Interviews

Susan Alexandra


August 26, 2016

We drank juices in a room covered with watermelon wallpaper with colorful and creative jewelry designer Susan Alexandra and talked about taking the entrepreneurial leap, finding a non-judgmental and wholly supportive group of friends, the special bond all Jews have, and why Mexico City is the best place on earth.

Is there a story behind your name?

I think my mom liked how stable and solid my name was. She always said she wanted a name that a woman who could be a CEO would have. “A Tiffany is not a CEO.”

What is your earliest memory?

My grandmother had a bungalow in The Catskills before it was the chic place to go on the weekends. It was a tiny, wood-paneled bungalow with a framed picture of Golda Meir. I remember being there in a hammock in this very beautiful, pristine, natural environment. I must have been 2 or 3 when that memory occurred.

What were your early years like?

I grew up in a beautiful, little suburb called Bexley, Ohio. It was a charming, idyllic place. We would walk to the candy store and play in our front lawn until the fireflies came out. People are so nice. It’s the Midwest. It’s a precious bubble. You grow up really slow there. But, it’s just not a place that you want to stay in. That’s where it begins and ends.

What was your kid personality?

I was a very anxious kid. I took solace in art. I was always painting and drawing. I always wanted to be older. I hated sitting at the kids table. I always wanted to be 45 years old. I want to have a house upstate and kids and just be done.

What role did Judaism play in your upbringing?

Both of my parents are Jewish. I was forced to go to Hebrew School. I hated it. Detested it. It was not that I hated Judaism, it was that I was forced to go to this very sterile, judgmental, rigid learning environment. There was nothing that I could relate to. As soon as I was bat-mitzvah‘ed and off the hook, I never went back to synagogue, except for High Holidays.

My mom would host Shabbat dinners every Friday night. We’d always have friends or family come over and the kids would put on plays after dinner. It was a very cute, creative, exciting day for me. I always looked forward to it. I miss the smell of the candles.

I grew up in a predominantly Jewish community. I never knew that there was a world where I wouldn’t be surrounded by Jews.

When I went to college, I realized, “I’m the only Jewish person I know here.”

That’s when I also started realizing how nice it was to connect to people who are Jewish. There’s this understanding, no matter where you’re from.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?

I always was into art and design and fashion. I got my first copy of Vogue from my mom’s friend when I was 7. That’s how I knew about New York. I remember thinking, “What is all this beauty?” I always made jewelry, but never in a million years did I think I would do it as a living. I still wake up some days and don’t even recognize my life.

When I was 9 years old, in 3rd grade, I wrote a story about my life when I was 30. I would be in New York, a jewelry designer, and I would wear red lipstick. I willed it into existence.

How has your career evolved?

I started out in Chicago styling for magazines, for artists and record labels, for clothing designers, and I hated it. I thought it was my destiny, and it was miserable. It was soul crushing work. When you’re in the right place, when you’re with the right person, you get energy.

When your job sucks you dry emotionally and physically, it’s a sign.

So, I moved to New York without knowing anybody. It was so scary. It was the first time in my life that I experienced really, really harsh rejection, mostly in the job world, but it was also really hard to connect to people, to find community. Even finding a place to live here is the hardest thing in the world. It shook me to my core. From that very low, scary point, my current life came into play.

A friend of a friend suggested, “Susan, just get a job in New York. Something to keep you there.” So I started working for a jewelry designer, and it wasn’t a dream job, but it paid my bills, and I ended up staying there for 6 years. It was somewhere to be every day and somewhere I was needed, so I’m really grateful to that designer. I was surrounded by jewelers, and I would ask them a million questions. They all said, “Why don’t you just take a class?”

I took a class, and it was really cool, but I totally sucked at it. At the same time, I loved it.

It was really cool to create with my hands.

I started painting stuff and wearing it and just having fun and people would stop me and be ask, “Where’d you get that? That’s so cool. That’s so different.”

One day, I emailed this showroom where I would borrow clothes from to style, and the owner of the showroom said, “Yes, you can borrow the clothes, but I clicked on your website and I really like your jewelry – have you ever thought about selling it to boutiques? I’d love to meet with you.” I was aghast. I emailed her back right away. I was so eager. She never responded. I emailed again, then, nothing. I finally picked up the phone – who calls anybody? – and she didn’t even remember me. I went into the showroom, she looked at my stuff, and she said, “OK. Leave your stuff here. It’s fair game.” Within a month, I got an order from Henri Bendel. It was insaaaaane.

I was making everything in my bedroom. I would wake up very early and work on my stuff, go to work, come home, work on it more. It was my life.

I loved it, so it didn’t matter that it was exhausting.

That’s how it started a few years ago.

Somehow, it works out. I’m saying that as a reminder to myself, because it’s really scary. I also think that we shouldn’t take it so seriously. If I need to get a job at a restaurant to pay the bills, I’ll do it. It hasn’t come to that yet, but, if I have to, I have to. I just don’t ever want to feel stuck in a cage again. The freedom of working for yourself is everything.

What’s been the highest high as an entrepreneur and the lowest low?

The highest high is when people recognize and connect with my work. It brings me to tears. I’m always in awe and shock. It means so much to me.

The lowest low is definitely the isolation. The fear. Your mind can get really dark. The antidote is staying busy. When you’re feeling crappy, isolating yourself is not the answer. Maybe for a little. Give in to your needs. But, community and finding connection has been my antidote.

What do you value in your friends?

My friends want me to succeed. They’re happy if I’m doing well, and I feel the same about them. There’s no jealousy or comparison. Vulnerability, compassion, empathy, and love. A real love and respect.

What qualities do you admire in others?

My mom had a very difficult childhood. Being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor brings a whole slew of shitty things. She grew up poor. Now, she owns a company that employs 500 people. She goes into economically depressed areas and creates call centers for people who are veterans or homebound. She works all the time, but she is the most wise, compassionate, loving person I’ve ever met. My mom has unlimited energy to give. That is so inspiring to me. Any good traits that I have would be from her. 100%. I’m a momma’s girl.

What’s your favorite place on earth?

I do love being home, but Mexico City is amazing. The food, the art, the color, the people. I would go back in a heartbeat. I also am obsessed with Frida Kahlo. I went to her house and I sobbed. It’s amazing. I remember feeling like it was magic.

Favorite Jewish food?

I’m gluten-free and dairy-free. That’s thanks to my Judaism. We can’t digest shit. Right now, I crave and dream about a gluten-free bagel with tofu cream cheese and really good lox and an amazing tomato and onions and capers and cucumber.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

I didn’t like Rosh Hashanah, because we’d have to go to synagogue, but we didn’t have to wait to eat, which was great. Yom Kippur sucks, because you have to fast. I’m going to say Hanukkah, because I do love latkes. It’s all food-based.

How does being Jewish play into your day to day life now, if at all?

I want to make a really gorgeous Jewish star. I want to create one that’s just mindblowingly cool.

On a different note, my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. She died a few years ago. I have this tattoo of a rose that I did in her honor, even though she would murder me. I put it here as a reminder that she was a survivor and she went through the worst thing a human could go through. I can get through whatever it is. It’s my life raft. That part of my identity is my saving grace.

Photos by Jake Fromm

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