Interview with Michael Sui

Michael Sui is a fashion and costume designer, and stylist in New York City. He is known for his one-of-a-kind wearable art pieces, which are highly distinctive by the amount of “bling-bling” (Swarovski crystals) involved. As a young boy, Michael’s unique style was influenced by his parents and siblings. After graduated from Parsons School of Design in NYC, Michael worked for Donna Karan, where he became the VP of Design at DKNY. Later on, he worked for Tommy Hilfiger, also as VP of Design. HUF Magazine has published Michael’s work multiple times over the years, and we are always impressed by his creative designs. So we seized the opportunity to speak with Michael and discover more about his creative mind.

Currently, I’m living and working in New York City. I consider myself a native New Yorker since I’ve lived and worked here for over twenty plus years. I’m a believer that if you’ve worked and made a living in New York, then you can make it anywhere. New York is a tough town, and you have to be ready to give it all you’ve got (and more) to survive.

When I think back about fashion as a young boy, it definitely brings up memories of how my parents and siblings influenced me. We were a middle-class family from Baltimore, Maryland. I remember going into my mom’s closet and playing with her prized possession: a silver foxtail stole. She had special occasion Chinese dresses and tops with beads, sequins, and glitter on them. I was fixated. My dad was also a fancy dresser in his day, and he had a closet filled with wool /cashmere topcoats, suede jackets with knit sleeves, and beautiful wool felt hats. I mixed them together with my school clothes and thought I was the cat’s meow.

During my teenage years, I was definitely a stylish person in my mind. [Laughs]. I snuck into my sister’s closet and wore her shirts with embroidered sequin peacocks on them, platform shoes, and double zipper bell-bottom jeans. I loved fringed vests, jumpsuits, and rabbit fur jackets. It was the style at the time that I wanted to be a part of.

I graduated from Parsons School of Design in NYC. I would most definitely recommend any young designer get an education first in their chosen field, not only for the structure of being disciplined and learning a new skill set but also for interacting with fellow students. They will not only become your friends, but contacts, references, workmates, and bosses in the future. Connections are everything.

Looking back, one of the first pieces I designed and sewed myself was a black quilted jumpsuit with shoulder pads out to there and red and black rib trim. I wore it with red cowboy boots and a black rubber belt with a mirror buckle. The real test was my mother had my brother drive us to a mall, and I think she wanted to see how people would react to me, maybe teach me a lesson not to dress so wild. I didn’t care; I was so proud of my efforts that I walked up and down in the mall. I was so proud of what I made with my two hands.

Yes, I was the former VP of Design at Tommy Hilfiger designing the women’s “H” collection with Tommy’s sister Ginny Hilfiger. I was there for 3 1/2 years. “H” collection was Tommy’s first opportunity to enter the better clothing market to be placed in his freestanding stores and department stores. Prior to this job, I was freelancing for my ex-boss from DKNY, who started working at Tommy Hilfiger, and she asked me to illustrate and design some ideas for a women’s collection they were launching. This was when I met Tommy Hilfiger, and he said to me after viewing my illustrations during a presentation he said “if the clothes look as great as these illustrations, it will be great” Tommy never forgot my name. I never forgot that special moment.

Tommy Hilfiger as a company was a great place to work. When you design collections for big brands, opportunities to create ideas are endless. You have the support of factories worldwide that specialize in different technologies and have specialties. I was able to travel globally to places like Korea, Hong Kong, India, London, and even to Bali for an inspiration trip. Tommy was very generous with his design team.

Tommy Hilfiger was always hands-on with his design team. We would make presentations to him several times during the collection process, from concept and color boards to first fittings, sample line for showroom presentation, and finally, fashion show lineup. He was always polite, funny, and kind.

My career before Tommy began at Anne Klein Studio, where I met Donna Karan as a young graduate from Parsons. This is before Donna launched out on her own. She hired me to design the children’s collection for DKNY and several other collections over the years… Jeans, Active, Better… all totaled I was with DKNY off and on for almost 15 years. About change from one company to another? I was always loyal to the company I worked for; I didn’t move around much. If you were good, you stayed with that company and grew as they grew. The opportunity for something better or different circumstances like closing a line plays a big part in a change. As I said before, this is why your personal relationships with coworkers, bosses, contacts from school, and friends are so important to maintain.

It’s funny as I look back on working at Tommy Hilfiger vs. Donna Karan; they were both huge names at the time. Both had different products, customers, styles, price points. But the bottom line is you had to be flexible and adaptable to their market or clientele. You have to remember you are designing with them in mind and their aesthetic. Working for them was an honor and privilege that doesn’t exist today in the fashion world. Each company has given me tools to do what I do today.

