First-ever Susan Alexandra store is a colorful tribute to New York’s Jewish history

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New York Jewish Week via JTA – The cap is pink. The store is long. The abstract, tiled face of a woman looks down from above at a narrow wishing well. There are bright pink, turquoise and yellow tiles encrusted in the walls.

On display are handbags and pouches in the shape of oversized red bows, fruit slices, blue sky and Hello Kitty. A group of bags in the shape of wine glasses hangs at the entrance. All are constructed from large, neatly stacked colorful beads, and each is handmade. There are beaded wallets, headbands, earrings, vases. Even the chandelier is beaded.

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

It’s a big time for Susan Korn, the brand’s designer and visionary, who moved to New York in 2008 and worked for various boutiques before devoting herself more exclusively to creating her own pieces in 2011. In 2017 , a chance meeting with designer Lisa Deng – who still works for the brand – led to the creation of her watermelon handbag, which was an instant hit on social media.

The brand then began to develop rapidly; In recent years, Susan Alexandra has become very popular with designers, celebrities and fans around the world. The opening was celebrated with effusion by fashion magazines like Vogue, Nylon and The Cut, as well as dozens of designers and influencers.

Korn roamed the neighborhood for months before signing a lease in April 2021. “It had to be Orchard Street,” she said, describing the various spaces in various states of disrepair that she envisioned before moving on. finally settle on this site, which it has started to renovate. last august. “For me, it’s fair the Street.”

The new Susan Alexandra store on Orchard Street in New York City pays homage to the clothing trade that was centered in the neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. (Courtesy of Susan Alexandra / via JTA)

What this 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 people roaming the area in oversized blazers and corduroys. in fashion, baseball caps and daddy sneakers. Rents tend to be just reasonable enough to keep independent spaces going, 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 region at the turn of the 20th century, when up to 500,000 Jews, mostly Ashkenazi, 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 his designs were showcased as comedians served bagels and lox and made fun of Jewish culture. A few months later, she hosted a bat mitzvah fashion show for New York Fashion Week. Her Jewish identity is linked to both her public personality and her personal image, and she wears it with a simple sense of pride.

Like many American Jews, Korn grew up with a deep sense of Lower East Side Jewish history, from Barbara Streisand’s vision in “Funny Girl” to learning about the shmatte, or garment industry, centric business. around homes and sweatshops in the area before moving to the Garment District, north of 34th Street.

“My mother would take me to Orchard Street, and I remember telling us how there were barrels of pickles on the street, and that was where the Jews lived,” she said, to herself. remembering childhood trips to New York from his hometown. in Columbus, Ohio. “I immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. It is so meaningful to me that Orchard Street is where I put down roots, in this place where so many people before me have put down roots.

Illustration: Kosher butchers picket a store in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood of Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of New York City, October 4, 1937. (AP Photo)

These roots run deep. According to the 1905 census, over 65% of Jews living in America worked in the garment industry. In 1900, inspection reports show that there were 23 home clothing factories on a single block of Orchard Street, most of them likely run by Jewish immigrants who worked from home in order to be able to keep Shabbat. This story is still alive in the area: around the corner of the new store at 72 Hester Street is Mendel Goldberg Fabrics, founded in 1890. At the end of the block is the Tenement Museum, which preserves the apartments where Jewish families and others produced “piece work” for manufacturers and department stores.

While it’s unclear what 33 Orchard Street would have been like in the 1920s, historical photographs from 1940 reveal that for some time it was Mr. Katz’s Suspender Shop. Lingerie shops lined the streets in the 1930s, alongside leather goods and tailor shops. In the mid-1800s, it was a music hall. Before Korn, the most recent business was a tattoo parlor.

And while the colorful bags at over $ 300 a piece don’t seem like a continuation of the overcrowded apartments and desperate circumstances many associate with the historic Lower East Side, it’s not hard to imagine the styles being a hit with immigrant teenage girls who defined her streets over a hundred years ago.

After all, the 1890s were the height of purple craze, when the newly discovered dye made pink clothing accessible in a way it hadn’t been. Immigrant teenage girls who spent their days sewing and sewing the latest fashions were often the most up-to-date with changing trends. For example, one of the sticking points of the union protests going on at the time was that young women wanted a place in the factories to hang their hats, so that those hard-bought fashion accessories wouldn’t get wrinkled during their days. shifts. Fashion mattered to these women, and the fashion of the time was influenced by Art Deco and the newly flashy colors and styles. How very Susan Alexandra.

Of course, the story of the clothing trade on the Lower East Side was also a story of exploitation and labor unrest. In a Forbes article in 2019, Korn said she has led manufacturing in ways that benefit both workers and the company. The bags are made locally in New York City by immigrant women from China and Bangladesh, who can work from home and work their own hours.

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

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said, adding that opening a physical store in the midst of the pandemic felt like a leap of faith. “But I had a feeling if it wasn’t now, it never would be.”

The act of faith seems to have borne fruit. Overall, business increased in 2020 and Korn did not have to lay off workers during the pandemic. The bright aesthetic actually seems to be in more demand than ever.

One recent afternoon the boutique was full of trendy shoppers browsing and admiring the pieces. Many already had their own Susan Alexandra bags or jewelry. Many wore the Susan Alexandra Jewish Star Necklace. A woman wondered aloud if the pearl earrings were going to get caught in her thick, curly hair.

I visited my sister, who has been wearing a black and white uniform for years, and even she was instantly drawn to the rigid plastic bags, which actually look a lot more stylish than their kitsch description would suggests. By the time we left she had bought one.

The outpouring of affection from his friends and colleagues only added to Korn’s whirlwind trip.

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

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