Cult Bag Designer Susan Alexandra On Creating Stylish Antidotes To Real-World Angst

Her fun beaded bags are a pop of optimism

Susan Alexandra has a really funny story to tell, though it’s more funny-inspirational than funny-haha. The story goes: When Alexandra first moved to New York City, just over a decade ago, she interviewed for a job at Opening Ceremony—but didn’t get it. “They sort of implied that I wasn’t the right fit for them, and I was so devastated because I thought that—and I still think that—they were the deciders of what’s cool and what’s relevant.” Fast-forward to last summer when the ever-hip retailer reached out to Alexandra, asking if it could stock her Instagram-famous beaded bags. “It was very full circle,” she says, and it was the moment she knew she had something major on her hands. See? Maybe you didn't laugh, but we bet you're feeling inspired.

Alexandra has been creating handmade jewelry since 2014 but has been launched into fame thanks to her bags which, she tells us, seemed like a natural next step from her jewelry line. “I feel like they feed into each other and there's a lot of similarities,” she says. “If there's a pattern in my jewelry, you'll see it in my bags and vice versa. They sort of inspire each other and play off of each other; they're like a power couple.” Since launching her bags, Alexandra has become a household name—in the houses of fashion fans, at least—and it’s easy to see why. 

Beading is inherently evocative of childhood craft projects, and the whimsical designs—fruit prints, stripes, lots of color—add to that, and make these bold-as-hell bags impossible to scroll past while you're perusing your Instagram feed. “I just wanted something that made me gasp,” Alexandra says, which is exactly what she accomplished. The bags manage to feel kitschy and fresh at the same time; it's unclear if you'd be more likely to find them on the shelves of a thrift store or an aisle in Toys "R" Us. “This is definitely a bag that triggers your inner child, and also your inner old lady at the same time,” she says. Is there anything more fashion than that?

This type of design has been appealing to Alexandra from the start. “I’ve always been attracted to color and to pattern,” the designer says about her personal style. “People who’ve known me my whole life are like, ‘You never change, everything you’re wearing now you would’ve worn when you were five.’” And for those of us who sometimes feel like the weight of adulthood is too much to handle, these bright bursts of color can feel like a shot of optimism. “I feel like I’m making stuff that, if you’re walking down the street and garbage is flying in your face, you can still have a little escape,” she says. “It’s my antidote for the real world.”

Alexandra lives in the Chinatown neighborhood of New York City, and she says it feeds her inspiration. It’s also where the bags are made. The type of beading featured is a very typical Chinese craft, she says, explaining why she loves collaborating with local artisans. “The woman that I'm working with—who’s based in Chinatown—she’s been making this technique for 40 years,” she explains. “So, I really love that it's something that's almost native to where I'm living right now.” Each piece is made by hand and can take more than 24 hours to make—with breaks, of course, Alexandra says. She makes sure to let people know before ordering that each bag can take up to a month to be shipped out, since it's not something that can be created by a machine. Which, really, makes them all the more special. 

The DIY approach has always been important to Alexandra, who says she was once a slave to fast fashion. “Before I was making stuff, I would refresh the Zara website, and I'd love to shop at H&M,” she says. “I had no idea what goes into making something by hand, and now I have so much respect for that. There's so much integrity in items that are made by hand, and not by a big corporation.” 

Speaking of fast fashion, as these things usually go, when you have a popular product on your hands, chances are companies are going to try to rip it off. That’s already started happening with Alexandra, though she doesn’t want to talk about it too much. What matters to her is that she’s creating a product that gives back to the community and doesn’t turn her morally bankrupt in the process. Bonus points are given to the fact that it’s a good product and makes people excited about fashion again. 

“At the end of the day, I'm so committed to creating an environment where people, specifically women, have an opportunity to make money and get paid fair wages and have a career and a life making stuff versus the other way around, which is like indentured into this horrible environment,” she says. “I really, really think that, beyond the design, my bags are made by somebody who cares. So that's my biggest goal with it, as well. It's just making really pretty stuff.” 

And we could always use more really pretty stuff.