Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, designer Susan Alexandra — born Susan Korn — was always surrounded by a thriving Jewish community. Her mom, who speaks Yiddish, is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, which Alexandra says is something that has hung over her family’s life. In particular, the plight of the Jews and the ways we pass down trauma has also been of interest to Korn, who sees her now Instagram-famous jewelry and handbags as cathartic antidotes to the anxiety and fear that’s been instilled in her. “They’re joyous, happy, and protective,” she tells me over the phone.

Korn first began experimenting with jewelry design in elementary school, assisting her mother’s friend with making beaded necklaces while watching episodes of Total Request Live after school. Years later, as a lost 20-something trying to make it in New York City, she had an emotional breakdown on the subway (who hasn’t, honestly). Asking the universe to help guide her, she soon discovered her passion and skill for jewelry design, seeing it as a means to help other people who were lost, too.

It was four years ago that Korn began designing and selling her vibrant and symbolic line, Susan Alexandra. The labor intensive, handmade, and one-of-a-kind jewelry uses beads, abstract shapes, and colorful tones that are healing to look at and meant to make people feel sentimental, smile, or laugh. For example, her triple happiness earrings feature three beaded yellow smiley faces, while her brass Tiny Joys Necklace includes hand-painted charms such as boobs, french fries, a rainbow, eyes, a watermelon, and so on.

Then, a year and a half ago, she introduced beaded bags into her line, a nod to the very necklaces she strung together in her younger years. Working closely with a team of local artisans, her vibrant purses feature striped patterns, animal print, fruits, and flowers. Meant to evoke emotions and nostalgia, the bags quickly took Instagram by storm, being donned by celebrities such as Bella Hadid and Brie Larson while also getting stocked at major stores such as Opening Ceremony, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Shopbop. Some of her pieces are even for sale at the Brooklyn Museum’s gift shop for their new Frida Kahlo exhibit. “It’s become a whirlwind, people have really responded to them and they’ve me a lot more exposure than I ever received from the jewelry,” she says.

Almost overnight, Korn went from being a one-woman show to employing a team of people who help her manufacture the bags and make sure the company is operating smoothly. While she’s still learning to navigate the highs and lows of the accessories business, Korn is working to find a way to do more creative work and not get so bogged down in the more administrative aspect of running your own company. Still, she remains humble and grateful. “Everything always is changing and I know that I’m really lucky,” she expresses.

Living in New York for the last decade, being part of a close-knit community remains an important element in Korn’s life and creative practice, especially since it’s such an isolating and intimidating place. “It’s hard to meet people who want the best for you with no ulterior motives, especially when you’re in a field that’s competitive.” Thus, in the last few years, Korn has spent ample time hosting a variety of events in collaboration with other up-and-coming creatives, as a means to intimately interact with her audience and ultimately spread the cathartic power of her designs.

This past New York Fashion Week, she hosted her first presentation to introduce her latest handbags, which feature pretzels and the I Heart NY insignia. When it came to picking a venue, she opted for a place near and dear to her heart — Baz Bagels, a Jewish-style staple in her colorful life on the Lower East Side. The woman-owned eatery were fans of Korn’s designs and graciously gifted her the space free of charge.

To present the newest items, Korn enlisted a group of friends and artists including performer Steak Diane, musical composer Mur, and comedians Lauren Servideo and Cat Cohen. At the highly attended and publicized event, the performers even broke out into song, in which singer Petula Clark’s classic hit “Downtown” was replaced with Susan-inspired lyrics such as, “I know a girl and a chihuahua pug mix who makes these beaded bags.” Just like everything she does, the presentation was a hit sensation.

What’s next for Korn? The creative tells me, “If I was able to transition from jewelry to bags, what can I not do?” Still she remains realistic and continues to remind herself that making art doesn’t necessarily mean you must physically make everything yourself. In fact, for Korn, there’s real joy in building something from the ground up, collaborating with friends, and giving people employment opportunities. Just as I write this, she shared an image of one of her team members, telling her followers, “I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with such talented and brilliant artisans 💖 people always comment that the bags are extra sparkly and magnetic – I believe it’s because they’re made with love, integrity and by people who are happy to make them. It makes a difference.”

Sara Radin

Sara Radin is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work mostly focuses on identity, culture and mental health, and has been published by outlets such as the New York Times, Vice and Buzzfeed.