In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month we spoke to Susan Korn, the designer behind the (nearly) eponymous brand Susan Alexandra. Known for her colorful, beaded pieces, Korn has slowly transformed her company into a lifestyle haven for those looking to bring their inner child into their adult lives. Case in point: only in Susan Alexandra’s world could a fried egg barrette, a martini-shaped purse, and—thanks to the brand’s latest Passover collection—a swirly ceramic Seder plate exist in harmony. As for Korn’s younger self? She’s in “disbelief,” she says. “I don’t think I even could have fathomed that the life I dreamed of, being a designer and living in New York and creating things for a living, [could come true].” Below, Korn shares how she got here—and what she’s dreaming of next.
My first job
When I was around 11 years old, my mom had a friend who was starting a jewelry business. She hired me for what I felt was an exorbitant amount of money—like $10/hour—to string beads for her. I would do that when I got home from school, and I loved it. It didn’t feel like work. At this current moment, the way my business is structured, I’m not physically making any of the jewelry, but I still use the same techniques I learned many years ago when I make jewelry, or if I’m training somebody. It’s kind of a wild thing.
My worst job
When I was 18, I got a job at Forever 21 in the local mall. The store was the size of a football field. You get these giant shipments every day, and there’s barely room in the store to contain all the clothes. I had to re-merchandise before I could go home at night; I’d have to go through and look for every floral skirt and then put them all together. It was a never-ending job. I also remember a couple fitting room traumas, like people leaving behind diapers and tampons. It was absolutely disgusting. The best part about that job is that literally every other job I’ve had in my entire life has been better than that. Even on the worst day at any other job I’ve had, it’s better than working at Forever 21 that summer between college and high school.
My first (pre-teen) design gig
I’ve always made things. It’s always been my favorite thing to do and feels very natural to me. Beyond that, I learned at a young age that you can make money and enjoy it. In seventh grade, I would go to Kmart and buy plain flip-flops and transform them. I’d add rhinestones and bows and studs, and then I would resell them at school. That was my first stint as a designer, and it went pretty well. I remember I made a total of $60, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. I would’ve made these for free.” I’ve always liked to create, and making a living out of it is still pretty novel to me.
How I created the Susan Alexandra aesthetic
Nothing in my life is new to me. I’ve had the same style since I was little. My sensibility has not changed. That also speaks to the pieces I make—connecting to your inner child. It’s interesting that a lot of people still love those same things too. I’m just overtly out there saying, “This is for my inner child, and this is for my current self, and this is for my future self” when I make something. It’s beyond rewarding to see people connect with the pieces, especially when the pieces become something they wear for good luck or to feel confident or beautiful. That’s the true mark of success, when you’ve created a piece that people can connect with.
Why I felt excluded from the mainstream fashion industry
Before I started my own brand, I was trying so hard to find where I belonged in the fashion industry, and I would apply to all these different jobs. I went on so many job interviews, and with every single one, I felt like they would look me up and down. I actually had one where they told me straight up: “You don’t really have the look we’re going for.” I’ve been told I’m not the right person for the job because of what I look like and without any consideration to my expertise or my talent.
How I approach inclusivity at my company
One of the core principles of my brand is that I want it to not be a typical fashion brand. I’ve worked on all ends of the retail and fashion spectrums, and there was so much I felt like I couldn’t have access to and was intimidated by. I really want to create a space within the brand so that people feel welcomed to have a hand in it. From the way we cast our models to the way we do our fashion weeks to the way we invite people into our store to the way we speak to our community—I want to make sure everyone feels like they have a seat at the table.
Even walking into a boutique can be very, very intimidating. You assume they know I’m not going to buy anything, and they’re going to be rude. So every single person who walks into the store, we welcome them warmly. Regardless of whether they buy something or not, we thank them for being there, and we invite them to come to our events. I try to make it so people can feel comfortable in our world.
Why I started creating modern Judaica
The older I get, the more I’m looking toward the past and what’s really authentic to me. I’m Jewish, and the older I get, the more I’m obsessed with being Jewish. I love Jewish culture. I love the way that it connects people from every walk of life. And historically, Jews have been persecuted and hated; it’s 2023, and we’re still dealing with these issues. It made me feel like I had to take some sort of stand, even if it’s just making a beautiful new Jewish star that people could feel really excited about. It means a lot to me to make Judaica. Modern Judaica and modern Judaism is so much more inclusive than I even realized. There’s so much about being a woman and about inviting different cultures to your table and your life. I’m so excited I get to be bringing this conversation into the world.
My future dreams for Susan Alexandra
I want to have a brand like a Ralph Lauren, where we make everything from the paint on your walls to the pens that you’re writing with to the diary you put your secrets in. I want to do a bit of everything. We started with jewelry and then went to handbags, and then we’ve started to do homeware, which to me is a never-ending category. We’re about to do a whole line of tissue boxes. It seems simple, but I feel like there’s so much fun to be had in everyday objects. I want to keep on putting my hands on them and transforming them and making them exciting and fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is a senior writer/editor at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture. When she’s not on the internet, you can most likely find her taking a nap or eating banana bread.