Alexis Bittar’s unique combination of high-art craftsmanship and current street-cred style has carried the master-of-modern jewelry designer to great heights. No stranger to the depths, however, Bittar’s life-story reads like a twist on the classic American Dream.
“I’ve been selling on the street since I was eight,” says the original curbside vendor, who got his start peddling posies out of a hand-painted cart in Bay Ridge before graduating to antique jewelry on St. Marks. Then but a peppering of pushcarts and junkies, lower Manhattan was “much more exciting!” the designer claims. “Now everything’s so formulated. All Brooklyn kids, if they were smart, wanted to be in Manhattan.”
But by the age of twenty-two, dealings had taken a distinctively dark turn—to drugs and stolen merchandise. “I had become quite thuggish,” Bittar recalls of the days before he cleaned up his act in order to launch his own line. Relocating to SoHo, however, the budding designer could never have intuited from his desolate surroundings the posh neighborhood to be, or even his own, future, resident flagship-boutique.
“I was a total dropout,” Bittar confesses, “self-taught while detoxing, carving this Lucite! I fused the idea of hand-carved Bakelite with gilding. No one was treating plastic like it was a precious material. It had gotten all mass produced and molded, so I thought, I can sculpt this.”
“I knew I could sell to stores,” continues Bittar, “I was in Bendel’s and others—but I was so used to the street. Growing up, my parents were super socialists. I faced conflict being competitive.”
The turn-around came, according to the designer, “when this lady from the Guggenheim told me: You're so talented, you could take this really far if you'd just take yourself seriously as an artist.”
With a new storefront opening in the West Village and collections at Bergdorf, Saks Fifth Avenue and The Museum of Modern Art, as well as six hundred stores worldwide in countries as far reaching as Japan and Lebanon, Bittar has emerged with his artistic integrity firmly intact.
The designer is seated amid a dazzling array of samples in his sprawling, multi-level, Wonka-esque factory. Equally effusive, however, are his inspirations - which flow from every corner. Most notable of these are the abstract paintings and hand-painted caftans created by his grandfather and evocative of some of his own designs. Bittar, who springs from a lineage of dilettante artists, confirms, “It’s still a pretty artistic environment here.”
The designer, who does not distinguish in craftsmanship between fine art and great jewelry, draws inspiration from all of art’s media. “I wish I could be [sculptor] Isamu Noguchi—so genius! I’m also inspired by theater, painting, architecture, and antique jewelry. I like that The Victoria and Albert Museum calls us to do something for their exhibit, that years from now this bracelet could be considered art.”
But don’t refer to his pieces as wearable art. “It sounds like a K-Mart tag!” laughs Bittar, explaining, “There's no mold. Each piece is hand sculpted and painted, not mass-produced, though we produce a lot.” Three lines to be exact: Lucite, Elements, and Miss Havisham.
“Armani and Tiffany approached me as well,” he explains, “but I’d rather keep my focus. It’s such a conservative time in the US; horrible government, everything politically correct. This is the time to get as avant-garde as you want! And I’m still such a kid—I get super-excited when my work is featured in Italian Vogue, Self Service, the fashion issue of the Times, or i-D Magazine.”
“When I first started, I didn’t think I could get this,” admits Bittar. “I was never given anything, no funding, nothing—I built this business from scratch and got there on my own merit. If I close the door now,” he concludes, “I’ve accomplished the goal. But I’m not done yet! I'm coming out with a line of fine jewelry—that's the next big venture.”
From flatware to interiors, the possibilities to extend the empire appear limitless, but in truth Bittar can take or leave these. “And as an artist” he triumphantly smiles, “that's truly an amazing thing.”
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