Susan Alexandra’s First Store: A Tribute to Jewish History

The ceiling is pink. The store is long. An abstract mosaic woman’s face looks down on a narrow wishing well. There are bright pink, turquoise and yellow tiles embedded in the walls.

On display are bags and clutches in the shape of oversized red bows, fruit slices, blue skies and Hello Kitty. A group of bags in the shape of wine glasses hangs next to the entrance. They are all constructed from large, colorful, and carefully stacked beads, and each one is handcrafted. There are bead purses, headbands, earrings, vases. Even the chandelier has beads.

The first physical Susan Alexandra brand store opened to the public on October 29 at 33 Orchard Street, where it shines, in all its bead splendor, on New York City’s Lower East Side.

It’s a great time for Susan Korn, the designer and visionary behind the brand, who moved to New York City in 2008 and worked for several boutiques before focusing more exclusively on creating her own pieces in 2011. In 2017, a Serendipitous encounter with Lisa Deng, who still oversees the making of the brand, led to the creation of her watermelon bag, which turned out to be an instant hit on social media. So the brand started to grow rapidly; In recent years, Susan Alexandra has become much loved among designers, celebrities, and fans around the world. The inauguration has been celebrated effusively by fashion magazines such as Vogue, Nylon and The Cut, as well as by dozens of designers and influencers.

Korn explored the area for months before signing a lease in April 2021. “It had to be Orchard Street,” he said, describing the various spaces in various states of disrepair that he had considered before finally settling in this location, which began to renew this past August. “For me, that’s just the Street.”

THE MACY’s flagship store was boarded up after a night of violent protests and looting in Midtown Manhattan on June 2, 2020 in New York City. (credit: SCOTT HEINS / GETTY IMAGES)

What that usually means is that Orchard Street, and the Lower East Side in general, has for decades been home to independent designers, chic boutiques, and incredibly cool folks roaming the area in oversized blazers and trendy corduroy, Daddy’s baseball caps and sneakers. Rents tend to be reasonable enough to allow independent spaces to be maintained, and there is a sense of community among the many shops, galleries, designers, bars, and restaurants operating in a small area.

But Korn is also proud to be back where Jewish textile companies defined the area in the early 1900s, when up to 500,000, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, lived in the neighborhood.

For years, the Susan Alexandra brand has also been known for its celebration of Jewish culture. In 2019, Korn hosted a daytime celebration at Baz Bagels in Soho, where their designs were featured as comedians served bagels and smoked salmon and talked about Jewish culture. A few months later, she hosted a bat mitzvah fashion show for New York Fashion Week. Her Jewish identity is woven through her public persona and personal sense of herself, and she wears it lightly, with an easy sense of pride.

Like many American Jews, Korn grew up with a deep sense of Lower East Side Jewish history, from seeing Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl” to learning about the shmatte business, or garment industry, which focuses on homes. and sweatshops in the area before moving uptown to the Garment District (located roughly between Fifth and Ninth avenues and bounded by 34th and 42nd streets).

“My mom would take me to Orchard Street and I remember her telling us how there used to be barrels of pickles on the street, and this was where Jews lived,” she said, recalling her childhood trips to New York from her hometown. in Columbus, Ohio. “I immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. It’s so meaningful to me that Orchard Street is where I’m putting down roots, in this place where so many people before me put down roots. “

Those roots run deep. According to the 1905 census, more than 65% of Jews living in the United States worked in the garment industry. In 1900, inspection reports show that there were 23 home clothing factories on just one block of Orchard Street, most of them likely run by Jewish immigrants who worked from home in order to keep Shabbat. This history is still present in the area: just around the corner from the new store, at 72 Hester Street, is Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, established in 1890. At the end of the block is the Tenement Museum, which preserves the apartments where Jewish families and others produced ”. piecework ”for manufacturers and department stores.

While it is difficult to know what 33 Orchard Street would have been like in the 1920s, historical photographs from the 1940s reveal that it was, for a time, Mr. Katz’s garter store. Lingerie stores dotted the street in the 1930s, along with leather goods and tailors. In the middle of the 19th century it was a music room. Before Korn, the newest business was a tattoo parlor.

And while the colorful bags that cost over $ 300 each may not seem consistent with the crowded apartments and desperate circumstances many associate with the historic Lower East Side, it’s not hard to imagine the styles being a hit with women. adolescent immigrants who defined his style. streets more than a hundred years ago.

After all, the 1890s was the height of the mauve craze, when the newly discovered dye made pink clothing accessible in a way that it hadn’t been. Adolescent immigrant women who spent their days sewing and sewing the latest fashions were often the most intimately aware of changing trends. For example, one of the sticking points in the ongoing labor protests of the time was that young women wanted a place in factories to hang their hats, so that these hard-bought fashion accessories wouldn’t be ruined during their work shifts. . Fashion mattered to these women, and fashion at the time was influenced by Art Deco and bold new colors and styles. How very Susan Alexandra.

Korn and the brand know the history of exploiting the apparel trade, and Deng has led the manufacturing in ways that Korn says are beneficial to workers and the company. According to a Forbes article in 2019, the bags are made locally in New York by immigrant women from China and Bangladesh, who can work from home and make their own hours.

For Korn, the Jewish history of the area is a meaningful reminder of resilience in the face of difficult circumstances. It’s a message he had to keep in mind as he worked to open his first store amid a pandemic, plagued by production shortages and uncertain health regulations.

“I’ve never done something like this before,” he said, adding that opening a physical store during the heart of the pandemic felt like a leap of faith. “But I had a feeling that if it weren’t now, it never would be.”

The leap of faith seems to have paid off. Overall, business increased in 2020 and Korn did not have to lay off any workers during the pandemic. The glossy aesthetic actually seems to be in more demand than ever.

On a recent afternoon, the store was packed with fashion shoppers looking and admiring the pieces. Many already had their own Susan Alexandra bags or jewelry. Several wore Susan Alexandra’s Jewish star necklace. One woman wondered aloud if the bead earrings were caught in her thick, curly hair.

I visited my sister, who has worn a black and white uniform for years, and even she was instantly drawn to the tough beaded plastic bags, which actually look much more stylish than their kitschy description might suggest. When we left, she had bought one.

The outpouring of affection from his friends and colleagues has only added to Korn’s fast-paced journey.

“It’s such an overwhelming feeling, to feel this love and support,” she said of the reactions to her store opening. “I worked in retail for many, many years when I came to New York, and I still can’t believe that I somehow made it. Or it just happened. It just happened. I feel really, really amazed that it all came together. “

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