It's impossible to escape the zing of a beaded Susan Alexandra bag. The whimsical accessory, which you've most likely seen sprinkled all over Instagram this summer, hails from Chinatown — though it looks like it was birthed from a child's arts and crafts fantasy, or a particularly ambitious project at summer camp. The kitschy delights are conceived by a grown woman named Susan Alexandra, who in addition to creating cheery carryalls, makes easy-going jewelry that can help turn any bad day into a really good one.
Alexandra hails from the Midwest and moved to New York to pursue a career in styling. After realizing that it wasn't the right field for her, she began working with jewelry designer Jill Platner. "I worked for her for about six years and I really learned what it takes to be a business owner with a creative [company] in New York City," she explains over the phone. "I started my line while I was still working with her and I didn't leave until two years ago."
Though she had been making jewelry her entire life, Alexandra started formally making her own playful jewels by hand about four years ago as a creative outlet. "I was not very good at jewelry," she admits, noting that it was her inability to master the art of precision that helped her develop a unique jewelry style. "To cover up things that weren't perfect, I began enameling the jewelry, and the signature, colorful style was born."
The resulting gems are treats for the ear lobes, fingers, wrists and neck; at the moment, she's serving up watermelon wedge earrings, a rainbow-colored bracelet that boasts a hand-painted portrait of Larry David and a necklace complete with shrimp and French fry charms. Each product delivers its own quirky personality, and Alexandra translated her vision into a line of bags last year.
"It was divine intervention," Alexandra says of her decision to venture into purses. "I really hadn't set out to ever be a bag designer; it came from a place of absolutely adoring whimsical, fun accessories." They happened after she met a woman who could do this specific type of crocheting with beading. Alexandra, though not formally trained, organically sketched different designs in watercolor that she would then send to the woman via text to turn into delightful totes. "She would make my total dreams come true just from our communications."
The hand-crafted bags are made with over 300 beads and have a sturdy, rectangular construction with duel top handles. They come in an assortment of brightly-hued retro, summery and fruity patterns and, like their designer, are over-the-top sweet.
Alexandra still makes the jewelry, but the woman she initially brought on to make the bags has enlisted a whole team of family and friends to help, because each one is a nine-hour endeavor. At the moment, the brand is selling about 500 bags a week.
"I had a really steady jewelry business, but the bags have taken off in a way that I could have never imagined," Alexandra says, referring to the way every Instagram "It" girl has lit up our summer feeds with the mini totes. "The viral nature of the bags has completely transformed my business," she explains. "It's like a pinch yourself moment. I'm talking to stores that I've always dreamed of and admired. It's surreal. It's this validation on a level that I couldn't even imagine."
The first store to place an order for the bags was Opening Ceremony, after a buyer discovered her dreamy wares on Instagram. Now they're stocked at retailers like Shopbop, Moda Operandi and Garmentory. She already has a few collaborations under her belt, including one with the Los Angeles-based boutique Shop Super Street, and has a major one in the works. (Alexandra is partnering with a not-yet-disclosed big brand on collection that will consist of clothing, shoes, socks and scrunchies.) She couldn't give away too many of the details, but she did say that the clothes will be an extension of the colorful vintage style that she loves.
In the meantime, Alexandra is focusing on making more accessories that bring a much-needed pop of optimism to our daily lives, as well as on using her business to create a community of women in fashion who are supportive and giving.
"People aren't always kind with resources, time and knowledge," she says. "When I first moved to New York, I was so alone and so scared and lost, and I really hope that with my business — and with any platform I have on the internet — I can share awareness that I'm completely self-created and there is space for everybody."