Fashion is a notoriously fickle, ever-evolving industry; the only way to stay current is through constant change. But that’s a lot harder than it sounds, which is why most designers rise and fall with alarming frequency, coming and going with the season’s latest trends. So it’s all the more impressive when someone manages not only to sustain a career, but to grow something of an empire from the ground up. Such is the case with Alexis Bittar, whose eponymous jewelry line is over 20 years old and has won him awards including the CFDA Accessories Designer of the Year (2010) and the Brand of the Year from the Accessories Council of Excellence (2014). Bittar is known for using materials like lucite, metals, and semi-precious stones, and his work has a specific blend of whimsicality and wearability which makes it feel constantly fresh. Brooklyn-born and bred, Bittar now lives in Brooklyn Heights (after a long stint in Manhattan), and his company is headquartered in nearby DUMBO; here we talk with him about the evolution of the borough, how he went from selling jewelry on the streets of Manhattan to building a business, and what exactly Donald Trump was doing in his Soho store.
You grew up in Bay Ridge, so you’re a lifelong Brooklynite. Right, so, you know, I couldn’t wait to live in the city.
That’s understandable! What was it like growing up in Bay Ridge back then? Bay Ridge hasn’t changed that much, unlike everywhere else in New York, which has changed dramatically. Bay Ridge was very working-class, a lot of cops and firemen; it’s kind of an ethnic melting pot, but it’s also conservative, and for me it wasn’t great. I didn’t love growing up in Bay Ridge. I think I appreciate it now as an adult, but as a kid I wasn’t into it. My parents were both kind of socialists and very politically minded, but I was still a gay kid growing up in Bay Ridge. They liked it because I think the rent was about $80 a month, and they liked it because it was their kind of socialist working class mentality. But I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I couldn’t wait to spend all my time in Manhattan because it really was like a world apart. Brooklyn wasn’t really a place to be. It wasn’t cool. And Bay Ridge definitely wasn’t cool. I think Bay Ridge is still not cool. They keep saying it’s going to change, but it never does. But, yeah, anywhere in Brooklyn wasn’t that cool. It’s really only been the last 10 years that it exploded to the degree it has now.
What made you come back to Brooklyn? I moved back to Brooklyn in 96, and I wanted to move back, but I remember thinking I was giving up a lifestyle. I wanted to step out of the city. I made a conscious decision. But there was a little bit of fear, because I knew friends wouldn’t come to Brooklyn!
As an adult coming out to Brooklyn, I loved it. I’d been selling on the street, selling on St. Mark’s, since I was 13. I was very much in the city. But eventually I wanted to escape New York City, because so much of what it was about didn’t interest me as an adult. So I loved the barrier of the bridge. I loved getting off the train and feeling a totally different energy. What’s disturbing in the last few years is how much of that energy is gone. The barrier got lifted and now there’s no divide. There’s tour buses everywhere in Brooklyn now. My one comfort that I constantly remind myself of is that nobody really owns New York. Do you know that Ken Burns’s documentary New York? It’s been a helpful reminder for me because it reminds me that New York is always evolving, evolving, evolving, and that’s just part of the deal.
Yeah, that’s totally true. I was recently reading about how everyone’s nostalgic for the New York of their youth, and how that will never change. Right! Like young people now will feel nostalgic for this New York. And most major urban areas are experiencing similar changes. They’re all experiencing this same issue, where chains are what are surviving. So it’s not just in New York, but that being said, even though it’s a global phenomenon, one of the sad things about it here is the new absence of the neighborhood. And the absence of artists being able to afford living in a city. And there’s a difference between art as consumerism and just the kind of random artists that are all around. And that’s what’s disappearing. The only city I find where it’s still present is Berlin. Berlin reminds me of New York in the 80s and the 90s.
You were doing some pretty interesting things in New York in the 80s and 90s, and living kind of the epitome of the young, hustling urban lifestyle; you started a business at a very young age, in 1992, and this was after you’d started by selling things in the street. I was actually nine when I started selling on the streets, but I was 13 when I was working on St. Mark’s. And that was in 1982. And then I started designing in 1990.
Did you always know you wanted to be a jewelry designer? Not really. I kind of fell into it. When I started I was a kid, like between 13 and 19, and I wanted to be in the East Village and around the music and art scene. That’s what I was really super excited about. I was going out to clubs all the time. I was really excited about that, and I wanted to have a reason for being there, and fashion made sense in a way. And so I was buying and selling vintage clothes, and it was before there were that many vintage clothes stores. And I became a total drug addict. Let’s just get that out! And I got sober when I was 22, in 1990. And I started the business when I got sober. In a way I think I kind of fell in it. On one level, I knew I could do anything, but I didn’t have any true skill set. I had dropped out of school. I loved jewelry. I think I could have designed anything, quite honestly. I didn’t have to design jewelry. But I did love it. And I appreciated it in the sense of historical context of antique jewelry being passed on and I just thought it’d be interesting to design it in the way I would want to see it, instead of buying vintage jewelry and reselling it, which is what I was doing. It wasn’t like I set out to build this massive jewelry brand. I didn’t know anything about the industry at all. My parents were professors. And we didn’t have friends in fashion. So I didn’t actually have any context about how to start a business in this industry.
