Interview'I realized you can assimilate or you can learn more'

Neurodivergent fashion designer-to-the-stars wears his Jewish identity on his sleeve

Akiva Alpert got his start battling a controversial Urban Outfitters release by issuing his own Judaic-themed line. Now he works with celebs such as Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)
    Fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)
  • From Akiva Alpert's 'Blackmage' series. (courtesy)
    From Akiva Alpert's 'Blackmage' series. (courtesy)
  • 'Better Chemicals,' an installation by fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)
    'Better Chemicals,' an installation by fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)
  • 'Controlled Violence' by Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)
    'Controlled Violence' by Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)

What was only supposed to be a side project soon took over his world.

Back in 2012, Akiva Alpert was living in Los Angeles, trying to break into the film industry. He saw that Urban Outfitters had launched a line of T-shirts emblazoned with what resembled the yellow Star of David the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Disgusted, Alpert countered with his own T-shirts featuring strong Judaic symbols and Hebrew lettering — spawning Akiva Stripe, his first of many clothing labels.

In no time, the label boasted more than 10,000 followers on a very young Instagram and his career was launched.

Now, more than a decade later, the 34-year-old is a fashion designer whose clients include Billie Eilish and Justin Bieber. Increasingly, he’s also a contemporary artist and he just debuted his first large-scale piece in Mexico City.

And while Alpert’s aesthetic is decidedly streetwear, he says a deep-rooted sense of Judaism informs his designs. It’s a sensibility that took shape while coming of age in Albany, Georgia, as only one of 200 Jews in a city of 69,000.

“There was no one else like me there. None of my friends were Jewish and I faced overt antisemitism from teachers and friends’ parents alike. When you’re young there is nothing worse than being singled out like that. It was a very debilitating feeling,” Alpert said in a Zoom interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Yet, rather than keep him down, he said the experience helped strengthen his Jewish identity – one he describes as a little bit hardcore, a little bit metal, and a whole lot spiritual.

Fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)

By the time he matriculated at Georgia State University – where he joined the historically Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi – he was deep into the study of Kabbalah and had stopped using his first name, Cameron, in favor of his middle name, Akiva.

“It’s a way of paying homage. In my opinion, Akiva was probably one of the most metal human beings that ever existed; and an intellectual who was incredibly committed to his ideals and principles,” Alpert said. “They say that when the Romans killed him he was laughing in their faces the entire time. It’s the most metal thing I’ve ever heard, and honestly, I feel very connected to that.”

Rabbi Akiva was a 1st-2nd century sage, a major figure in the Mishnah, who was executed by the Romans after the Bar Kochba revolt.

“I realized you can assimilate or you can learn more,” Alpert said.

From Akiva Alpert’s ‘The Violent Dance’ series (courtesy)

Although he never formally studied design or art, he scrutinized the work of fashion designers like Rick Owens and contemporary artists like Daniel Arsham. But it is Virgil Abloh, the late artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, whom he considers his icon.

“He bridged streetwear into high fashion. He showed you could be creative without boundaries,” Alpert said.

Alpert’s style has been described as blending hardcore metal, 2000s nostalgia, and high fashion with bold color, oversized T-shirts, French-terry zip hoodies and sweatpants. Over the years, he has collaborated with designers like Ed Hardy and singer-songwriters such as Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, Eilish, and Bieber.

Working with Eilish’s stylist was simply “amazing,” Alpert said. “I have always admired Billie’s music as well as her personal style. I designed a number of pieces for her including a bespoke oversized T-shirt adorned with thousands of Swarovski crystals, conceptually in the dark-Y2k aesthetic I love.”

Likewise, when it came to designing exclusive tour pieces for Bieber, he worked with the singer’s stylist to make pieces that would wear well during a concert, but also pop in photoshoots. The result was several death-metal and hardcore-inspired graphic tees, hoodies, and oversized casual wear in high-octane colorways.

“Both are incredibly kind, and talented artists, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to make conceptual pieces for them,” he said of Eilish and Bieber.

Fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert at a recent popup event. (Courtesy)

Alpert, who leads a peripatetic life, said he feels most at home living in a hotel or an Airbnb.

“It’s tough for me to sit still. I’m the most energized when I’m listening to music, walking and looking and listening,” Alpert said.

And yet it was during the pandemic when the world stood still that Alpert found the inspiration to pivot away from fashion.

‘Better Chemicals,’ an installation by fashion designer and artist Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)

“Better Chemicals” was the first project out of Alpert’s new art studio Elioud, named for the part-angel hybrid race mentioned in the Book of Enoch.

Vacuum-sealed and framed in metal, a 1:1 replica of his body is crisscrossed with hoses. The hoses contain a blue liquid representing oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone.” As Alpert described it, the piece is trying to both show love as a purely chemical reaction in the body, and ask viewers to consider whether love alone can sustain someone. Alpert described the piece as his “most epic work to date.”

“Being that I am neurodivergent, I always tend to interpret love and relationships in a hyper-logical way, so I thought this was a really cool metaphor for explaining that take on love and my hypothetical inability to reciprocate,” he said.

‘Controlled Violence’ by Akiva Alpert. (Courtesy)

He added that he also wanted to “articulate the effects of love of the human body; eventually resulting in the complete degradation of the physical form, and human psyche; the notion that love kills slowly.”

Because the work went on display in Mexico City earlier this month, Alpert celebrated the first night of Passover at Merkava, his favorite Israeli restaurant there.

Looking ahead, Alpert said he’s excited to bring newer tools like artificial intelligence and blockchain technology into his work, whether it’s art or fashion.

“I believe in pushing forward as hard as you can, in trying something new,” Alpert said. “I think fully embracing these will allow me to explore a new realm of creativity.”

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