A trip to Alexis Bittar’s studio is not typical of those to most New York designers. Aside from the fact that it requires crossing the Brooklyn Bridge—an epic journey by editor standards—the tour isn’t limited to the pretty places, i.e., the usual pristine showroom, all white space and styled displays. Yes, there’s a closet-size room stacked with Bittar’s signature candy-colored Lucite bangles and graphic metallic accoutrements (which have put him at the top of retail and editorial wish lists), but he prefers to show off the rest of the sprawling 9,000-square-foot space. Located in DUMBO, a hip-chic residential neighborhood with roots in gritty manufacturing, the studio flaunts an industrial aesthetic that is not entirely cosmetic. Less a workspace than a full-blown factory, it is manned by 160 employees who produced $37.5 million worth of costume jewelry last year—the biggest and best of Bittar’s two decades in the industry.
His is a made–in–New York story. Not only is Bittar Brooklyn-born and -bred, but at a time when just about everyone is taking production to the Far East, the 40-year-old designer is hell-bent on keeping the majority of his work local, a decision that’s more about practicality than patriotism. “Everything is done by hand,” he says, proudly plucking a “soft” porcelain flower, which will become a blooming necklace, from the hands of one of the dozens of craftsmen lining long tables. “All of it goes through seven people, so each piece has about seven places it can go wrong.”
Quality control is one of the reasons Bittar, who is self-taught, likes to keep the handiwork, particularly his anchor collection of carved and painted Lucite, close to home. Another is keeping his trade a secret. “No one knows how to do it,” he says of his whimsical way with translucent plastic. “No one carves Lucite; no one thought there was any value in it. Which was great because I didn’t get knocked off for a good eight or nine years.”
Still, no matter how many copycats have come along, and no matter how fabulous their fakes, it’s hard to imagine finding Bittar’s level of detail—the artfully etched petals, or Lucite beads carved to look like giant pearls—on, say, a streetside table, which, ironically, is exactly how he got into the business.
Before presiding over his multimillion-dollar company, Bittar was a fixture on the sidewalks of the East Village every weekend for more than a decade. In 1982, at age 13, he set up shop—which at that point consisted of a blanket—on St. Mark’s Place, then the center of the punk scene, selling vintage jewelry, clothes and soon his own accessories. “I was obsessed with New Wave, and I wanted to be in the middle of that,” he says, adding that he would arrive for his Saturday-Sunday gig done up in what he calls “full-on looks.” Of course, it’s one thing to dress up and hang out on the street all weekend and another to make a living from it, especially at an age when some kids still have babysitters. Bittar credits his parents—both computer science professors (his father at Kingsborough Community College and his mother at Brooklyn Technical College), whom he describes as “not pot-smoking hippies, but very much pioneer intellectuals”—for his early industriousness. At one point, they set up an eight-year-old Bittar with a street cart and $200 worth of flowers across the street from their Bay Ridge apartment to give him a lesson in work ethic. “When they see that in the press, my parents are like, ‘Oh, my God, we sound horrible,’” says Bittar. “But I loved it, and I continued it.”