Conversation With: Alexis Bittar
Ken Downing: Alexis, I am such a big fan of you and your work. I don’t think many people know that your career in fashion started very early. You were a teenage retailer!
Alexis Bittar: You’re too funny, but it is true. It was 1982, I was 13 years old, pre-MTV. There was no such thing as the vintage clothing craze there is today. I would sit on the corner of Astor Place and 8th Street, outside the Cooper Union, and sell vintage clothes and jewelry. I would buy old clothes by the pound, can you imagine?
KD: Who bought from you in those early years?
AB: Punk kids, for the most part. They were attracted to my look. I had “outfits” and orange hair… it was all about the Thompson Twins and that whole era. I would create looks from my vintage finds. My favorite was a rockabilly look with a police jacket that I bought from Patricia Fields. Pat and I are still friends. I think she is an amazing woman.
KD: Pat is a stylist supreme, her work on Sex and the City still influences today. So when did you give up your retail quilt and start designing?
AB: I started designing jewelry when I was 20, recreating jewelry from vintage pieces. It was very New Wave. Debbie Harry of Blondie was a huge influence in my work; she actually bought jewelry from me on the street. So did Lauren Hutton.
KD: Did you know who she was at the time?
AB: I was selling on Prince Street at that point, and she got out of a cab. I knew she was a model, so chic. I was working in Depression glass bits and metal tassels at the time, creating long necklaces, very flapper.
KD: Art Deco is very of the moment right now.
AB: Art Deco emerges in parts of my collection for Spring, and becomes my vocabulary for Fall. Spring is all about flowers, more of a 1950s referencing with a subtle punk twist. Lots of beautiful flower pins, but with an edge, like an occasional thorn. For fall you’ll see a lot of long necklaces with tassels and a 1920s influence.
KD: It is interesting how so many designers are feeling this Art Deco moment.
AB: Art Deco signifies the new modernism. It is very appealing to me.
KD: I know you love a good ’80s moment as well. You were totally irreverent hiring Joan Collins for a recent advertising campaign, when the rest of the industry is obsessed with youth. What gave you the idea?
AB: I met Joan through a friend of a friend. She’s a fan of my jewelry and has collected pieces for over 10 years. It was my friend’s idea to use her. He loved the idea of “Alexis for Alexis.” You know, Alexis Carrington from the Dynasty days. I had to do it! It was my first celebrity campaign. What’s always amazed me about Joan is that she doesn’t get credit for the influence she has had on fashion. Now she’s a woman in her 70s, and she looks incredible. You have to love that.
KD: In an interesting turn of fate, you also reunited with Lauren Hutton years after selling her jewelry on the street, and put her in a campaign. And then there’s your latest…
AB: I love this campaign. I’m obsessed with Ab Fab, so we photographed Patsy and Edina—Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. I have to say, I was oddly star struck when I met them.
KD: I love that Jennifer Saunders is wearing an “I Love New York” T-shirt in the campaign.
AB: I am a real New Yorker, born and bred in Brooklyn. I returned to Brooklyn after living in the city for 17 years. My home, my studio, are all in Brooklyn. I am very proud that my jewelry is made in the U.S.A. All of the Lucite is hand carved and hand painted. It’s a seven-step process and very labor intensive, but I am obsessed with quality and the end result. My jewelry has been made the same way for 21 years. I have over 350 employees. I have come a long way from that corner of Astor Place and 8th Street.