The Story Behind Susan Alexandra, Instagram’s Favorite Handbag Brand

Nothing captures the essence of Susan Korn’s accessories label, Susan Alexandra, like the designer’s favorite creation: the Merry bag.

“That’s M-E-R-R-Y,” Korn spells out for me over the phone. Named for her mother, the handmade bag is small—8 inches by 9 inches—and boxy, with a square base and two top handles. Its simple construction allows for its most striking quality to shine: rainbow-colored, crystalline beads stacked in neat, sparkling rows.

It’s a bag that’s nostalgic. A version wouldn’t be wildly out of place in your grandmother’s closet or inside a kid’s dress-up bin thanks to just the right amount of kitsch and delight—two concepts that have found their way into fashion at this moment

“I designed it just thinking of pure, unadulterated joy,” Korn tells me. “I was thinking of sprinkles on a birthday cake when you’re little, and I was thinking of Christmas lights, and I was thinking of different sequins.” In other words, the bag—and really, all of Korn’s bags—“has all these things that just make your heart skip a beat,” she says.

The brand has been well-known in fashion circles for some time—it’s sold at Opening Ceremony and on Shopbop.com—but a key celebrity placement introduced Merry to the masses.

Late last June, Gigi Hadid shared an Instagram of herself on a boat in Mykonos, her Merry bag perched in the foreground. The picture was, as Korn told me, a “milestone” for the brand, as it would be for any designer—Hadid currently has 43.6 million Instagram followers. The rest is social media history.

Street Style - New York Fashion Week September 2018 - Day 3

PHOTO: Christian Vierig

Susan Alexandra Ma Cherie bag, $275, available at Moda Operandi

Demand for Susan Alexandra is high—there’s currently an online waiting list for the next re-stock of the Merry bag—but Korn promises the craftsmanship makes the wait worthwhile: Every product is made by hand; it takes up to six weeks for Korn and her small team to piece together the 1,500-odd beads it takes to make a single unit. Then, of course, there’s the unrivaled happiness of wearing something so unabashedly fun.

Before designing the boxy bags which have expanded from rainbow beads to include a bunch of quirky motifs, like fruit prints and cowhide, Korn worked in the jewelry space. She assisted New York-based jewelry Jill Platner for a few years, before leaving to launch her own jewelry business.

Street Style -Paris Fashion Week -Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2018 : Day Three

PHOTO: Vanni Bassetti

Susan Alexandra Lisa bag, $265, available at Susan Alexandra

It was a practical starting point for a designer who worked from her Chinatown apartment: “We’re in New York, no one has a lot of space, and jewelry is small,” she explains. “It’s something that I could make from my bedroom and then eventually expand further through my apartment.”

Korn managed to pack a ton of personality into the tiny items, which she still sells on her website. All her pieces use color enthusiastically; some have a clear sense of humor (like the bracelet she made for one of the “major loves of her life,” painted with a miniature likeness of Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David.)

When her jewelry business began to pick up, around 2017, Korn found the room to grow Susan Alexandra. Enter: the beaded bags, which range from $50 to $385.

“I carry a purse every single day. It’s part of my uniform,” Korn says. Just because it’s a necessity, however, doesn’t mean it needs to look utilitarian. “I feel like everything in your life should have meaning and be special, and the bags are just my version of what a purse should be.”

Street Style, Spring Summer 2019, New York Fashion Week, USA - 10 Sep 2018

PHOTO: REX/Shutterstock

Susan Alexandra Ash bag, $360, available at Shopbop

It’s not just that the bags are sentimental—they’re a response to the world as Korn sees it. “I live in a city that is pretty dirty, pretty tough,” she says. “So, at the end of the day, I’ll be sitting on the subway and just look down at my purse and I just feel sort of a sense of delight and calm. It’s my personal antidote to such a strange time that we’re living in.”

Korn’s bags, then, are a little slice of childhood; they evoke the time when serious, “grown-up” issues weren’t on her radar. “They’re very simple and sweet,” Korn explains. “It sort of harkens to a simpler, sweeter time when we’re so inundated with all this dark fear and bleakness.”

Susan Alexandra’s brand of optimism has generational appeal, the designer says: “I’ll have people say that their grandma is obsessed, and that their little cousin is obsessed, so it really attracts people from all over the spectrum.”

“I think there’s just something very human about loving bright color and sparkle,” she says.

If the Gigi’s and Bella’s of Instagram keep buying up her whimsical bags, that’s fine with Korn. She’ll still consider it a personal highlight to sell her bags to anyone who finds joy in them, no matter their follower count.

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PHOTO: Samantha Deitch/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Designer Susan Korn.

“I think what’s most surreal is looking through my tagged photos and seeing women literally from all over the world […] just such interesting, varied, wonderful people wearing the bags,” she says. “As an artist and as a designer, your dream is to touch a lot of lives and touch a lot of people.”

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