CFDA award winning jewelry designer, Alexis Bittar, made his way to Neiman Marcus in Scottsdale to debut his newest collection. Fine is an extension of the Alexis Bittar brand that also includes the three collections: Lucite, Elements, and Miss Havisham.
We were lucky enough to catch up with this insanely talented (and very charming!) designer to find out more about his new line and what life has been like for him after his major award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
What was the inspiration behind the Fine jewelry collection and why is it so different from what you were doing before?
So first off, the costume jewelry I have been designing for 23 years and am still continuing it. So it’s basically like I just had my fourth baby, very fertile. The costume has 3 lines: Lucite, Elements, and Miss Havisham. And the Fine was like a natural extension.
I live and breathe jewelry, I‘m thinking about it all the time. It’s like I can’t stop unfortunately, a bad neurosis. And I’m sure there’s a medication I could be on for it
(I interject – but you wouldn’t be nearly as successful)
I might be saner haha
What I loved about Fine was that the line itself, unlike fashion, doesn’t change so quickly. Every season there are definitely collections that get layered in, but it’s not like each season you go from everything’s butterflies and then the next season everything’s minimal. It has to have a point of view and you have to stick with it, which is hard for me.
So what I did? I’ve always loved fusing eras and kind of juxtaposed cultural references. And I loved this kind of 50’s very ladylike aesthetic, feminine, very Tippy Hedren, Alfred Hitchcock, where she’s a little sick, little twisted and she’s poisoning her husband, she would be on Prozac if it had existed, but still refined so there’s a bit of edge with her. And I fused that lady and had her have a dialogue with a very minimal 1990’s grunge girl.
And so I took those two juxtaposed aesthetics and fused them together, and really had the dialogue on what that would like. I feel like minimalism and fashion in Fine (or bridge, because a lot of it is sterling and some of it’s 18 carat, and they call sterling bridge) is an important aesthetic to have in jewelry. The idea of an urban woman. When I look at who our customer is, it’s the urban girl. You know? She’s not a farmer. She’s in the city and she’s reading French Vogue, and she knows who Carine Roitfeld is, and she understands fashion.
I feel like having that perspective needs to be engaged in that world and I also think that the story of personalization and layering is such an important part of the vocabulary in Fine or bridge jewelry, so I tried to bring all that together in one story.
What does the modern woman wear with some of your Fine pieces?
Bittar got excited and asked Dominique, the PR person, to show me the slideshow of the lookbook.
To me, it’s funny. Some people look at it and think it’s more event, because some of it’s super feminine. But, to me, it’s more everyday grunge.
It’s like a sweatshirt with some tennis bracelets, and these kind of 80’s drop earrings. But, it’s not like a bad prom picture.
It doesn’t need to be like “What gown do I wear?”
If you think of urban, I think that’s where fine jewelry should go. How do you wear it causally? And you can still wear Fine jewelry with a ball gown! But, you don’t need to be told how to wear it with a formal gown.
I think what most people don’t know, is how do you wear something in an everyday way without it feeling so precious?
How hands on are you when you are doing these styling shoots?
I wish I could be there for every single one! For me, it’s fun and stressful at the same time, because there’s so much money in 8 hours. So you want to make sure that your content is worth it. And also, you want to make sure that you’re driving home the message that you’re giving to your customers.
Marie Chaix is great. She’s the one who does Proenza. We’ve worked together for like 6 years, and we work well. She knows what I’m looking for. But, I’m still hands on.
So let’s talk a little bit about your award from the CFDA. What was it like to win such a prestigious award and how did it help to propel your career in a new direction?
It was incredible. Actually it was really weird, because first off I brought my dad, and Iris Apfel was my date, and I was up against Proenza and Marc Jacobs. It was weird because everyone before the award was presented was like “This is your night” and I actually felt like there was a good chance I could win it, you know, you never know until they announce it.But Marc Jacobs, specifically, is such a darling, that he is a tough one to be up against. When I won, it was surreal actually. It was really surreal.
