Anna Sui’s Spring ’97 Show Brought Together Celebs and Supers
Welcome to Forgotten Runway, a deep dive into some of the more niche presentations in fashion history—which still have an impact to this day. In this new series, writer Kristen Bateman interviews the designers and people who made these productions happen, revealing what made each one so special.
On the late ’90s New York fashion circuit, there was only one place you’d find fairies, ballet, references to subcultures, rock stars in lingerie, and pretty much every supermodel of the time at once. That place was an Anna Sui runway show–in particular, the spring 1997 presentation, which took place in October 1996. The glitzy fairy wings, backless forest nymph dresses, and black lace mini dresses on display—not to mention the stars of the show, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers walking the runway in lingerie—have all led to endless mood board saves and Pinterest re-pins to this day.
At the time, the label had just reached significant growth: Anna Sui had a new store in Soho, fragrance and cosmetic licenses, and an undeniable aesthetic that merged popular subcultures of the time—like grunge, Goth, and punk—with a vintage sensibility and a highly detailed approach to rich fabric combinations. Even more than 20 years later, Anna Sui’s spring 1997 runway collection feels impactful, as subcultures flourish and continue to inspire designers, and fashion turns its eye toward fantasy during turbulent times. The glitter makeup from the show, smushed under the eyes of the models by François Nars, feels incredibly topical against today’s backdrop of Euphoria and the return of the mid 2000s indie sleaze era. As Sui’s Y2K-era work skyrockets in pop culture, people young and old alike continue to covet her runway pieces. To keep up that nostalgia-fueled demand, Sui even recently collaborated with SSENSE on a capsule collection inspired by her 2001 Mud Club collection.
Back in the ’90s, the biggest names in the industry appeared on her catwalks, and the spring 1997 show was no exception—Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Amber Valletta, and the late Stella Tennant were faces of the season. Sui’s close friend, Steven Meisel, helped cast her shows and pulled in many of the big-name models. “It was really a fun time because it was very intimate,” Sui tells W. “I was really good friends with a lot of the models and it was almost like a party scene backstage, at every show.”
But having a rocker-slash-celebrity walk the runway felt new—and spoke to Sui’s focus on hosting dynamic shows that felt celebratory, fresh, and different. Sui first met Navarro at a festival in San Francisco, chatted him up, and asked, spur of the moment, if he would ever want to be in her show. “Then he said, ‘Well, only if there’s lingerie involved,’” Sui recalls. “He flew in for his fitting and walked into our office, took off all his clothes and he said, ‘You’re the artist. I’m the clay. Mold me.’ Everybody in the room just about dropped dead.” Sui ended up dressing him in a lingerie top and entire leather pieces for the show–many of which were hand-detailed. (All pieces in the collection were made in the U.S., with crochet and knits all handmade.)
That season, Sui found inspiration in fairies and classic ballet. “I had tons of pictures of Rudolf Nureyev on my wall,” she says, referencing the Soviet-born ballet dancer. She had watched a documentary about Nureyev—the subject matter of which inspired the poet shirts, artisanal cutouts, braiding, and whipstitch-edge jackets she ultimately designed for the collection. Sui’s longtime hairstylist, Garren, meanwhile, spoke to the ballet side of the inspiration, creating chignons with loose and wavy tendrils falling around the models’ faces.
Hole’s “Gold Dust Woman” and The Cardigans’s Lovefool rang out in New York City's Bryant Park tents while models stomped down the runway wearing flippy sarong skirts, low-slung leather pants, and hippie takes on corporate suiting; buttons coming undone and jackets swung on shoulders as they neared the end of the runway. The show presented decidedly different moods, opening with more casual, breezy separates before turning to minimal suiting—and later, black lace spiked with vibrant lemon-yellow and lilac. Navarro could be seen walking in several of these varying “moods,” but his most iconic and lasting moment was, without a doubt, following Naomi Campbell on the runway, wearing a black lace dress with hearts over the bust.
Sui cast the model Iris Palmer as the “tipsy fairy,” wearing one of the pairs of angelic fairy wings in the show. “I watched Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I loved how everything twinkled,” Sui says. “So I found this great fabric that was like crinkled chiffon, but it had glitter prints on it.” Sui asked James Coviello, the man behind her visionary knits, to make fairy wings that matched the dresses perfectly. “He could make anything,” Sui adds.
Another epic accessory that transcended reality? The dripping beaded snake necklace designed by jeweler Karen Erickson—which, from far away, looked quite realistic, trailing down the model's necks to their arms. “It took days and days to make it, because there were just so many beads, it was so dense and it was kind of heavy,” says Sui. “But that’s Karen. She just goes there and makes it more deluxe than you could ever imagine.”
Moments before the show closed, model Kirsty Hume strutted onto the runway in a flowing black slip dress with slivers of fabric walking to the tune of Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People.” Others followed in an all-back wardrobe. Navarro wore leather pants and a black cropped wrap top. Campbell sported a printed gauzy black slip dress. It was all very Black Swan. “It was a very unique time because the focus was New York at that point,” Sui says. “We had the supermodels that really walked—like really worked—the runway. When you go back and look at those shows, you can see what a great time everyone was having.”
By the time the spring 1997 show bowed, Sui was one to watch at New York Fashion Week and a fixture among the international fashion crowd. She attracted top editors, models, and creatives despite not having a legacy of fashion shows behind her. (After all, Sui started her brand in 1980 after studying at Parsons and working for a few small sportswear labels. In 1991, she had her first runway show.) Today, she’s one of the few remaining female designers of New York’s ’90s grunge era still designing on a major scale. Her appeal lies in her layered approach to color, texture, and fabrics—looks in high demand as maximalist fashion rises—but also the nostalgia of her fun shows, where models paraded around expressively. The spring 1997 collection proved that dynamic subcultural references, a directional take on fabrics, and—perhaps most of all—tons of celebrities by way of models and music stars, will always be remembered.