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.
A snapshot of Bittar’s sample room.
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.”
As for his foray into design, Bittar was drawn to jewelry for more than one reason. Aside from finding it “super-enchanting,” he considered it an appealing alternative to college (he did a short stint at the University at Albany–SUNY). And jewelry provided a cover of sorts. “I didn’t come out to my parents until much later. For some reason I thought they were going to know I was gay if I were a fashion designer,” he says with a laugh. “Also with jewelry, it’s much easier to be a self-starter; I thought I could make my own jewelry, and I could.”
And he did, beginning from his East Village apartment. Bittar started with a box of Depression-era glass and antique chandelier parts that he repurposed as necklaces and then sold alongside vintage carved Bakelite pieces. A fusion of the two materials produced his big hit: Lucite, which he whittled and painted in a way that made it appear almost luminescent. “I had seen someone carve a sheet of Lucite and I thought, Wow, you can carve it,” he says. “At first it was a bit of a hard sell. People liked it, but they didn’t really know what to make of it.” Once it caught on, Bittar says, he banked about $1,000 a day selling it on the street. “Back then you could really find something amazing and creative,” he recalls. “[Now] I feel like there’s been a wave of mass crap that just landed on the street. People aren’t really looking for artisan. But back then I would be mobbed, and I would sell out of what I made.”
When Henri Bendel and the Guggenheim Museum shop came calling in 1992, Bittar got the confidence boost he needed to move forward. “I didn’t know anyone in the business, and it wasn’t like my parents had a trust fund,” he says. “I had to learn the whole thing myself, and I decided to do a trade show.” From there Barneys New York picked up the jewelry, which piqued the interest of other stores. Eventually it came down to an ultimatum of exclusivity: Barneys or everyone else. Bittar’s collection now sells at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and roughly 800 other stores, including two of his own—in New York’s SoHo and West Village neighborhoods—which opened in 2004 and 2008, respectively.
“We consider him a major growth vendor,” says Terron Schaefer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president, creative and marketing, who wouldn’t mind seeing the designer expand in a different direction, if only for personal reasons: “I hope at some point he’ll do men’s cuff links. The color and the texture of what he does are so special. It would be fun to have cuff links that are not about serious stones.” Until then, Bittar has his hands full with his women’s collections. (He offers four groupings a year.) In addition to his Lucite collection, he designs two metal-based ones: Elements, with an organic feel, and the more graphic and sculptural Miss Havisham, which was introduced four years ago. He has collaborated on runway collections with Burberry and creates custom pieces for some of fashion’s top stylists, including Patti Wilson and Marie-Amélie Sauvé—something that, judging by the number of times he drops their names, obviously excites him.
Bittar is well aware that fashion jewelry is in the midst of a major moment, thanks in no small part to the runway collections of the Lanvins and Louis Vuittons of the world. “I’m thrilled they all started doing it, (a) because it brings an awareness to jewelry and (b) because the ready-to-wear jewelry designers are doing some of the most creative jewelry out there. For me it’s been great because it ups the bar.” Still, Bittar, whose prices range from $75 for a skinny Lucite bangle to $2,500 for a porcelain collar, is happy to stay accessible, particularly in this economy. “Something that’s ornate and colorful and light does not need to cost $30,000,” he says, adding that he doesn’t plan on toning down the fantasy in response to the tough times. “I just went through French Vogue and Italian Vogue from the Seventies when the first recession was, and they were not giving depressing. It wasn’t part of the package.”