In terms of propelling my career…. Well, a few things. One, I think it made me look at my business outside in, because I didn’t even realize how far I had come. There was this perspective I had like “Wow, I didn’t even realize how far along I was in the industry.” And, from other people’s perspective, particularly the ones who had been collecting the line for years, it affirmed them to. They were admirers and it’s very much like a grassroots business in the way it’s been built. I think all those people who were fans of it, were not excited only for me, but for them. They’re I knew it when I bought the piece 15 years ago!
So what is your next move? Where do you want to take your business next?
Well, we definitely have a lot of room to grow with Fine and really perfecting it, and understanding that every customer is different, especially with Fine. It’s really a different customer base. Jeffrey’s is different from Neimans which is different than Saks, and Neimans in Scottsdale is different from Neimans in LA. It’s actually more nuanced, and I knew it, but now that I’m in it, I see it even more. So, it’s understanding that and really trying to perfect that and build a foundation on that.
Possibly men’s jewelry, which would be an obvious extension, and then there’s a lot of discussion about hand bags, and obviously retail growth. I have 12 stores now, and am opening about 15 more.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I run the business right now, so I’m the CEO and creative director. I’m kind of schizophrenic and really split, which works well for me. I can jump from a business conversation to design.
And, the way I have the design team structured, which seems to work the best for the company, is Miss Havisham is in their silo, Lucite’s in their silo, Elements in their silo, and Fine is in a silo. I’m kind of bouncing around, and because the aesthetics are so different, it keeps me on my toes. When you see it in our store, we blend it to merchandise it. It’s really trying to drive inspiration with the team so they understand the direction I want to go in, and foster them to drive their inspiration so that it blends. So, I basically split my time between jumping from these different silos and then go to business.
The question I always love to ask people who have had a successful career in fashion is what advice would you give to a person looking to start their career?
I started from nothing, in the sense that I didn’t have any money… I started selling on the street. My parents are professors, so they didn’t know anything about fashion.
I think, in hindsight, what I like to tell people who are starting a business or starting a career is to be really honest about what it is you want. Pleasing someone else or caring what people think only gets in the way for what you really want to accomplish. But, you need to be honest about what it is you really want to accomplish. I know, for myself, I was hesitant to write everything out. I didn’t even know how to be honest with myself. When you’re starting out, you just want someone to affirm you, so any affirmation you’re kind of like “ohmygod you do love me!”
When I was much younger, a store might say we want you to do hearts. And I’d be like, I kind of hate doing hearts, but I needed the money so all of a sudden I’m doing hearts. It’s a poor example.
It’s important to say this is what I stand for, not to get stretched. When you’re building something, you need the growth, and you need the sales to build, or the affirmation. But, I think it’s important to literally write out a plan, whether it’s a career or a business about how much money you want to make, what kind of business owner or professional you want to be, what ethics means to you (that’s really critical because everyone’s ethics are different), how big you want to be. Write it out. You can refer to it. Most of us know it, but when you write it out, it makes it clearer.
In my situation, there was no other jewelry designer that I knew who did three collections with three different aesthetics, and I knew I wanted to do that, but I didn’t have anyone to look to. Fashion jewelry wasn’t a big industry when I started, but I felt like it could marry fashion, and I could have different collections and different aesthetics. I had a lot of resistance to that from the buyers. They were like make up your mind, and I didn’t want to make up my mind. I was like “This is how I’m doing it.”
Sometimes, you might not see that role model out there, but you still want to be like “this is what I believe.” That’s what makes you authentic.
We learned so much from Alexis Bittar, and thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to sit and talk to him. If you want to see some of this designer’s amazing collection for yourself, visit Neiman Marcus at Scottsdale Fashion Square or visit AlexisBittar.com
Story by: Lindsay Viker
Photos by: Alexis Bittar