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Lithium In conversation with Susan Korn, Instagram’s whimsical fashion queen

Aug. 18, 2020
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Gone are the days of brown leather handbags and shopping in the Macy’s bag department. Enter: Susan Alexandra. From snakes to rainbows, pretzels to flowers, blushing faces to neon patterns, the irreverent brand’s beaded bags feature quirky designs and a charming, outlandish quality that make them an iconic upscale Instagram fashion trend.

Susan Alexandra has gained such a loyal following that it’s impossible to separate her name from the beaded bag trend. As I scroll through knockoffs on fast fashion retail websites, I can’t help but think about that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep curtly explains that Anne Hathaway’s lumpy cerulean sweater from a clearance bin at Casual Corner is the direct result of Oscar de la Renta debuting cerulean gowns on haute couture runways. If Princess Polly and Topshop are Casual Corners, Susan Alexandra is Oscar de la Renta.

The beaded bags embody an endearingly materialistic aesthetic, like Depop and Man Repeller. They are created to be seen, crafted with an audience in mind; they are essentially the Instagram version of high-tech smart fashion, more a virtual status signal than a material item. Think digital clothing lines, but less The Matrix and more Moonrise Kingdom, if Moonrise Kingdom was set in the streets of Soho.

I sometimes find myself wondering if these bags even exist in real life. Does anyone actually go to the grocery store with a neon mini purse adorned with beaded cherries, or is it just a fashion flex for the Instagram feeds of Lower Manhattan influencers? According to Korn, it can be both. For Lithium’s CYBER issue, the irreverent designer discusses influencers, quarantine, and the complexities of fast fashion.

Lithium Magazine: I think a large part of why Susan Alexandra bags are so successful is due to the “Instagrammable” quality that made these statement bags spread so fast online. How do you think social media has influenced you as a designer?

Susan Korn: My entire brand is built upon the foundation of Instagram. I was able to gain exposure and an audience by communicating honestly and openly about my work. I started Susan Alexandra at the advent of Instagram, before any of us realized that it was such a powerful and lucrative tool. I am eternally grateful for this! I discover so much about style via the power of the “influencer.” There is so much stuff in the ether and influencers are like our own personal curators. It’s like an updated version of a sales clerk who picks out pieces just for you.

Lithium: With a brand named after yourself, your identity is pretty integrated into Susan Alexandra as a business. How do you think the relationship between personal branding, social media, and the fashion industry has impacted Susan Alexandra as a brand? 

Susan: Unintentionally, SA is a very personal brand. I’m not sure if most people know there is an actual human being behind the brand and it wasn’t my intent to make the brand about me. Personal connection is so crucial right now and it’s what sets us apart. 

Lithium: Do you enjoy making yourself a public figure?

Susan: I surprisingly do! I am an introvert at heart but I can play the role of extrovert if needed. It just depletes me to my core, so I have to be careful about burnout. Note: I’m not at all careful about burnout. [And] something that irks me to no end is derivation and lack of originality. If you say something, say it in your voice, in your way. Be pure and honest. 

Lithium: Because so many young people today are rejecting fast fashion, “ethical” brands marketing to millennials are often very minimalist and equate a muted, plain aesthetic with morality. But your bags and accessories combine a maximalist aesthetic with a very minimalist production process, where a lot of care goes into each individual piece, so you’re totally rejecting the idea that sparkle and exuberance don’t belong in the slow fashion world. Do you think about that when designing pieces? 

Susan: When I design pieces, I design the most over-the-top, delicious creation. I am limited a bit in terms of construction but I try to push the technique to new places. Very simply, it would be really incredible if slow fashion was beautiful, thoughtful, vibrant, and accessible. 

Lithium: Do you ever feel restricted by its popularity and other people’s expectations for your products? 

Susan: When I started making bags and jewelry, production was never a consideration. I could design the most detailed and time-consuming piece without a second thought. Now I have to consider cost, accessibility, and time. Price is hard because I would love it if the pieces were at a lower price point. 

Lithium: Your NYFW shows have been technicolor spectacles of giddy, glittering vibrancy, as the bat mitzvah and musical themes are so reminiscent of childhood. How do you even begin to create that kind of concept and space? 

Susan: I really just go for what feels innovative, inclusive, and joyful. I’m already plotting what Fashion Week will look like for September. The future will be digitized!

Lithium: I keep seeing the hashtag #goingnowherebutfuckitimgettingdressed all over my feed during quarantine. How do you think this time of isolation and social distancing has affected your relationship with fashion? 

Susan: Distance makes the heart grow fonder. When you spend weeks in lounging costumes without jewelry or sparkle, these pieces mean much more to you. 

Lithium: For being so popular, you’re still a pretty small business. You employ a few dozen immigrant women in a Chinatown studio and the slow fashion emphasis of your brand is apparent in your labor process. How do you think your understanding of ethical labor practices, branding, and generally just staying authentic has developed since starting Susan Alexandra?

Susan: I hire the best artisans for the jobs that I have access to in New York. This happens to be immigrant women in New York. I hire them not for marketing purposes, and in fact, barely even mention them because I don’t want them to appear to be used as props. They are incredible, talented artisans who set the prices for their work and create their own work schedules. 

Lithium: You’ve talked before about being a converted fast fashion addict and the frustration of having ripoffs of your bags on Amazon for dirt-cheap prices that obviously undermine the entire point of high-quality slow fashion. I’m curious what your thoughts are about how expensive slow fashion can be, and how high-quality pieces are often inaccessible to the general public. 

Susan: It’s hard for me to stomach this but slow fashion costs more. You’re paying for the labor, design, materials, marketing and so much more. I wish there was a way to make the pieces we love for less but I do not have a solution. 

Lithium: I was a bit surprised when I saw your partnership with Urban Outfitters, a corporation that has come under fire before for environmentally harmful practices and unfair labor. Can you elaborate a bit on that? It seems like a total shift for you from small designer to large brand. 

Susan: You are right to call that out. I am a small business and was granted a huge opportunity financially and artistically with immense exposure. It was a dream-come-true moment and without that collaboration, I wouldn’t have been able to support my business. I hope that my business can have enough of an impact that I’m able to effect change in this industry and eradicate harmful fashion practices. 

Lithium: You’ve been selling mini models of food from different NYC restaurants to help with coronavirus relief. How’d you come up with that idea, being a handbag and jewelry brand? What does it mean to you? 

Susan: I never planned on making jewelry and handbags professionally. I was very fortunate to fall into this job! I’ve always made things with my hands and for the first time in years, I had extra time on my hands. I also happen to love minis and felt it was a way I could give. 

Lithium: Why do you think people are so attracted to tangible things right now?

Susan: Escapism!

Cover Image and Second Photo by Clémence Polès