It was 1982 when Alexis Bittar, a 13-year-old from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, headed to Saint Mark’s Place to sell second-hand clothing and antique jewelry. What an exciting time to be there. Dressed in a tassel jacket and blue suede Dr. Martens boots, he stumbled right into the heart of the punk rock scene, the place “where all the cool, older teenagers wanted to hang out.” How lucky he must have felt.
“There weren’t any other 13-year-olds selling in the streets,” he recalls. “People were intrigued but I also blended in because I used to really dress up. If I saw it now, I would think, Oh, that’s crazy. But it didn’t seem like it at the time. There was no concern.”
Bittar maintains that he successfully sold antique jewelry on the streets as a teenager, though he admits that he often felt like an outsider. “It was a tough time to be young and gay,” he concedes. “People weren’t talking. My friends weren’t talking. I look back at what was going on in all of our lives—and there were complicated things that we were all dealing with—but no one talked about them. It was more like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ Everything was slightly an escape of what was actually going on.”
It’s undeniable that, as the former club kid matured into a savvy, self-taught designer and businessman, he’s experienced an upward career path. In 1990, he ditched the party scene and started to experiment with jewelry design. His first pieces were made from Lucite, a type of transparent silica-based glass that is not as hard as stone but tougher than wood. To shape the jewelry, Bittar cut the peripheral outlines with a band saw. After that, he sculpted the material with a Dremel, a small power-tool that looks a bit like a dentist’s drill. Then he sold the finished products on the street.
Just two years into his foray as a designer, Bittar’s pieces attracted the attention of Dawn Mello, then the fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. Shortly after that relationship was forged, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Museum of Modern Art followed suit and purchased his collections. Then came his first boutique in New York City, in 2004, just footsteps away from where he once sold those original Lucite pieces on SoHo street corners. Since 1999, there have been dozens of designer collaborations for runway shows. A 2012 partnership with TSG Consumer Partners expanded the Alexis Bittar team from around 160 to 400 employees today. In February, the designer celebrated 25 years of working with Lucite, and his four distinct lines—Lucite, Elements, Miss Havisham, and Fine—now sell in over 50 countries around the world.
From an early age, even before he was peddling flowers and jewelry on the streets, Bittar found his childhood to be atypical. When he was three years old, his parents, both college professors, wanted a water tower. They bought one for $300 in nearby Westchester County, disassembled it, drove the parts up to Maine, and converted it into a second home. Once it was completed, Alexis, along with his parents and older brother, would eat breakfast in a spot of the house that overlooked the road. Passing cars would slow to a stop and shoot odd glances in their direction. Something was different about the Bittar residence. Unlike most of the homes in Maine, it wasn’t square or rectangular. It was round.
For many years, Bittar has openly talked about his past and how it relates to his ethos as a designer. “I think my background was so unconventional it made me…a combination of fearless but also I didn’t have the gumption to go up to someone I admired and say, ‘I wanted to show this to you.’”
And yet it’s the peculiar beauty of his designs that makes them unforgettable, so he never had to aggressively promote his products. When he first showed a Lucite carrot pin to Sandra Wilson, then the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, he remembers her saying, “You’re super talented and you need to call me in two years.” She immediately recognized his potential and eventually ended up buying his jewelry.
But in recent times a change has been signaled, and Bittar is no longer directly exposed to the buyers as much as he once was. Now, with the TSG Consumer partnership, he can focus on being a creative director, a design veteran who leads by example. (He’s also about to have twins, a boy and a girl, via a surrogate mother in the next few weeks.) Today, he oversees an entire design team. That means there’s more time for something many designers despise but he thoroughly enjoys: personal appearances.
One day, for example, Bittar was doing a meet-and-greet at Nordstrom in the King of Prussia Mall. In the long line of people who arrived early, he spotted a heavyset woman in a wheelchair. She was wearing his jewelry and kept making eye contact with him. He was curious. He even became a little distracted. The minute she introduced herself, he felt the need to ask about her life. He didn’t quite understand why, but he wanted to know her story.
According to Bittar, her parents were both migrant workers. She was the first in her family to attend college. Once she got her diploma, she handed it to her father and said, “Dad, this is for you.” After college, she went to work at a university and spent her life giving back to people. Her words, her humility, brought him to tears.
“It was such a powerful story,” he remembers. “I think what I’m always amazed by is that people are generally more complicated than they may seem.” This is why he often places older women, like Iris Apfel and Joan Collins, in his ads. He’s blown away by what he learns about their lives and experiences.
“I find it very inspiring,” he’ll say when I return for our final meeting. “It’s not about the vision of an editorial magazine. It’s about true reality.”