labels are shaped now. Do you think stores matter any more?
Ian Rogers, (LVMH’s chief digital officer) was recently talking in Business of Fashion about the digital vs bricks and motor retail, and he made some very good points about the experiential nature of a store versus shopping online, and how you’ll never ever loose that. And he says that stores really have to work on that and work on what they can offer that you can’t get online. For me it’s pretty obvious what that means. When you’re shopping online you’re very focused on the thing you’re looking at but when you go into Anna’s store there’s posters and music. It’s very tactile. Anna’s stores will always be a window on her world. They will continue to be important where they are. Stores become part of their local environment. It’s that think global, act local paradigm.
CT: In an age where image prevails, in this book for example, the weighting of the written word and image feels quite equal in terms of narrative punch and authority. But do you feel confident that there will always be room for the written word in fashion, or do you think image will dominate narrative?
You need stories to engage people with, and I think that you can’t just tell a story with pictures. You need the linear nature of text to take you from the once upon a time to the happily ever after. With the book, it’s a way for Anna to collect her stories and tell them in a relatively definitive way. I think she’s hugely underrated and doesn’t enjoy the media coverage of more ‘flavour of the month-ish’ type designers. That’s an interesting point actually, how people tell their stories going forward. You know all that rubbish about print being dead, it’s not. Print is being fetishised in the way illuminated manuscripts in the dark ages were fetishised. All those stories about how books are selling again, and how people are spending time making books look beautiful. The same thing is happening in fashion. The word and the image work together to create something in-duplicatable.
CT: The book finishes with Anna’s invocation to save the garment centre – do you think the fashion industry will be receptive to sustainability in a meaningful way?
TB: I think it can because I think it must. It’s one of the narratives that people are demanding, a code of ethics. I do think that customers will demand that simply because it shows that the people that they’re investing their money and loyalty with are thinking about things which are important to them. To be honest I’m a bit of a pessimist. I would have thought that our resources would have been more stretched; things aren’t moving towards the apocalypse as fast as I thought they would be. The fact that there have been companies working on these issues, and really investing in them, it gets closer and closer to a point where there’s no justification for behaving without sense or consequence. Fashion will eventually fall in line with other industries. You can see that as the century goes on the story seems to be the sidelining of America in a number of ways, and if you have a country like China really investing in sustainable fashion that would be a watershed moment. I get the feeling that that’s going to happen. It’s progress. The luxury narrative to me is buy less and buy better, and then you end up with things to cherish. It’s funny that’s the way things used to be – it was mend and make do, and maybe that will happen again.
If you think that people are buying books again, and buying vinyl. And being at the Biennale recently and seeing that art is turning towards craft. The art work is people being there and making something, like mending clothes; the notion of human industry becoming art is interesting. That’s a shift in sensibility that really lends itself to sustainability.
CT: Are you optimistic about the future of fashion?
I am, because I am optimistic for the future of anything that involves so much creativity and craft. People are looking for reassurance that there is value in value, as we seem to be surrounded by people who on a daily basis show how little value they attach to anything in life apart from their own greed and self aggrandisement. Fashion is such an expression of human impulses: the need to make, the need to wear. I’ll always be optimistic about it.
The World of Anna Sui by Tim Blanks is out now.