Susan Korn’s mother is weeping. Her daughter, the designer behind Susan Alexandra, is sitting on a chair hoisted six feet in the air, in the midst of a traditional Horah dance. She is surrounded by concentric circles of models identifiable by her signature beaded bags affixed to their heads, friends, family members, influencers, and editors, all of whom are singing and dancing along with the music. At one point, a group breaks out into a spontaneous chant: “SUSAN! SUSAN! SUSAN!”
Today is Susan’s bat mitzvah. Or rather, her second bat mitzvah. Her first took place at the more traditional age of 13, but at this iteration, 11 years later, in the penthouse of the Public Hotel, she’s not the only one becoming a woman–her brand is, too, with its inaugural season of ready-to-wear.
“It’s always been my dream to make clothes,” Susan told me. “I made a conscious decision to not do it when I first started out, because I was so scared. I was like, ‘I don’t have what it takes. I mean, how can I compete in this world of fashion where there’s so many amazing designers?’ I really let fear hold me back.”
More than a decade later, she finally had enough confidence to take the leap, largely because of how successful her accessories line has been. “I had no idea what I was doing when I began making bags and jewelry, so I figured, why shouldn’t I try doing another thing I have no idea how to do?”
Her success thus far stems from more than just profit. As I looked around the penthouse, packed with as many people as there were pink balloons, almost all of whom were sporting one of Susan’s signature beaded bags, this was more apparent than ever. Susan isn’t just a designer. She’s a cult leader, too. The good kind.
Cult members include up-and-coming comedians like Lauren Servideo and Catherine Cohen. Drag queens like Steak Diane (who helped design her new collection) and Crystal Mesh. Internet sensations like Benito Skinner. Lauded writers like Naomi Fry. Famous children such as Suri Cruise. And perhaps most importantly, regular girls in their teens and early twenties who stop each other on the sidewalk when they spot a tell-tale glimpse of Susan Alexandra sparkle, be it a bag or a Best Friend cuff.
There’s a hashtag for this precise encounter–#spottedinsusanalexandra, affixed to the Instagram posts of photos Susan receives from friends and fans alike whenever they see someone with one of her designs. “It’s like a rare bird spotting,” Susan told me.
It’s also indicative of the kind of community the cult of Susan Alexandra has fostered, one in which beaded bag-carrying members can message the designer on the very app they discovered her on and actually get a response. Her customers are more than customers–they’re fangirls, so devoted they frequently recognize her chihuahua, Pigeon, on the street when she walks him around Chinatown.
“Everything about her company encourages you to let your inner child come out and play, and I think that’s why she has such a strong following,” 21-year-old Emma, a fellow bat mitzvah attendee who interned for Susan over the summer, told me. “I just realized this now, but maybe Susan is the mom we’ve always wanted, who lets us wear every color in the rainbow and seven bracelets on one wrist.”
Belle, Susan’s 20-year-old Head of Photo, attributed her loyal following to Instagram: “Susan can relate to her customers on a personal level through Instagram, sharing memes, answering DMs and comments, and posting daily as if she was just another girl next door.”
Despite Susan’s relatable demeanor on social media, Belle admitted she was too intimidated to approach her when she saw her for the first time in person at a craft fair in San Francisco: “My boyfriend forced me to talk to her by saying if I didn’t, he would.”
This duality–part girl next door, part internet celebrity–is what lends the cult of Susan Alexandra its simultaneous allure of inclusivity and mystique. Her brand maintains the rare kind of under-the-radar notoriety wherein not everyone would immediately recognize one of her bags on the street, but those who do are so excited about it they hastily snap a blurry photo.
“I get the most beautiful, kindest messages from customers all the time,” Susan told me. “They say things like, ‘I’m going through a breakup, and your bag just makes me smile,’ or, ‘I met my best friend because we both were wearing your bags on the street, and we got lunch because we liked each other,’ or ‘your work just brings so much joy to my life.’”
This thread of emotional connection is what transforms Susan’s many fans into a bonafide community, one that will show up for a 34-year-old’s second bat mitzvah and chant her name again and again until her mother starts to cry, because they all understand that selling stuff is ultimately secondary to Susan Alexandra’s mission: changing how people feel.
Photos by Sabrina Santiago.