Honestly, after all the years working with big brand names, I was let go from my position at DKNY after the market was shifting and they had to downsize the division. I was a high-priced ticket designer, and I was the first to go. It always happens that way. It happened to me three times at DKNY over the years, but they always hired me back to start up a new division. This time it was different. I knew it. This change was a big blow to my ego, self-esteem, and wallet. I took time off to find myself. Discover me. What was my next move? I was paralyzed and couldn’t create, draw, or get excited. One day I got the New School Catalog and saw a course in costume design and history. I took the course, and I was scared to go back to school with all those young students and study. It was the best move I could do for myself. My professor Mimi Maxmen was instrumental in helping me gain my confidence back and rethink how to approach design through research, development, and reading the classic plays, breaking down a script, character development, going to a library and museums for primary sources of information. I never got that from working at the big fashion houses. It was completely eye-opening.

I think Bling Bling was always in my blood. There just wasn’t a name for it. I always say, “I think my Mom put a crystal chandelier over my crib as a baby instead of a mobile.” The truth is I used to watch my mother make different art/paintings from kits using crystals, sequins, string, and glitter. They were big too. She also made fruits with different colored crystal beads held together with pins. It all shined and glittered. So I credit my Mom for my crystal vision.

“… stay true to yourself. People will try and change you. You are in control of your own destiny. Be kind to people; no matter what their position is, tables may turn at any time.”

Michael Sui

Being exposed to the best at the fashion houses, you learn about high-end materials. Swarovski Crystals are the highest quality crystal you can buy. It’s the best, it cost the most, and the shine is illuminating. In my mind, I had to have Swarovski or nothing at all. I soon learned that my wallet was not as generous. I felt I was cheating if I didn’t use all Swarovski on my projects. What I have learned is you need to pick and choose where and how you use them. I can now mix them or use Preciosa crystals from the Czech Republic. China is also coming on strong with high-quality glass crystals that have fire and brilliance. I wish I had an endless amount of crystals to work with, but I buy as I go from reputable distributors. The big news is that Swarovski is taking control of who and how their crystals are being distributed. It’s causing a price-gouging war, and the little artists and craftsman will suffer. How much have I spent on crystals? It’s a treasure chest worth.

Do the pieces I made weigh a ton because of the crystals? Not really, because I space them out and mix different stones together. However, the pieces I put them on, like the steel armor, weigh a lot. Some of the blank canvas armor pieces are made in India, and I like to use the real deal, no flimsy rubber or Styrofoam. If you are going to be a gladiator, be a real gladiator, I say.
What happens to my pieces after they have been photographed? They usually end up in my archive. It’s funny. I consider them all my babies that I have created and worked so many hours and endless nights on. I have sold pieces to customers who appreciate my artistry and craftsmanship, and they know that they are one of a kind. I’m always open to selling and renting them.

My label is Panda7inc, and I’m not interested in something huge that I can’t control. I am happy working on custom pieces for clients who want something unique or looking to customize their existing wardrobe pieces – updating a blazer, dress, jacket, coat, blouse. You own it, so why waste it. That’s my contribution to sustainable fashion.

Every day, I get special requests from the pieces that have appeared in editorials. They love them but run when you quote them a price. This is something all independent artists, artisans, and freelancers experience. The value of a custom-made piece that’s handmade, hours of work, supplies, shipping, packaging… etc., God forbid, food, insurance, medical supplies, and rent must be added into the final cost. Wearable art doesn’t mean cheap or free.

How do I feel about today’s creative community? Honestly, I think it’s in hibernation. So much is about instant gratification via photo and text. It’s sad to see that COVID has brought the arts to its knees; theater, dance, music has all been shut down; however, the world of sports still takes center stage. Please don’t get me started! I know many people in the fashion business have left their careers because they were aged out. Many talented and gifted artists, designers, craftsmen, seamstresses, and pattern makers are all doing different jobs and finding their new voice. The golden days are gone, but the talent still lives on. I would encourage anyone who has lost their way to find their passion and work towards creating a new you. Do what you love.

My definition of success as a young designer working on 7th Avenue in NY was it would never end… so buy one, two, even three houses, travel, buy expensive clothes, whatever you want, you’ve earned it. Today my definition of success is staying creative and finishing a project that brings me joy first. The rest will follow.

My advice for any new designer is to stay true to yourself. People will try and change you. You are in control of your own destiny. Be kind to people; no matter what their position is, tables may turn at any time. It’s not always about the money! Designer Bob Mackie once said, “never be afraid to work hard, always stay busy.”

I’ve been creating my own pieces and developing my style for the last four years. The training I had working for other designers made me stronger and more knowledgeable to dive right into this. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some amazing world-class photographers, models, and publications, HUF Magazine being one of them. For me, that’s a big, big deal. It says you see me!

My goal for the next five years would be to keep the art of art alive and well. Continue inventing and creating my wearable art and an endless supply of crystals in my front, side, and back pockets. I’m open to new possibilities.

You can find Michael on his instagram at @panda7inc

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