In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, pioneering designers Josie Natori and Anna Sui visited Target headquarters to discuss Asian influence in fashion, and how their heritage has helped them become leaders in the global community.
“Asian Pacific American Month gives us not only a chance to connect, but also the opportunity to celebrate a shared sense of pride and belonging,” says Anna.
Below, the duo divulges everything from their earliest days in the industry to their style inspirations and advice for aspiring designers.
How has your heritage influenced your career and your designs?
Anna Sui: My father is Cantonese, and my mother was born in Nanking and lived in Shanghai. I was born in Detroit and grew up learning about Chinese culture from my parents. 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.
Josie Natori: I am from the Philippines, and an embroidered blouse from my country became the inspiration behind my first collection. Natori’s entire East-West aesthetic comes from my background as a Filipina woman. Filipinos are immensely talented and their fine embroideries and handwork inspire me every day. I try to incorporate this artisanship into all the styles we create.
Is there a standout woman of Asian heritage whose style you truly admire?
JN: Anna May Wong was the first Asian American actress to really make it in Hollywood. She is known for wearing these fabulous gowns with intricate embroideries. In her 1934 film, Limehouse Blues, gold and silver sequins slither down the dress in a dragon pattern—what an inspiration!
AS: She had such great style. I loved her signature top-part and narrow-wedge bang hairstyle. As a kid, I always thought she was so cool.
What were the early days of your career like?
JN: Landing in the fashion industry was a happy accident. I knew I wanted to start my own business and looked at everything from car washes to a McDonald’s franchise! I started Natori by taking around some embroidered blouses from the Philippines. A Bloomingdale’s buyer suggested I lengthen one to turn it into a nightshirt, and we were in business! I realized that I could go into the world of lingerie and fill the niche in between lewd and frumpy. By starting in lingerie—a very niche area at the time—there was nowhere to go but up. Before I knew it, I had become a rather big fish in a little pond.
Whom do you design for?
AS: I think I’ve always been very consistent. When I started designing, my intention was to dress rock stars and people who went to rock concerts, and that’s what I still do. The Rolling Stones were always my favorite style icons—I inevitably incorporate elements of their dandy look into my personal wardrobe and my collections (pinstriped pants, ruffled shirts, tall boots). Anita Pallenberg was such an integral part of the history of The Rolling Stones. I always think when designing, “Is this cool enough for Anita and Keith to wear?”
JN: I design for all women—to make them feel glamorous, confident, and good about themselves. That’s something I take into consideration at the beginning of each season. Will women want to wear this? Will they feel good in this and want to purchase it? Not just, “does this look beautiful on the hanger”? The Natori woman feels good about herself. She loves being surrounded by beautiful things. Most importantly, she treats herself well and understands the importance of indulgence as a necessity in life.
Did you ever have a moment when you finally realized you’d “made it”?
JN: I still don’t feel like I’ve “made it” and am never content to rest on my laurels. We envision having our own retail stores, both in the U.S. and around the world. So next time we speak, we hope to be much bigger internationally, including through our own retail stores!
After all this time, do you still love what you do?
AS: I think I have the perfect job. Everything I’m currently obsessed with can serve as inspiration for my work (films, exhibitions, music, books, travel, flea markets). I always want to share with my fans all the things that I am excited about. I want to take them on that journey with me, and get them as interested and as inspired as I am. It’s very simple: I love what I do. Of course I work very hard, but I believe that when you are passionate about your work, it’s more like a way of life and a true pleasure.
What’s one piece of advice that’s helped steer your career?
JN: The Philippines is a matriarchal society, so I’m from a close-knit Filipino family where women are encouraged to be entrepreneurs. My grandmother, Lola, always said, “Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to depend on anyone.” So I never doubted myself. She was my role model.
Any words of wisdom of your own to share with design hopefuls?
AS: There’s only one Calvin Klein, there’s only one Tom Ford; you have to figure out your own niche. Competition and circumstances are tough. Be true to yourself—that is the key. Do what you are best at, and learn your craft. It is better when you are young to decide for yourself what your main interests are (couture, ready-to-wear, junior, active sportswear) and only take steps (schools, internships, jobs) that move you in the right direction. My father always told me that if I want to have my own company, I should be in the office every day before the rest of my staff, and stay later than anyone else. That philosophy of hard work and dedication has always inspired me.