And yet! Over 20 years later you’re heading a huge enterprise that’s still incredibly relevant. How do you manage that? What makes that possible? Especially in the accessories world, it would be so easy simply to be trend-based, and then disappear. I think it’s worked because I was always on the fringe; I think I’ve survived on the fringe of fashion in a way. Maybe it’s just my perception, but I always saw myself as an outsider that became more mainstream; and this is definitely partly because of how I started, by selling on the street for so long. Like, you hear about people selling on the street and you think it sounds cute, but I did it for 15 years, so it wasn’t cute! Even when I won the CFDA, I was kind of a little bit taken aback. I was surprised! I didn’t do anything in these typical fashion ways, like working for a design house or knowing someone or feeling connected. I didn’t go to the parties. I think because I see myself that way and also love what I do… I think that’s part of the key, loving what you do, and I think part of what I love about what I do is try to fuse an artistic ability and with what would be wearable. It’s kept pushing me and also connected me with people who have a similar mindset. Like Jeremy Scott. He has the same background in a way, coming from the outside. But when you talk to him, there’s no ego, there’s no drama. He didn’t buy the fashion script, in terms of how to be. And I think that when I think of people that I continually work with in the industry, they’re all kind of similar. They’re all people who are very much not in the circle, but they’re all kind of driving a lot of the industry. So for me it’s this artistic, It’s trying to remember you’re having fun and what would excite you. And if I can get 20 percent of what I’m doing that would truly excite me, than I’m doing something right. It’s never going to be 100 percent though. For me, it’s not taking it too seriously. Having fun with it and staying on the edge.
Speaking of having fun, you engage with current events in a really public, entertaining way. It’s apparent in everything from your ad campaigns to your store windows, which, last fall, featured a Donald Trump dummy. Yeah! I’m partnered now with a private equity, and sometimes that can make things a little more conservative, so I have to navigate that. Occasionally, though, I’ll just want to do windows on Trump. And why not? Why wouldn’t we? It’s so insane. One of the benefits of having a business—and there’s also a lot of headaches—is you get to occasionally stand for something that most businesses never would. Like ageism, which is a big topic for me. In our advertising campaign, we’ve really focused on women and ageism and transgender issues. There’s times where I’m able to have that same energy I had when I was a kid, and I can express it this way. I call it adult graffiti. And even though I know you’re not supposed to mix politics with fashion, I’m like fuck it. It’s my business, so I can do that. And have fun with it. When I’m watching these horrible things happen—whether it’s consumerism or politics or the refugee situation—and I have strong feelings about it, I know I can add my voice to it and keep the conversation going and get in people’s faces about it. As far as politics are concerned we can ask each other if this is something we find acceptable. Because I don’t!
Another way you do that is with your ad campaigns, which frequently have really strong social methods. When I started the business I didn’t have any money, and when I first started to be able to advertise it was really street posters. That’s how I originally advertised during fashion week. And I think I inherently knew because I didn’t have much money for advertising, I needed to figure out a message that really stood out, something that was really authentic and for me. And it dawned on me what a huge gap there was between who the customers actually are and who was being portrayed [in the ads]. There’s such a wide delta between the message being delivered in advertising and who’s actually buying the product. Most women think, at least the ones I talk to, are apologetic about their age. And as a designer, you’re working to make women feel better about how they look. It might seem trivial, but it’s not when you realize that these women feel invisible. It disturbs me a lot, the ways these women actually felt like they were not seen. It makes me think, this is totally insane! Here we are advertising retouched images of 18-year-old girls to women who are 40 or 50, who are made to feel like they’re not what’s beautiful. It’s an insane system to buy into; this is not acceptable. And then for me, on a personal note, my mother has been bedridden for 37 years, so I grew up with a mother who I watched become ill, who was super beautiful and then became ill. And I was able to see how people perceive a woman who doesn’t fit into the standards of beauty. And I really resented that in advertising, the way people advertise this way because it’s safe and it’s standard. And I wanted to use my platform to say something else and to have fun with it at the same time. So whether it’s the girls from Ab Fab or Joan Collins, I think we’ve challenged the perception of what can be out there.