designer Alexis Bittar with Iris Apfel, who is a
star of his 2015 ad campaign.
age 8, jewelry designer Alexis Bittar sold on the
streets of New York. First, flowers, then antique
trinkets, vintage clothing and, finally, his own
first lady Michelle Obama wears his work, and his
signature hand-sculpted Lucite pieces as well as his
Elements line are sold in 52 countries around the world,
15 of his own stores in the U.S., and every major
specialty store. More are on the way, including two
outlet stores (pieces will be produced specifically for
visited a downtown Nordstrom recently to meet with his
fans, who are as varied as the muses in his spring
advertising campaign: 93-year-old Iris Apfel and
19-year-old Tavi Gevinson. Hereís an edited transcript
of our phone chat.
How did you decide to feature Iris Apfel and Tavi
Gevinson in your spring campaign?
I like celebrating women who are independent thinkers
and nonconformists. Iíve used a variety of women
throughout my advertising and have definitely worked
hard in terms of fighting ageism. I used Joan Collins
and then Lauren Hutton, and then Jennifer Saunders and
Joanna Lumley (British stars of "Absolutely
Fabulous"). And I was really on a mission to show
women who were mature, partly because thatís whoís
actually buying the product, but also to celebrate women
who are mature rather than an 18-year-old girl, and then
you retouch the 18-year-old girlís photos. Last year I
used Ines Rau, a model whoís transgender, and I didnít
make a big hoopla, but I was proud to use her.
year, I liked the idea of showing the span of strength.
Tavi, whoís 19 and incredibly bright and a visionary,
who saw the potential of blogging when she was 11 years
old, and then Iris, a dear friend of mine whoís
secretly been (mad) that Iíve never used her and is
93. (Iris will be the godmother of one of Bittarís
twins, due any day now). People of all ages really
respond to her. I think the reason is, younger and older
women look at her as someone who says ... Iím not
going to fit into your mold. Sheís incredibly
outspoken, itís not just that she dresses up. Both of
them, whatís in their brain, you want to hear more.
What did you do for "The Hunger Games" movies?
For some reason the sci-fi movies love me. I just did
"Star Trek," too. I think the sci-fi movies
love the Lucite, they see it as futuristic, and it just
reflects light so well on screen. For "Hunger
Games," we designed a bunch of jewelry for
Elizabeth Banksí character; the clothing was kind of
depression-industrial, but the jewelry was completely
over the top. She was wearing this gray-tone attire, and
then the jewelry was supercolorful, massive bracelets,
pins, she wore a ton of jewelry of mine. We designed a
collar, a shirt collar out of metal and then a Lucite
tie for Peeta. Itís hand-sculpted and has this kind of
Deco ice-cracking motif on the tie. The collar looks
like clothing, we shaped the metal to look like a shirt
collar, and thereís a powder coating on it, where it
looks like leather. I was pretty proud of that one.
I designed two lines, Elements and Lucite, from the
beginning. Elements is completely different, much softer
and feminine and more stone and more naturally grounded.
Lucite is futuristic, and I liked the material; I used
what was done with Bakelite in the í30s, where they
hand sculpted it. Because Lucite is clear, I like the
idea of treating the material as an art medium that can
be sculpted to anything you want. We donít use molds.
People are always dumbfounded by that. The smallest
earring or bracelet, everything is cut from a sheet and
Can you give me some sense of how your brand and
business have grown?
I was working out of my apartment and selling on the
street for 15 years, starting in 1982 when I was 13
selling vintage jewelry and then vintage clothes on St.
Markís in the East Village. There were no vintage
stores then. Then on Prince and Green for six years,
when I first started designing Lucite and Elements. Now,
we have like 400 employees. I was 22, a total dropout,
and now Iím a proud dropout. My parents finally
forgave me. I completed high school, barely. I went to
one college class.
Do you have a favorite piece from your spring
Thereís a bracelet thatís really kind of liquid
feeling, a large cuff. And, I also love the large pin
with moving petals, it has a hand-painted, almost
textile feel to it, with our jasper doublet, which is a
stone that has a custom cut with a crystal over it. The
pin is mostly Lucite, hand-painted, itís the one in
Who do you have in mind when you design?
I definitely like the idea of a uniform for the unique
and trying to embrace peopleís individuality. I never
was a tennis club kind of guy. I have always been on the
outside and perceived somehow on the outside growing up,
and that resonates in how I design. Iím more drawn to
people who are comfortable being on the outside and donít
want to blend in, who want to have fun and not take
themselves so seriously. Also thereís a little bit of
an artist in the people who buy the jewelry even if they
How does your Brooklyn base influence or inspire you?
Iíve grown up here, in Bay Ridge, which is incredibly
blue collar ó a cops and firemen neighborhood and
definitely not pretentious. I went to Bronx High School
of Science and had a super long commute; all my friends
were living in Manhattan, and I was exposed early on to
many ethnicities, many cultures and a lot of art. My
parents are professors and really educated us in an
inadvertent way by immersing us in the arts. So that was
stimulates me the most is mixed ethnicities; my dad is
Syrian and my mom is Irish, so Iím also a product of
it. You get a Belfast and a Damascus and you get a
picture. A fiery combo. But theyíre still together.
as trendy as itís gotten, which Iím not sure how I
feel about, thereís still a good friction of cultures
and I think that that is one great thing about an urban
area. Itís one of the things I get most excited about.
People think I go to fashion shows and thatís whatís
going to get me psyched, and itís actually not.
How did you get started in jewelry design?
My parents are definitely left field thinkers. They both
have doctorates in American history and then they both
switched; they got masterís degrees in computer
science in the late í70s.
I was 13 I had already shown an interest in jewelry. Iíd
go to an antique store in Maine where we spent time in
summer ó not the chic part of Maine, not
Kennebunkport, an hour and a half from there, near
Augusta. The woman there, Mrs. Ivers, with cotton candy
white hair, would show me the antiques. With jewelry I
was kind of amazed how small it was and how it lasted
and, anyway, when I was 13 my parents gave me some
vintage jewelry, they spent $150 or $300 on it, for me
to sell on the street. I already had been selling on the
street since I was 8. And that was my birthday gift,
which is so crazy. And I was really happy about it. And
so I was a super entrepreneurial kid.
What was first thing you sold on the street?
My parents had made this beautiful flower cart, they
painted it with these Chinese cherry blossoms on a
yellow cart. They went to the flower district and spent
maybe $60, and my brother and I, maybe it was for some
learning experience about making money, sold the
flowers. I totally took to it. My brother hated it. He
did it one day and never again. For me, it never