07/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
ANNA SUI HAS NEVER BEEN HEMMED IN by convention. As a child in Dearborn Heights, Mich., she played war games with her best friends—two boys—spiritedly maneuvering plastic soldiers. "But one time we decided, instead of doing army, let's do the Academy Awards," recalls Sui. "We took the men and made little tissue-paper dresses as their gowns. I thought, 'This is so much fun, this is what I want to do—dress the movie stars.' "
Three decades later, the thirty-something Sui (pronounced SWEE) is doing just that. Actress Andie Mac-Dowell sports one of her floral print dresses in The Player; Sandra Bernhard owns a black lace number; and when Madonna
chooses to wear clothes, she's apt to toss on one of Sui's black taffeta cropped jackets. Sui devotees also include top models who are courted by far more famous designers. "I live in Anna's little dresses during the summer," says Linda Evangelista. "They're feminine, flowing and great fun."
But despite her client list, Sui hasn't gone completely Hollywood. "It means just as much to me that my mom and my cousin are excited by my clothes," she says. "It doesn't have to be expensive to be hip and cool." Indeed, after 11 years in business, Sui has earned a reputation as fashion's patron saint of the recession. With dresses priced at about $200 and jackets about $300, "she gives more fashion for the price than any other New York designer," says Bloomingdale's fashion director Kal Ruttenstein. "That's a great combination for the '90s." And one that Sui believes in from the bottom of her piggy bank. "I don't think people need to spend every single penny on clothing," she says. "On my first assistant-designer job in Manhattan I bought a fur coat, and that coat lived better than I did. It was in cold storage in the summer while I sweated it out in a fifth-floor walk-up."
She didn't sweat for long, which came as a relief to her parents, Paul, a structural engineer, and Grace, a homemaker. "Why don't you be a nurse or a doctor?" Mom would inquire when Anna was growing up. "You have brains. You don't need brains to be a dressmaker."
But you do need inspiration—much of Sui's comes from the '60s and '70s—and discipline. To sharpen her collection each season, she relies on creative criticism from her buddy, photographer Steven Meisel, who was a fellow student at Manhattan's Parsons School of Design. "My assistant asks me why I let him come up to the studio," laughs Sui. "I say, 'Because the line will only get better.' " Meisel is equally flattering. "Anna's kind and loving," he says. "And she loves to shop."
In fact, the never-married Sui makes weekend pilgrimages to a popular flea market on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue. "It's like church," she says, and her two-bedroom Chelsea apartment is a virtual shrine to that faith. Awash in red from floor to ceiling, it is crammed with secondhand furniture, metal-framed mirrors, photos of '60s rock stars and a collection of tiny dolls dressed by Dior, Chanel and Givenchy.
Sui's own style reflects her fondness for found objects and affordability. "I love diamonds but I don't own a diamond," she says. "I'm very happy with my little $10 watch from Chinatown."
VERONICA BURNS in New York City