Ladies, if you prefer classic and quiet accessories, Alexis Bittar is probably not the jewelry designer for you. "I’m never going to relate to the girl who wants a basic tennis bracelet and diamond studs," he admitted an enthralled crowd of AB fangirls (and fanwomen, but more on that later) wearing all manner of Lucite bangles and jewel-encrusted teardrop earrings at a discussion cohosted by the 92nd Street Y Jewelry Center and the Accessories Council. "I’m okay with that."
Not that his trademark big and bold style has hindered business: since Alexis started selling his wares on the street of Soho in the late ’80s, his label has been picked up by major department stores around the world, and now includes four separate lines (three costume collections—Lucite, Elements and Miss Havisham—and a recently added fine jewelry selection). He also collaborates regularly with fashion’s biggest players (his work has appeared on major runways, like those of Phillip Lim and Michael Kors), and his list of notable clientele includes more A-listers than an Oscars red carpet (Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga, anyone?). But what’s far more interesting is how he made it all happen. I sat down with the designer to chat about where he started, where he’s going and—of course—some jewelry styling tips! Read on for the scoop.
Lucky: You started selling your jewelry on the streets in Soho—tell me about the craziest person you met back then.
Alexis Bittar: Well actually, I sold in Saint Marks first. I was very young, and selling vintage clothes. Then when I started designing, I sold in Soho. When I sold in Soho—unless you wanted to be arrested or have your jewelry confiscated—you needed to have someone with a license. So I had a street vendor who had a license, he was an Elvis impersonator—okay, he wasn’t truly an Elvis impersonator, but he looked like he was in the spirit of Elvis. He had a wig, [and wore this] Coppertone tanning lotion that made him orange, packed a gun and would bring a lawn chair out and literally take one of those metal visors and spread out. I would be selling at the table while he was spread out with the lawn chair, metal visor, Coppertone and the wig—and his mouth was blue because he was popping Xanax. And that was my sidekick. His name was Frankie, he lived with his sister—which was weird, because he was like, 45—in their deceased parents’ house in Sheepshead Bay [Brooklyn]. Frankie was such a trip because at the time, Soho was like the art epicenter [of NYC], and then you’ve got Frankie who doesn’t give a shit, on that lawn chair, catching sun, with his gun…it was wild. I paid him $200 to be there.
So he was the muscle.
He had the license!
And the gun!
Yes. Well, it was like you never knew what was going to happen. You’re standing with $1,000 of cash, you never know!
Did anyone ever try to rob you?
Not there, but in my first studio, someone came through the wall with a chainsaw at night. It was my first studio. I had saved up all my money to get this space, and was making my first samples for my first trade show. I was like, really? It was a momentary wakeup of being a business owner.
Lucite jewelry is your signature. What first drew you to that particular material?
I think what drew me was that it’s a clear material you can sculpt. I loved the idea of sculpture. I hand-carved every piece—we still do. And the way it can be manipulated not only by shape and form, but by color and light. So I would hand-paint it, and then guild it, or do clear. It’s a chameleon of a material. I’ve been using it since 1990.
Has your style changed since then?
Hell yeah, are you kidding me? Definitely, although I think that I’ve always been relatively free in terms of design, and don’t feel constrained. If anything, now that I have the ability to have three lines with different materials, different mediums, my ability to dream is further developed. The lines, the materials—everything—has evolved. But the spirit is still the same.
And what’s that?
I’m always fusing art and fashion. That’s the secret sauce. I like to be be provocative. Not every piece, but I like to push the envelope with a few pieces each season, whether it’s a material I’m using, or how I’ve used it. I like the idea of pioneering art with fashion, [making] what women with actually wear.
Speaking of women wearing your jewelry, you use a lot of older women in your campaigns. Tell me about that.
When I first started, I actually had younger models. The first mature model I used was Joan Collins. I’ve used Ab Fab and Lauren Hutton. When you meet a woman who’s mature and has lived a full life, it comes across. It’s something that a younger girl will never have. She’ll have other things, like innocence, but there’s something when a woman has lived a full life. There’s history, knowledge and strength that I embrace. And politically, it was a message I wanted to push. I look at advertising like graffiti. I grew up in the city, I was a street kid—I was in Washington Sqaure and Saint Marks Place graffiti-ing—so this became an adult version of graffiti [for me]. I felt that mature women were not only not represented in advertising, but the message we’re giving, and TV gives, is that beauty is focused primarily on youth. I think that’s a f***ed up message for girls. It’s setting every girl up for failure, really. If you think you’ve got a window from 20 to 35 and after that you’re not beautiful anymore. And all the messages are about that one window. So what are you doing for the next 40 years? Lamenting? As if aging is a bad thing, and I don’t think it is. We can’t accept that it is a negative. In my most recent campaign, I actually used a woman that was transgender, too, and wanted to pioneer that. So I swung again. That ad just dropped two weeks ago.
Tell me about a few mature women with style who inspire you.
So many! One of my best friends is Iris Apfel, I’m a big fan of Iris’. I think Charlotte Rampling is incredible. I think Julie Christie is incredible. Joan Collins is incredible—such an icon. She presented me with an award at the Ace Awards and people went insane to see her.
If you could sneak into the costume closet of any show on television right now and cover the characters with your jewelry, which would it be?
That’s so hard, because I don’t have a TV!
Do you watch Netflix?
I watch Netflix, but not TV. I watch movies. I’ve never had a TV so I’m completely clueless. I’m like a generation gap times seven because my parents wouldn’t let us have a TV. I hated them for it but unfortunately now I’m just used to it. If I do watch TV now, I go right to bottom, like Real Housewives. I’m like "What am I watching!?" I did watch Homeland, which is not jewelry-appropriate, but I’m obsessed with it—obsessed. I would want [Carrie] to wear [my jewelry], but she wouldn’t! I’m so obsessed with her, and how she’s got that bipolar eye thing down. Like how long she she work on that? I kind of want to see her wearing my earrings, with the pantsuit, running. She’d look like a drag queen!
What’s your best advice for wearing jewelry?
One of the main things I say is no sets. Stay away from sets! No matchy-matchy, so you don’t wear two circle earrings and a circle necklace. Try to individualize and remember that accessories are to be played with. You want to feel comfortable in them, you don’t want them to wear you. If you’re not ready to wear that piece, then you might not want to wear it. It’s like walking down the street in a big hat you’re not feeling comfortable wearing—don’t even try it. I always like going for bolder pieces, like that one big cuff and a necklace. Or a cocktail ring and a big pair of earrings. I think two big pieces is enough. You don’t have to do the necklace, the bracelet, the earring—it’s too much.
What’s the trick to getting a bracelet stack right?
Stacking bracelets is best when it’s either playful, and you’re having fun with color, or it means something. I think that’s where women get the most poignancy out of stacking bracelets, when literally each bracelet becomes a story of their life. I think that’s what jewelry is about.
Do you wear any jewelry?
I do! I have one necklace. [Lifts a gold pendant out from under his shirt.]
Did you make it?
No, Picasso did actually!
Amazing! Tell me about that, please.
It was a gift that a husband gave to his wife in England and she didn’t like it. It was in auction—I bought it in an antique show. I love that I can wear something from him, apparently he made pendants for his girlfriends and wives. It’s a bull, which is somewhat appropriate.
Are you a Taurus?
No, but I feel like a bull, because of my business. Sometimes I feel a little bullish running it.
What’s next for your business? Would you ever consider doing a lower-priced line?
I won’t go lower. At this point, because I did fine [jewelry], my other line becomes the diffusion. But what I will do is go into other categories—handbags is the next big venture. I’m excited, we’re starting it now to launch next year.