How Susan Alexandra Uses Nostalgia to Unlock Unbridled Joy

We can never revisit our dreams, but I have to imagine that if it was possible, it’d look something like the inside of Susan Alexandra’s Orchard St. storefront. Upon first stepping through the location’s endorphin-boosting, bright yellow doorframe, visitors are immediately met with joy — in the form of multicolored beads, bows, and mini food-inspired charms, from teeny tiny martinis to whimsical fruits. Designer Susan Korn definitely doesn’t live a life of black-and-white, instead, she colors outside of the lines and each of her playful designs urges her wearers to do the same.

A kid at heart, Korn wants to remind us of the little things that used to make our hearts sing: Sunday morning cartoons, after-school snacks and the sheer wonder of expressing yourself without confines. That child-like excitement is her biggest inspiration and a tool she pulls from with every new accessory design or collaboration. Her latest collab with nostalgic cereal brand, PEBBLES, hit me right in the heartstrings. The beaded bag, which features a motif of a sugary-sweet bowl of cereal, immediately transported me back to early mornings spent watching Looney Tunes, over a bowl of cereal, before school. And, of course, that’s exactly Korn’s goal: to remind us all of simpler times and to instill even the most mundane moments with a sense of sheer happiness. Hypebae connected with Korn to discuss tapping into her inner child and the new, adorable collab.

How would you describe the Susan Alexandra aesthetic or vibe if you had to put like a few words to it?

Definitely colorful. Everything we do has tons and tons of color in it. There's always something funny and whimsical about everything. Nothing has the weight and the seriousness that you would see in other brands. I really love to have fun with the designs. And then there's always something sort of nostalgic about them, like elevating the pieces that you would wear when you were five years old is basically my intent. I still love the clothes, bags, and accessories that I used to wear when I was five years old. I just kind of wanna make those for grown-ups — more functional and maybe a little sexier.

I think it's so much fun to revisit these things that we used to wear when we were young. What are some of your earliest childhood memories of creating — have you always been drawn to these whimsical modes of expression?

I've always been drawn to these kinds of things. I'm from Ohio and there's just not a lot of culture or art happening, so I feel like I would always escape into a fantasy world by watching TV or movies or reading fairy tales. When you create your dream world, it's magical. So that's what I try to do with the pieces that we make. Why shouldn't everything be sparkly? And why shouldn't everything be colorful and funny? So I think it's a response to creating my own free world and escaping into these little dream worlds that I saw on TV or in magazines or movies.

What specific nostalgic references do you pull from, from your childhood?

I would watch a lot of The Simpsons, even when I was young and couldn't understand the concepts. PeeWee's Playhouse and Peewee Herman were really big for me. Even with the Berry PEBBLES cereal, it's something that I used to do like a ritual — waking up Saturday morning for cartoons and eating breakfast in front of the TV. I try to encapsulate the feeling of those special moments with my work. Another example of this is, we have these shrimp cocktail earrings and I wanted to design those because what is better in the world than when you go to a party and there's just tons of shrimp cocktail? We need to create that feeling no matter where we are. I want to unlock your memories of having the best times. For me, that's always around food.

A lot of your motifs or symbols are these things that genuinely bring you happiness. With this PEBBLES collaboration, what other feelings or emotions did the process bring about for you?

Well, the process was really fun because Berry PEBBLES felt so natural — the cereal literally looks like beads. I really liked the idea of recreating this innocent, nostalgic breakfast table. When you're young, you wake up and you're excited about getting to the best parts of your day, which are TV and snacks. So that was kind of the feeling that I was trying to go for with the bag — just that fun and innocence.

Susan Alexandra Taps Into Her Inner Child with PEBBLES Cereal Collaboration
Susan Alexandra Taps Into Her Inner Child with PEBBLES Cereal Collaboration

Do you feel that the New York setting and how expressive people are through their fashion choices here influences your outlook when it comes to these whimsical designs?

I think that there's no limit, you know? You totally could walk out of your door wearing the craziest thing that you could ever imagine. And I often do. Because nobody cares, nobody makes comments, and you're kind of free. People are either supportive or they're just not even paying attention. There's no fear around self-expression here, which I think after being here for a little bit of time, you quickly realize that people express themselves through fashion in so many different ways. There's freedom. I definitely think about that for my designs. I'm always thinking, 'What can we do to keep on creating and being different and standing out?' And I think that's really, that's one of the best things about fashion. There are a lot of highs and lows, but one of the best things is that you are praised for being original.

I want to revisit this nostalgia element. Even the revival of the beaded bag is such a nostalgic trend that has become a mainstay for you. How do you continually use nostalgia in new ways to inform your designs?

The nostalgic inspiration never ends. It always guides me. Either I'm designing something that I would've liked when I was really small, like five-year-old vibes, or I'm designing something that I wish I was wearing in college or things I loved in high school. Authenticity is pulling from yourself and not looking externally. And so I just always try to keep on channeling the things that I cared so much during those formative years. But even now, I still am discovering things that I love, but I always put it through a lens of childlike wonder. I always add special touches where I can, like an extra sparkle or extra dazzle. That's true nostalgia, to me, making pieces really quirky and funny.

If you could go back to a younger version of yourself, what would you tell her?

I think that I would say that everything that happens to you — you have to trust that it's happening for a reason. And I mean everything. I would tell her to make sure to honor the parts of you that are real. It just all makes sense in the end, I guess is the long way of saying it. I'm still learning to allow things to unfold for me and not to resist them. Everything always works out in the way that it's meant to be. Trust in the process and really nourish and take care of the parts of yourself that are different and unusual. That will be your secret power one day. Who would've thought that me growing up and watching cartoons and eating PEBBLES would someday lead to this perfectly aligned collaboration? You couldn't make that up.

Food, within and outside of your collaborations, is a huge source of inspiration for you. I think food is also an art and there's so much inspiration to pull from it. What is the mentality behind using food as inspiration?

When I cook, I feel the same thing as when I design. I love layering different flavors, textures, and elements and making one cohesive thing at the end. It's my favorite thing to play with. I feel lucky that I work with food brands because I'm so interested in food and I love seeing behind the curtains with food and recipes. When I think of the most beautiful moments in life or when I fantasize about my perfect day, it always involves waking up and having a beautiful meal. Like a shrimp cocktail or a martini. I also just love the aesthetics of food. It's gorgeous. I loved LOEWE's asparagus purse, which is a great example of food as inspiration. I just am fascinated by the beauty of food and I love eating!

As a whole, the brand is not just about the pieces. It's a very warm, welcoming space and you do an amazing job of making the retail space itself just as colorful as the designs. I feel like it brings together this community and it's beyond the things that you create. How do you incorporate that positive, playful outlook into your life, even outside of your design process?

The pieces I make and the way I design the spaces or any digital element is kind of what I wish was there in the world for me when I was younger. I still wish it existed more. One of the hardest things about existing is finding your community and finding your place in the world. And though I am a designer and I'm not a psychologist or a therapist, I do feel like there is some healing that the world needs. We all know this. And I think that what I can try to do with the space that I occupy in this world is to try to create spaces and create items that make people feel more included, and happier. And that just for a brief moment in time, makes you feel like things are okay. I know that sounds like a grandiose statement. It's not a science, but in everything we do, from when you walk in the door to our store to when you open a package from us — I want you to feel that same warmth. That's my vibe. Some designers have different things that they bring to the table, but I want the experience that you have when you come to us to feel inclusivity, fun, and nostalgia.