In June 2018, Gigi Hadid gave everyone FOMO as she Instagrammed her way through a luxe vacation in Mykonos, Greece. Kate Moss and Emily Ratajkowski were in tow, but another, more under-the-radar guest also made its way onto Gigi's feed as she zipped along the deep-blue Aegean Sea—a beaded, multicolor striped handbag by designer Susan Alexandra.
It was an impressive endorsement for Alexandra, a NYC-based jewelry designer who started making her signature beaded bags, ranging from $120 (P6,340) to $345 (P18,222), only a year ago. But in that time she's quickly attracted an A-list following—which also includes models like Ratajkowski and Gigi's sister, Bella—largely thanks to Instagram, which she uses to gauge customer interest in her quirky, whimsical creations.
Alexandra, who's also working on a top-secret clothing collaboration to be released within the year, made jewelry for six years before creating her first handbag, a watermelon design, in 2017 in Chinatown. She says it was "pure divine intervention" when she stumbled across a beautiful storefront selling beads.
"I asked the lady, 'Is there any way you can take these beads and make a purse with them?'" says the 32-year-old. "I've been making jewelry for so long. I never intended to make bags, but when I saw the material I just had this thought that maybe this could be something."
Alexandra says she always would search for cool vintage bags but never found the right ones. So she crafted hers exactly the way she wanted it—rind, seeds, and all.
"From there I was like, 'Let's see what else we can do that's just as weird and unusual as possible,' and that's been my guideline since," she says.
That guideline has led, like her jewelry, to handbags that are at once colorful and unexpected. She draws inspiration from what she loves most, from her favorite colors to fruits to flowers.
"I am obsessed with anything beautiful and pretty and sparkly—and a little bit strange," she says.
Soon after Alexandra posted her first bag to Instagram, a friend discovered it and told a buyer at Opening Ceremony to check them out. By July, they were sold at the company's stores; now, they're available at other retailers like Shopbop, Moda Operandi, and Garmentory. She receives up to 500 orders on her website each month.
Alexandra also uses Instagram to post new designs—she recently started making wallets—as a barometer for how they will sell.
"The feedback from Instagram has been so overwhelming on some pieces that I'm like, 'OK, we have a hit on our hands before we even launch,'" she says, citing her cherry and cow-print bags as examples that people went crazy for.
The Chinatown neighborhood in which Alexandra has lived for the past six years also influences her work. Four local artisans, all women, make the purses just a couple blocks away from her apartment. She describes the intricate beading process as similar to using a loom, in which the beads—more than 300 per bag—are handwoven into an interlocking pattern to create the structure of the purse.
And although Alexandra is excited about her celebrity following—she cites Gigi's Instagram pic as the driving force behind a recent sales spike—she's even more stoked when she sees regular women carrying her pieces.
"It's so cool when I open my Instagram in the morning and look at my tagged photos—everyday there are new girls, and they're all different, they're from all over the world, and they're all wearing their bags in inspiring, unique ways."
And if she happens to see you toting one her purses in the wild? Expect to get stopped.
"At first they think I'm a crazy person who's just stopping them on the street," she adds. "And then I'll say, 'I made that!' and it's always really really cool."
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.