NEW YORK — Alexis Bittar is a designer who appeals to extremes.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Lady Gaga — both with distinct fashion images, but on opposite ends of the style spectrum — are fans of the designer, a testament to Bittar’s range and appeal.
Thumbing through the fall 2011 look book in his sprawling DUMBO office, studio, workspace, factory and showroom on the first 80-degree day of the season, Bittar points out a pair of fiercely studded gold cuffs connected by a thin chain, sort of like the pair of handcuffs he created with Lady Gaga in mind, who was photographed last year wearing one of the designer’s gray Lucite masks with the same studded detailing.
“It’s very editorial,” he said, aware that pieces such as this, as well as a goat fur capelet adorned with black crystals, an oversize white pearl headdress fit for a queen of a bygone era and a peacock feather necklace, are not meant for the masses.
But the designer’s extensive offerings that span three collections — Lucite, Elements and Miss Havisham — contain plenty of wearable options at varying price ranges and are available at more than 800 doors worldwide, including all major department stores. Small earrings and rings can start at $65 to $80, and bracelets can range from $500 for a basic bangle all the way to $900 for a hinged style infused with Swarovski Elements, faceted, crystal clusters, semiprecious stones, or hand-carved detailing, depending on the hours it takes to construct the piece. Many of the “editorial” selections — which are priced upon request — are available at any of the designer’s seven freestanding stores.
The signature Lucite line is chock full of bangles, rings, brooches and earrings handmade from the medium — and it’s also the majority of the business, constituting 60 percent of the company’s sales — while mixed metal, oversize gemstones and jewel-encrusted bangles inhabit the latter two lines.
The First Lady has stuck to the designer’s signature Lucite pieces and has been photographed in different flower brooches and bangles on occasions ranging from trips to South America to being interviewed for Barbara Walters’ annual Thanksgiving special.
“I am able to manipulate and sculpt it. It’s interesting in the way it reflects light, manipulates color and the way it shadows. It’s so modern and bright and colorful,” Bittar said of Lucite.
The material, invented by Dupont, is approaching its 75th anniversary next month, and the designer, who’s been working with it for 20 years, will host a breakfast in Lucite’s honor.
A background in antique collecting in the late Eighties exposed the Brooklyn-born and raised Bittar to Bakelite, a specific type of plastic known for its “retro” look that became popular in home decor items beginning in the Thirties. The home decor pieces, combined with hand-carved and fused pieces of Lalique that Bittar stumbled upon, served as the inspiration for the first piece of jewelry he designed from the material in 1991.
“There’s this one earring I refuse to pull out of my line,” he said. “It’s a round bottom clip earring, it’s a super basic, glowing little ball. It comes in 72 colors. It’s one of the first things I ever created.”
While giving a tour through the sun-drenched factory where his intricate, one-of-a-kind designs are produced, Bittar explained that every Lucite piece is hand-carved and painted, and even the most minute of details — down to the clasps — are designed in-house. Every item fashioned from the material undergoes a seven-step process [see sidebar below], including a secret fifth step about which the designer remains mum.
“I was kind of known as ‘The Lucite Guy,’ and of course, jewelry wasn’t at its zenith the way it is today when I was starting out,” he said. “People didn’t see a huge value in Lucite and what I was doing.”
Bittar is surprised it took more than a decade for knockoffs of the Lucite pieces that propelled his career to start springing up. Maybe it’s that top-secret fifth step.