By Tess Eyrich | April 30, 2015 | Style & Beauty
Jewelry designer Alexis Bittar talks to us about his new CityCenterDC boutique, the artistic influences he just can’t get enough of, and the challenges of building a global brand.
Jewelry design has been experiencing an artistic renaissance for years, and you can thank Alexis Bittar for its genesis. A lifelong New Yorker, Bittar grew up selling antique jewelry, and later his own pieces, in the streets of Manhattan before breaking into Bergdorf Goodman; the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, his larger-than-life designs attract a global following—not to mention the patronage of celebrities ranging from Madonna and Beyonce to Cameron Diaz and Michelle Obama. Now based in Brooklyn, Bittar is currently approaching the tail end of an expansion that includes two firsts for the designer: new standalone boutiques in Washington DC (CityCenterDC) and Las Vegas (The Forum Shops at Caesars). We caught up with Bittar for a glimpse at the fledgling D.C. store’s progress—it opened just weeks ago—and the changing face of American jewelry design.
We’re so excited to have you in DC Now that the store has been open for a couple of weeks, what can you tell us about it?
ALEXIS BITTAR: Well, it’s nearly tripled the [sales] expectation that we thought it was going to do, so that’s been really exciting. I think DC gets painted as a more conservative city, but they’re really dying for creative fashion. The women of DC get kind of misunderstood—they’re sort of typecast as where they were in mid-’80s, but they want to dress up. I had a dinner in DC, it was with something like 25 prominent women who mostly are in politics, and they’re really not wanting to be subdued with jewelry. They want to have fun.
You first started selling your own jewelry professionally in the early ’90s. In what major ways have you seen the industry change since then?
AB: It’s changed dramatically. I think the world of art jewelry, which is where I am, wasn’t really a big market, and I kind of saw that it should be and pushed to pioneer that. I think now there are a lot of artisanal jewelers out there who really love the craft, and that was something that returned—it wasn’t really in the forefront, at least in terms of people’s consciousness—and I feel like people now are way more experimental with jewelry and way more explorative in terms of finding their unique perspective. Part of that has an artistic bent to it.
In terms of things like mixed materials, if you’re talking about the ’90s, that just wasn’t happening. I would say jewelry has a huge range—there’s fine jewelry and there’s costume jewelry—but I think in terms of what I see driving the most excitement today, it’s really the most unique and artistic jewelry.
What do you think caused that shift?
AB: Jewelry, now more so than ever, holds a place in museums—it’s in the Met, it’s in the MoMA—and it’s not like an archaic Byzantine necklace. I think fashion really wants to be perceived as an art form, and I think jewelry is part of that. If you think about the craftsmanship, it is [an art form]. I also collect antique jewelry, and there’s a history to jewelry in terms of the way it gets passed from generation to generation—I think with jewelry even more so than clothing, there’s a storytelling ability. I’m not saying that all jewelry has that, but what we’re seeing people be really emotionally drawn to is that.
Do you think it’s easier or harder to break through as an emerging designer now compared to how was it was in the early ’90s?
AB: You know, I was having dinner with my boyfriend, and we were in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, and I was sitting next to two jewelers. I could tell they were jewelry designers—I don’t know how I knew it, but I just knew they were jewelry designers. I was talking to both of them about it, and on the one hand, there are so many jewelry designers nowadays. I’m blown away because it’s like a world of jewelry design, and it’s not just about stringing beads. So, I think there are way more than ever, but I also think at the same time, it’s incredibly hard to build a brand. I think you can be a small designer and have your own little niche, but if you still want to build a global brand, it’s tough. Also, as great as the Internet is as far as getting yourself out there, I think it can be tricky for young designers in terms of getting knocked off—with a brand like Zara, that’s just what they do.
You mentioned that you still collect antique jewelry. Are there any eras you’re particularly fond of?
AB: I always love Georgian jewelry. I think there’s something very classic about it, but it has a bit of an edge to it. There’s a little bit of punk in Georgian jewelry. I love the settings because there’s a sharpness to how they would set stones—beautifully cut stones with beautiful backings. I’m always kind of obsessed with it.
We’re huge fans of your Spring 2015 campaign with Iris Apfel. How did your relationship with her come about?
AB: There’s a documentary on her, Iris, coming out this week, actually. It’s by Albert Maysles, who did Grey Gardens, and it’s a great documentary. You should see it if you’re a fan of hers. But Iris wanted to wear [my jewelry] almost 10 years ago to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when they were doing an exhibit of what she’s worn. She had a kind of one-woman show there in 2005, and she wanted to wear me to the opening, but she had just come to a trade show and wanted to wear the samples. I said to her, “Iris, I love you, but you can’t do that.”
Then she brought the PR team in from the Met to verify that this was actually happening, which made me dig my heels in even more. And then the show came out, and at the time it was the Met’s biggest show ever—the next one was "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" [in 2011]—and I ran into her and said, “Iris, the show was incredible,” and she hit me in the head and said, “You bozo!” We bonded intensely from that moment, and she’s been kind of like a surrogate mother. She’s actually going to be the godmother to my daughter.
Do you look to any other older women for inspiration?
AB: I used Joan Collins for another ad that was incredible, in 2009. I was very much focused on ageism—I’ve been focused on that for a while. I like the idea of having a political message with advertising, so I was focusing on ageism, and Joan Collins is an amazing fashion icon that really represented the ’80s. But another woman I’m kind of obsessed with is Charlotte Rampling.
In terms of design, what can we look forward to in the future from Alexis Bittar?
AB: I’ve been finishing Spring 2016, actually—I’m a year ahead—and really focusing on using new materials. I’m really excited about new materials that will kind of define the future, so I’m just continuing this creative blend of new materials, art, and fashion.
Alexis Bittar Washington D.C. is located inside CityCenterDC (984 Palmer Alley NW; 202-842-2804)
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA ALEXIS BITTAR
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