“We wanted it to look like a fairy godmother took her wand and enchanted everything,” says Susan Korn, the creative director and owner of Susan Alexandra, explaining the charm of the brand’s first brick-and-mortar store that opened earlier this month in New York City.
This sense of magic starts before you even enter the space as a beaded, banana-shaped door handle greets visitors. While kitschy by most fashion standards, the whimsical aesthetic makes perfect sense for the accessories brand that has skyrocketed into viral fame thanks to its Instagrammable beaded handbags that come in shapes ranging from a martini glass to a watermelon. As is the case with every Susan Alexandra bag, the banana door handle was entirely handmade.
“It was extremely challenging. We had to unscrew the door handle, we had to figure out how to paint it, and then we actually sent it over to one of our manufacturers. The same woman who makes all of our bags, she had to wrap it [with beads],” says Korn. “It took months and months and months to create.”
While this may seem like a long time to spend on a single handle, Korn has dreamed of opening an IRL space for the last 15-plus years. (She drew her first store rendering in 2004 while in high school in Ohio.) After signing the lease on the Lower East Side space in April — she attributes being neighbors with “great independent brands” like Sandy Liang, Bode, and Coming Soon as one of the reasons she chose the area; her office and apartment are nearby as well — Korn dove into the design research headfirst. In fact, she met Lula Galeano, one of the store’s two architects, while on the beach, reading a book on tiles: “It was like the universe brought us together.” (Korn met the second architect, Levi Shaw-Farber, through a friend.)
After several pandemic-related design setbacks, Korn moved forward with the store, settling on a yellow-, blue-, and-pink color palette. “I had all these visions and ideas, and the issue was that a lot of things were out of stock because of COVID. So I had to change the design so many times. And it's very hard to do that because you get really excited, and you place the order, and you're ready to go, and then [you find out] it’s all back-ordered,” she says. “Finally, we got to this point where it was like, ‘Okay, these are the things available. What can you do with this?’ And I was able to make it work. I would have never decided on that [palette originally], but I think it came out really well, and I'm very happy with the final product.”
The result resembles the inside of one of Susan Alexandra’s multicolored handbags, which Korn confirms was the intention: “We laid the tile out just like we lay the bag design out.” Rows of Jolly Rancher-esque glass bricks make up the counters and frame the design centerpiece of the store: a tile fountain depicting a woman’s face, which Korn has come to view as a wishing well after visitors started throwing coins in it. “I think it just is magical to have a fountain,” says Korn. “[It] is based on the Best Friend Necklace, which is one of the first things I made. And it fits over your heart, and the intention is for it to be a protector and something to carry with you and protect you everywhere you go. It utilizes the evil eye…. [When it came to the store,] it was like, We need a protector. We need something or some entity looking out for us and bringing us joy and luck.”
Design details like hand-beaded chandeliers and fruit-shaped sconces spotlight the shelves filled with Susan Alexandra products. “Why do a normal light when you could do a magic fruit?” Korn says of the custom-made watermelon-, strawberry- and grape-shaped fixtures that she plans to sell in the future. “We wanted to create this experience that was like walking into this dream world,” says Korn. “That's what my intention is with all of my ideas. I just want to create things that are different and transport you to a different time in your life.”
While the front half of the store primarily showcases the bags, organized by collections, the second part houses a jewelry bar. “One of our best-selling items is the build-your-own jewelry. You can choose charms or letters or numbers, and you can design your own necklace or bracelet,” says Korn. “So a couple of times a week, we're going to have jewelry artisans in the shop, so you can actually have something made while you shop.”
In addition to shelves filled with the brand’s home goods, like beaded tissue boxes and colorful glassware, there is also a section where Korn carries items from other designers, like candles made by her sister Janie Korn, handmade mugs by Dominique Ostuni, and ceramics by Samantha Kerdine — offerings which Korn will add to and rotate. “When I was starting my line, I was working for other designers. On the weekends, I would schlep all my stuff to all these craft shows and crafts fairs and events. I tried so hard to put myself out there, and I was always scrambling for any opportunity to put myself into the world,” says Korn. “It was expensive, and it was exhausting. Now, I have such a cool privilege of being able to have a showcase for other designers who don't have IRL places to exist. I want to welcome people to have a space where they can show their work and be supported.”
While the space is unquestionably Instagram-worthy — see: the indoor fountain — Korn says that she felt no pressure to translate her brand’s exact aesthetic into the boutique. Instead, she prioritized creating an experience that went beyond traditional retail. “It's easy to just take a white box and put bags in it,” she says. “But if you want to create something that leaves an impression and makes people feel a certain way, you have to put a lot of energy and emotion into the design of it.”
Visit the Susan Alexandra store at 33 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002.