Designer’s Advocate: Simon Alcantara on Creativity, Authenticity & Empowering Artists



Simon Alcantara remembers attending a dinner at Norwood, a private club nestled in a brownstone on 14th Street in New York City, at the behest of Chris Del Gatto, then-chairman and CEO of jewelry resale company Circa. It was 2012, and Del Gatto had gathered a number of jewelry designers from the Council of Fashion Designers of America—Dean Harris, Kara Ross, Waris Ahluwalia, and Pamela Love, among them—with one goal in mind: exposure for the industry. “He felt that jewelry designers didn’t get the same amount as apparel designers,” says Alcantara, “which is, obviously, true.” 

Things that night started off in the right direction. Alcantara was excited. But at the next get-together, this time at Andaz Fifth Avenue, his enthusiasm had waned. 

“I don’t know if I should be saying this…” Alcantara begins, his voice trailing off to a pause. “I’m just going to be really honest.” (Bluntness is his trademark, one learns.) “It was a lot of BS.” 

This second event was dedicated to the art of pitching editors; Alcantara points out many of them already had a handle on this. These were CFDA designers, after all. There were more pressing issues, meatier issues, “like how to protect your business, how to deal with retailers.” Frustrated, he called his friend Talya Cousins—a jewelry consultant, creative director, and colleague in the Creative Collective Col-Lab creative agency—on the way home. “I don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere,” he vented to her. 

Tucking into a late-morning coffee at his Financial District apartment, Alcantara wants to emphasize that “Chris’ intentions were really good—spot-on.” And he concedes that the endeavor was still in the early stages. But shortly after that meeting, Del Gatto left Circa, the company he founded. 

Thankfully, Alcantara subscribes to that old Teddy Roosevelt adage of never complaining without a solution. So he continued his conversations with Cousins, and in 2013 the two, with a CFDA assist, put together a jewelry showcase featuring 19 designers with scores of editors, retailers, and bloggers in attendance. “It was community building,” he says. “There’s power in numbers.” 

He wasn’t the only CFDA jewelry designer who felt that way. Newer members such as Marc Alary, who joined the CFDA a little over a year ago, were searching for a united voice within the larger 500-plus member institution of womenswear, menswear, and accessories designers as well. “The issues we have in jewelry aren’t similar to the other fashion businesses,” explains Alary, who last summer contacted CFDA president and CEO Steven Kolb about his concerns. Kolb connected him with Alcantara. Something was stirring, again. 

This past October, the CFDA kicked off the second jewelry showcase—with 18 brands, from Sharon Khazzam to Coomi—and boosted the event with even bigger news: The group was officially introducing the Jewelry Designers of the CFDA Committee. Its goal takes Del Gatto’s initial objective further: to promote its members, innovative design, best practices, and business development and to influence the industry in a positive way. Alcantara, a CFDA member since 2004, was unanimously named the committee’s chairman. (Mish Tworkowski is co-chairman and Dean Harris, secretary.)

“When an idea comes from the membership, those are the ones that are the most authentic,” says Kolb, adding that there’s a new eyewear subcommittee, too. “The designers took the ball and ran with it. And Simon—he’s a great advocate for the jewelry designers.”

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Ear hooks in 14k gold with 0.24 ct. t.w. diamonds hand-woven with 1.33 cts. t.w. spinel; $3,770; Simon Alcantara, NYC; theteam@simonalcantara.com; simonalcantara.com

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Sterling silver collar hand-woven with 3.83 ct. t.w. spinel, coq and heckle feathers, and gold cord, $865
 

From Ballet to the Bench

That Alcantara would land in the spokesperson spotlight was never a given. He’s always operated independently, on a smaller scale, and the majority of his business is overseas—68 percent in Japan alone. In fact, it wasn’t even very obvious that this native New Yorker, from Inwood, would enter a career in design. His sights, since accompanying a friend to a jazz class at age 14, were squarely set on the stage. 

And, in that world, Alcantara’s star was on the rise. For starters, he’s Dominican; dancing is in his blood, he reminds you. And he was extraordinarily flexible for a boy. Then there were all the extra hours he spent tripping the light fantastic at Studio 54—he was 12 when he started going, brought there by a socialite mother of a friend (no one batted an eye—oh, the ’70s!). Alcantara bagged one dance scholarship after the next, ultimately studying under the renowned Madame Darvash, while professionally he began traveling the world with ballet companies from Ohio, Louisiana, Florida, and Georgia.

An injury on the first day of rehearsals for The Nutcracker—“you know, the millionth Nutcracker,” he quips—for the Connecticut Ballet brought that all to a halt. He was on crutches for six months, going stir-crazy. His antidote? Renting movies from the local library and focusing his attentions on a hobby he had picked up from a fellow dancer: jewelry-making.  

