For some collaborations are sidelights to extend a brand, for Anna Sui collaborations have a starring role. The designer’s not-so-short list of partnerships includes Starbucks, Hush Puppies, Target, Ford, Tumi, Frye, Fila, O’Neill, Samsung, Mattel, Coach, T-Mobile, FitFlop, Opening Ceremony, Victoria’s Secret and Vogue. In the last month alone, she’s teamed up with three more: Macy’s (with a capsule collection), PB Teen (furniture) and Bed Stu (footwear and handbags).
Despite her namesake fashion line losing some of the luster it had in the nineties to younger designers like Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh (another collaboration fan), Sui has made it a point to be everywhere. “It’s just always so exciting to be able to make product that you can’t really create yourself,” she said of her motivation, citing the material and distribution limitations inherent to clothing production.
The Anna Sui look — sumptuous fabrics, eclectic prints and bright colors, often with a nod to subcultures like punks or surfers — can be seen across all these collaborations. Brands continue to come to her for the fashion history and quirky aesthetic associated with her name. Sui’s openness to them all — which might make some companies cringe — may help keep her in business, regardless of where her apparel collection stands.
Karen Elson in a campaign image for Anna Sui x INC for Macy’s
“If just depends on if I like what they do, if there’s interesting product and technique involved,” said Sui of her criteria for these partnerships. “A challenge is always fun, too,” she said, pointing to dabbling in categories she’s not really known for, like the athleisure line she did with Fila in 2014. “As long as I can understand what it is they like about my work and how I can apply that to their product, I’ll say yes, time permitting.”
Tapping into new product categories without having to fully invest in them also allows her reach new consumers and extend the reach of her brand. “Working with all of these big companies takes you into a whole other realm, which is very exciting,” she said. Fashion may be her first love — and the core of her brand, when it debuted in 1981 — but she’s not beholden to it. “I’m probably more known for cosmetics and fragrance, at this point,” she admitted.
Sui expanded into cosmetics and skin care in 1999, with a license from Albion Cosmetics. That same year, she kicked off her fragrance license with Wella AG. The designer, now partnered with Inter Parfums instead, has launched over 30 perfumes to date, including the newly released Fantasia and longtime favorite La Nuit de Boheme. There are now over 200 Anna Sui Beauty counters around the world.
She also counts a footwear license with Italian shoemaker Ballin and a clothing line with department store Isetan in Japan (where she has an especially fervent following). All of this, of course, is technically second-fiddle to her main collection, which is sold in 50 Anna Sui boutiques across eight countries and over 300 retailers across the world.
Macy’s hasn’t sold her main collection for nine years, but it launched a partnership with her earlier this month through a collection within its private-label INC. That line — one of an ongoing series of designer collaborations by the retailer — is currently being sold in 25 Macy’s locations and on the retailer’s website. It came with a campaign shot by Ellen Von Unwerth and starring longtime Sui favorite Karen Elson.
An image of Anna Sui’s furniture collection for PB Teen
Both that line and the bedroom furniture Sui designed for PB Teen were in development for roughly four to six months, she said, longer than any of her previous collaborations. “It took about as long as a collection takes” for them to come to fruition, she said. One thing she’s learned: You should bring a lot more ideas to the plate than are actually possible. Many are nixed due to production difficulties or lengthy lead times that are unforeseeable in uncharted categories.
Sui is hesitant to call any collaboration most successful, though partnering with Starbucks on a travel mug, tote and Swell bottle was particularly rewarding.
“A lot of people drink Starbucks, so I reached a vast audience that I probably never would’ve been able to reach otherwise,” she said.
Working with the classic shoe brand Hush Puppies was also memorable. “People have such a definite vision of what a Hush Puppy shoe is, so I think people reacted to how out-of-this-world the shoes could become,” she said, referring to the patent leather, higher-heel and print details she applied.
Sui sees many more collaborations in her future and remains open to brands of all stripes, she said: “I’m a fan and a consumer — never say never!”