Both vintage and new, Alex & Lee’s sought-after talismans are wrapped in California spirit.
The year was 1970. Alex Maté and Lee Brooks were strolling the Fire Island shoreline when a woman remarked on the unusual beauty of Maté’s necklace—one he’d crafted for himself out of sea-drift miscellany collected during those walks.
The inseparable young couple—a Spaniard by way of Brazil and a Bakersfield native—would soon learn this admirer was Gwen Mazer, accessories editor at Harper’s Bazaar.
“The jewelry Alex was wearing was so of the moment—very organic with a mix of seashells, stones and silk cords in tie-dye, very haute hippie,” explains Mazer. “You could mix their jewelry with a rope of real pearls, coral and other trinkets, and it all flowed together.” She commissioned 20 items for her then-forthcoming boutique. “With our caftans styled after Indian kurtas, along with imports from Afghanistan, Turkey, and accessories from France, [it] fit perfectly,” she adds. A brand was born.
The Alex & Lee aesthetic took shape, albeit a free-form one, during this period: necklaces with global, primitive and aboriginal ornamentation; styles like African collars, Egyptian motifs and winged scarabs. Feathers, fiber and minerals formed dramatic union. Maté did passementerie—cording, hand-dying, woven metals, ombré; Lee collaged, placed and finished. Brooks describes them best: “dream-like multimedia assemblages for a distant past and a distant future, which we coined the ‘ancient future.’”
L’enfant terrible of 1970s runways, Giorgio Sant’Angelo had his assistant call the couple to bring a collection to his showroom. “The boys made some BIG pieces to show him,” says Greg Franke, now partner and designer of the label with Brooks. The pieces informed the award-winning designer’s torn-and-tattered 1971 collection: Jane [of Tarzan] and Cinderella.
The N.Y.-based couple moved cross-country to Santa Barbara, then San Francisco, where they met up with John Johannsen, then the visual merchandising manager for the region’s Saks Fifth Avenues. An initial trunk show gave them entrée to S.F. society—and a long-running relationship with the department store. Alex & Lee and Kaisik Wong were at the top tier of the Art to Wear movement—high fashion transcending folk art—largely based at Obiko boutique. Run by the late Sandra Sakata, the retailer’s taste was hugely influential in legitimizing this look.
Any handful from the list of Alex & Lee collectors proves diverse: Ann Getty, Dodie Rosecrans, Elton John, Polly Mellon, Candice Bergen, Cher, Erté, Joan Baez, Vincent Price, Danielle Steele, Raquel Welch, Nancy Pelosi. Most intriguing, perhaps, is Salvador Dalí. In 1974, Wong brought an item with him upon a visit to the Surrealist, and Alex & Lee was commissioned to create 30 pieces for opening of Dalí’s Theatre-Museum in Spain (eight of the pieces are still on view). The pair remained in Europe for two years, hanging out with Dalí and the likes of Liza Minelli and Omar Sharif, making chrysalis collars for Fantastic Realist Ernst Fuchs’ Parisian vernissage. On the cusp of the 1980s, editorial pieces for Vogue, Harper’s, Geoffrey Beene (1980) and Oscar de la Renta (1981) would follow, as would the final COTY and inaugural CFDA awards.
Unfortunately, Maté passed away in 1992 of AIDS. It seemed Brooks would retire his jewelry making, having lost his partner.
But in 1995, Brooks met Greg Franke, a former hair stylist with a degree in craft design and a background in weaving and jewelry. He had skills similar to Maté but a style all his own. “I’m having a dialogue between my hands and the material, each cord a different personality,” says Franke. “[Lee] is starting with a particular element he picks up because of the color that works with the cording. Once that piece is in place, his eye moves to a different area. Lee loves the chaos of it all; I like the rhythm, the order of it. That’s rare to achieve in such dramatic asymmetry.”
Brooks and Franke relocated to a wonderland-like home/studio in The Sea Ranch, in remote Sonoma County. Found objects are everywhere: Brooks’ beach flotsam from the 1970s, Parisian flea market treasures, fossils, pearls, whole walls of trays and tool drawers overflowing with sparkling specimens. Their affinity for editorial led them to accessories for Alexis Bittar in 2003; and crystal-encrusted jewelry to complement L.A. designer Emily Factor’s spring, 2011, collection. Another fashion duo, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler, asked Brooks, now 72, and Franke, 61, to craft necklaces to accent the Resort 2012 lookbook. From this particular venture came revived interest and new fans.
Not too long ago, Michael Purdy, who runs S.F. design store Cavalier with interior designer Jay Jeffers, visited the couple at home. “I saw the  CFDA and  COTY awards in the entryway, surrounded by tapestries…I’d never really seen anything like it before. Lee began pulling out piece after piece, every one I loved more than the next. Then the scarves, then the brooches. It was overwhelming.”
Together with Margaret Sche, they co-curated a retrospective at Cavalier last fall. As each catalogued item was considered for the exhibition, Brooks reworked vintage designs and, with Franke, introduced fresh ones. Rorschach collages from 40 years ago have become enormous scarves. They made bracelets—smaller, accessible to a wider set. Home goods are next, including pillows and wallpaper.
No matter its age, an Alex & Lee original is distinctive. Adds Purdy, “At first, women might say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot going on. Might be too much for me.’ I say, ‘Put it on. I want you to feel it.’ The pieces really ground you and make you feel strong and confident. At the end of the night, women don’t want to take them off.”
Written by Alison Clare Steingold
Photos courtesy of Alex & Lee