“I became obsessed,” Alcantara recalls, describing his early designs as “sparkly.” His initial client base consisted of those in ballet circles and his mother’s friends, who bought his wares at $4 and $5 a pop. That is, until a friend—the same girl who turned him on to the craft—wore his necklace to a party, where she met a Patricia Field employee who wanted to know more about this budding jewelry designer.  

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14k yellow, white, and rose gold bangles, hand-woven with up to 3.85 cts. t.w. lapis, agate, garnets, and pyrite, $1,345–$1,470

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24 mm white gold disc with 0.2 ct. t.w. diamonds, 4 ct. black agate disc, hand-woven with white gold and 0.03 ct. t.w. diamond bail and 3 ct. quartz slide on red cotton cord, $3,685

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Sterling silver bracelet hand-woven with 1.33 cts. t.w. spinel, coq and heckle feathers, and gold cord, $695
 

Do-It-Yourself Style

Because Alcantara never studied jewelry design or metal-smithing, his sensibility leaned heavily on DIY—like the bejeweled leather macramé chokers he created for that first Patricia Field order in 1994 (they sold out in three days). There was a sense of handicraft and raw boldness throughout his work in those early years, even in his collaborations with designers—Mary McFadden (leather chokers with semiprecious stones), J. Mendel’s Gilles Mendel (jade and mother-of-pearl belts), and Oscar de la Renta, for both his couture collection at Balmain and his eponymous label (necklaces and earrings with hunks of turquoise, quartz, and carved bone). He went solo, officially, in 2003. 

Alcantara has refined his sensibility through the years, but it still pulses with an artisanal factor. He’s known for his weaving, the early leatherwork evolving into delicate woven chains and cascades of chain-link fringe. Where his look was once chunky and bold, now it’s “bold visually, without the weight.” 

The designer acknowledges that his entrée into the industry was a lucky one. He connected early with de la Renta, who became a close mentor and, as a result, had a network of editorial and retail support. Then there was the big get: Meryl Streep, wearing a pair of his earrings, in her HBIC turn in The Devil Wears Prada. Still, it wasn’t always easy. During the interview, Alcantara recounts several low points, including the moment in 2011 was he was ready to up and quit. 

Alcantara had cleared the first hurdle every designer faces: recognition and press support. His business was, fantastically, growing. But people tend to forget that success isn’t a single grab at the brass ring; designers, once the spotlight has shifted to the next hot thing, have the tricky task of navigating commercial demands while staying true to themselves. “I was miserable,” Alcantara says of that period. “It became less about creativity. Buyers are saying, ‘You need this,’ ‘You need that,’ and you want to please them because your numbers need to go higher and higher. But you start to lose yourself.” 

So he created that “last” collection with total creative freedom, incorporating everything he loved: raw quartz, feathers, jade, and mother-of-pearl—“materials that have good energy.” The collection, Nuntius (or “The Messenger”), performed beyond expectation and “took the business to a whole other level,” he says. Since then, he’s operated, without fear, on a single premise: “Be authentic.” 

Speech and Debate

Such unfiltered honesty makes Alcantara perfectly suited to head the jewelry committee. While the annual showcase is its most public forum, the real action happens behind closed doors, during monthly meetings. That’s when members bring in speakers—Harris invited a social media expert, Melissa Joy Manning lined up legal experts—and hash out issues such as sourcing (“Fashion designers sometimes go to factories together to get a better deal; why not jewelers?” Alary asks); education initiatives; a calendar cadence for presentations; and, the Damocles sword above every jewelry designer’s head, consignment—about which few will go on the record. 

“Designers are scared of addressing it,” explains Alary. “They don’t want to tell retailers no because they’ll get passed over for someone who says yes.” Because the bulk of Alcantara’s business is in Japan, where consignment isn’t as prevalent as in the United States, “I’ll say the truth,” he says. “I don’t mind going to bat because I have nothing to lose.” 

Consignment, says Alary, “is killing the business.” Without regular funds coming in, designers can’t produce new collections. Retailers want newness, but they won’t take the risk. The quality of what does get made suffers “because you’re going to do something that’s an easier sell. Our responsibility is bigger. We need to keep the jewelry industry alive for generations to come.” 

This past February, Burberry, Tom Ford, and Tommy Hilfiger all announced that, come September, they would present -in-season runway shows—a power move to wipe out the long-standing status quo. Maybe this new CFDA jewelry committee will be the first step in a similar sea change for the jewelry sector. 

“All the old systems are crumbling,” Alcantara says. “Now is the perfect opportunity to say, ‘Hey, we can work together and be empowered.’?”

Top: Alcantara in his studio (Photograph by Peter Chin)

Inset: Designer Mish Tworkowski of Mish New York, with associate Krista Fragos, at the 2015 CFDA Jewelry Showcase