This article is part of an interview series called Ladies Who (Wear) Lunch, an exploration of the intersection of food and fashion.
According to family legend, my first real word was appetizer (just ask my mom!), so it’s only fitting that food would follow me throughout my life. Folding napkins for my mom’s catering company in our family dining room as a kid evolved into part-time restaurant jobs in college, which led to a few failed food blog attempts, and eventually landed me in a graduate program founded by the original glamazon master chef herself, Julia Child, that then launched my career in food media. I don’t remember ever wanting a career in food, but looking back it seems this path was pretty inevitable.
In a line of work without a real “uniform”—though I guess you could argue that blue light-filtering glasses are pretty necessary for those who stare at computers all day—I’ve curated my own work wardrobe and it involves lots of food, a food-iform, if you will. To name a few highlights: a shirt covered in Italian aperitivi, a strawberry patterned jumpsuit that I refer to exclusively as my “fruit suit,” and a pink gingham turtleneck covered in ants and strawberries. But the piece that kicked off my ever-growing collection of culinary adornments is a white beaded bag with beaded 3-D fruits attached to the front made by New York City-based brand Susan Alexandra.
The woman behind this fruity glory is Susan Korn, a jewelry marker turned Bead Queen whose designs make me feel like a very fancy kid in the best way possible. What started as a small operation she ran out of her Chinatown apartment has exploded into a whimsical, bead-filled empire complete with a bedazzling flagship store where she regularly hosts dinner parties, pop-ups, and other community events. Korn staged a full-on Susan Alexandra musical produced for New York Fashion week featuring her incredibly talented group of friends, and her first fashion show was held in an actual bagel shop with all the models dressed as old school waitresses. Of course, there’s also the regular collaborations with direct-to-consumer food brands like Fishwife and Handsome Brook Farms, a colorful line of homewares, and so much more. I sat down with Susan to chat about how food inspires her, from the designs she creates to the meals she makes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you describe your ideal lunch date? Where are you going, what are you eating, who's with you, and what are you wearing?
SUSAN KORN: My ideal lunch date is sitting in a beautiful flower-filled field, and I think I'd be in the South of France. I'm wearing a really beautiful, flowy, comfortable dress, because I love anytime I can wear dresses. I'm thinking it's like 83°F, sunny, beautiful, lush, full of lavender and fig trees. The meal needs to reflect where we are, so we're going to be drinking a beautiful natural wine from a local vineyard and sparkling water. We’re eating something like a fresh piece of fish, a salad of all local, seasonal ingredients, and crusty bread. For dessert, I'd imagine some sort of tart with plums. And who am I with? In this scenario, I’m at a table with my mom, my dad, my sister, and my closest friends, all in one table so I wouldn't have to describe it to them, I’d just have them there.
MT: Wow. You’re hired. You're the next copywriter at Food52, that was so good.
SK: Amazing. I accept that position.
MT: Okay, great. So, it feels like against the odds of COVID, Susan Alexandra has just really exploded and blossomed in the last few years in terms of designs, collaborations, and obviously the retail location. I was wondering how the idea of bringing food into fashion came about initially?
SK: Everything we make is so personal to me, and because I'm the only one who's making the designs, I constantly pull inspiration from stuff that I really care about. I'm so passionate about food that I think that in a different lifetime, if I wasn't doing what I'm doing now, I’d be working in the food world. I'm constantly dazzled, inspired, and interested in food, so it makes sense for me to make a cherry bag or try to capture the feeling of seeing shrimp cocktail at a party and throw it on an earring. I love blending those two worlds. And to me, chefs and people in the food world are like celebrities—I love celebs—and it's so cool that I'm able to connect with people in the food world via my work. It's not the typical way that fashion and food work together. And I love that I'm changing that a little bit.
MT: Oh, absolutely. I mean the way that everything about your brand is a perfect celebration of the food world, it just makes so much sense. Like, "Oh, shrimp cocktail earrings? Duh." It's a delight to witness and a delight to wear. What was the first piece you designed?
SK: I can't say if this was the very first piece, but one of the first things I ever made was this hand ring called the Baby Hold On Ring. It's so funny because I made that piece in a class that I was taking on how to do wax carving, which is a part of the jewelry-making process. I worked really hard on it, and then I was like, "This is great. This isn't just a class project, I'm going to actually make this." Now we sell them constantly without even promoting them—this ring is our best seller.
MT: I know the ring well. I also just remembered that hand-painted bracelets are another one of the first things you made. In a way, it feels like so many of the things you make are like friendship bracelets because it all feels so special and personal. Speaking of personal, what’s your favorite piece that you've ever designed?
SK: So it's hard because every time there's a new design and it comes to fruition, that new piece is immediately my favorite thing ever. I have a lot of favorites that I cycle through, but the one that I keep coming back to time and time again is the Merry Bag. I've been wearing it consistently for nearly five years and it still feels like it goes with everything. It elevates everything and it has resilience, which I love in a piece. And I find it practical—it jazzes up every outfit. I love its versatility, too.
MT: Do you have a white whale of beaded fruit? Is there anything that's been too intimidating or otherwise elusive?
SK: Okay, so we've done a couple tries at a pineapple, and there was a very short-lived pineapple bag that was actually pretty darn cute. I think about the fruits that I'm really inspired by and really love to eat; We've made cherries, grapes, bananas… We've made a lot, but the fruit that I’d still like to make is a fig, which is one of my favorite fruits.
MT: And that goes with your whole French countryside lunch.
SK: Exactly. So there’s the fig, and the kiwi has so much visual potential. A dragon fruit would be sick, and a pomegranate could be so cool too, because you could have like pomegranate seeds somehow cascading out of it or something.
MT: I can't wait for all of these. I'm imagining a goddess-inspired collection as a whole moment that happens.
SK: That would be incredible, I’d love to do that.
MT: How has food shaped you throughout your life?
SK: You know, I think of food as a connector, and that’s so valuable. My dad is an amazing chef and cooking together was this really special bonding experience that we got to share when I was growing up. It's still such a strong tie that we have, so every time we speak I'm usually asking him for a recipe—stuff I could Google or find in a cookbook—but I love that food is something that keeps our bond strong.
Food is such an important element to me and I think it's something that I care so deeply about because it's really shaped my life and who I am. I definitely have the same approach to food and cooking as I do to my work: It's very intuitive, very layered, very colorful, and it's reminiscent of so many things and places.
MT: What have you been making a lot of lately?
SK: I've been really, really slammed lately and it's been harder and harder for me to carve time to cook. But today, I just came up with this idea: I took rice and peas and I served it cold with chopped up parsley and dill, then some sheep's milk feta, and I chopped up toasted almonds to sprinkle on top. I finished it with a light vinaigrette of lemon juice, olive oil, salt ,and pepper, and that was what I ate today. And I just really loved it.
MT: That sounds awesome. You've got all the textures going on.
SK: Yeah, it's a little complicated, but I don't mind that—food is such an important part of my creative output.
On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.Listen Now