It’s unlikely that Lady Gaga and First Lady Michelle Obama raid each other’s closets, but given the fondness of both for Alexis Bittar, their jewellery boxes may be another matter. The American jewellery designer talks to MacKenzie Lewis about balancing fame with meat pies.
Describe the Alexis Bittar style in a handful of words.
Bold, unique, artistic, innovative and affordable.
Among other accomplishments, you’ve designed an exhibition for the Victoria & Albert Museum and won a CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) Award. What’s the highlight of your career so far?
It’s two things. The first is how I built my career; the trajectory itself is the highlight.
And the second?
That I’ve stayed the same person. As hectic as things get or however many accolades I have, my biggest fear has been how life would change. I grew up and live in Brooklyn, and dreaded losing the simplicity of it. I spent a lot of time crying to my therapist that everything would just keep spinning forward, that I’d stop going on Saturdays to a bakery called Damascus to eat ma’amoul and meat pie. We just merged with a private equity company in a deal that dragged on for two months, but the day after it closed I got my ma’amoul and meat pie. I realized nothing would change. That meant everything to me.
Your father is Syrian-American. Do you feel connected to your Syrian heritage?
Totally. My dad might as well have been from Syria, even though he was born in the US. He’s very old world. It wasn’t cool to be Arab in America when I was growing up in the ’70s – is it really ‘cool’ now? But I’d go to the Byzantine church and take baba ghannouj to school, and I felt very separate from American culture. That shaped my perspective on being Arab American, which is very much a part of who I am.
Have you been to Syria?
I went and it was interesting. I recognised my dad’s behaviour in strangers: a dad yelling at his son to sit down, very high drama, very intense. But then my mom’s Irish side is no joke either…
Your parents were antique collectors. Did their passion inspire you?
Definitely. They were underpaid professors, so to supplement their income they collected antiques. It’s massively inspiring as a child to understand how designs transcend history. And the fantasy! Imagining who wore an antique – I still do that.
You’ve always bucked the trends, but why choose unexpected spokesmodels like Joan Collins or the ladies of Absolutely Fabulous?
It started with Joan Collins; with her I saw what celebrity means for branding. But even more it was a political statement that age is beautiful. I’m always amazed at how women are apologetic about their age. The disconnect between ads featuring 18 year-olds and the women who are shopping, that image we’re perpetuating. I found it annoying, so what must 30 and 40-year-old women be thinking?
What has the reaction been?
Amazing! Sometimes I think ‘I can’t believe we just did that’, it’s still so renegade-ish. I’m not sure what young girls are thinking, though. Like, ‘Who is Joan Collins?’ I have to be careful not to become Eileen Fisher [a fashion brand associated with women over 50].
Who is your dream client, dead or alive?
The first thing that comes to mind is Marlene Dietrich. She’s still amazing.
If you could come back in someone else’s body, who would it be?
Oh my god, that would be so dangerous! I’d probably come back as… What’s his name? Gisele’s husband?
[American football player] Tom Brady?
Yes, I would definitely come back as Tom Brady.
If you could ban one trend, what is it?
Uggs. They just keep growing, like chickens hatching everywhere! It’s like the longest trend in history. They’re comfy and I get that… but no, it’s just wrong.
Alexis Bittar at Dalya (04 416000) ABC Mall, Dbayeh