Close to the edge of a rooftop in Tribeca, Harry Bernstein struck a pose, the late afternoon sun filtering through his luxuriant curls. Beneath him, in stacked glass conference rooms, sat dozens of employees, unaware that their boss was ably modeling a patchwork afghan, selvedge jeans, and a pair of fresh kicks, planted mere inches from the cold, upscale nothingness of undeveloped downtown airspace.
Here’s what they did know: This man on the roof is an advertising godhead, the reason Boost Mobile demanded to know “Where You At?”; the reason Shaquille O’Neal played an improbable jockey for Vitamin Water; the reason kids line up for Supreme drops; and, arguably, the reason influencer marketing exists at all.
Harry “Bee” Bernstein, founder of the groundbreaking digital ad firm The 88, and current chief creative officer at Havas Worldwide’s flagship New York agency, radiates the excitement of someone coming off two decades of really, really good ideas.
“Let’s have a roof party and just pay the fine! We have good insurance!”
For most corporate heads with “chief” and “officer” in their titles, alfresco photoshoots come as rare as Peter Luger prime rib. But the prolific Bernstein—who does not eat meat—looks nothing like your average exec. He has called his style “streetwear clown,” but that misses the glorious high-taste-hippie of it all, as if Jerry Garcia had lived to see Adidas x Pharrell.
Despite the globally-sourced wardrobe of an Afropop Worldwide listener, Bernstein, counts a local upbringing—Queens, New York—as the source of his remarkable sensibility.
“In pre-internet life, what was cool was subculture, the underground and true rarity. Now, the market is about having what everybody else has. You used to want to remain in the subculture. Now everyone wants to be famous … [consumers] buy things because other people have it. Hypebeasts, literally, they buy things on hype.”
So when it came to his own closet, Bernstein, the master of starting and disseminating trends via social channels, wanted something different.
“I want to find a reason to find and to buy things. I had a Rolex that my dad gave me from the 1980s. It’s supreme, but it doesn’t feel like my luxury trope. Whereas what I’m wearing today, there’s a meaning, and a point, and a singularity. I’m searching for singularity, and a unique perspective on the world. That’s my job as Chief Creative Officer. So if I do what everyone else does, I’ll produce what everyone else does.”
One expression of this ethos, worn exclusively by Bernstein and a few high-echelon celebrities, are the turquoise-inlaid, metal-worked bracelet ends that he retrofits to accept an Apple Watch. These two components, from wildly different ends of the American crafts timeline, represent Bernstein’s major preoccupations: the interplay of digital and analog, the singular and the mass produced, the inert and the dazzlingly dynamic. Some of the bracelets use stylized snakes fashioned out of nails, others classic Zuni geometric patterns. Among the stones, the beveled face of a sleeping Apple Watch looks like an enormous black obsidian.
“I went to Fish’s house and I didn’t know if I was buying speed or jewelry. There was a parrot and a guy in a La-Z-Boy. One room had flat files full of necklaces, rings. I tell him I was looking for bolos, and he takes me into the bathroom. He puts the seat down, I sit on the toilet, and there are drawers of different pieces.”
Bernstein received a crash course in the foyer. There’s little centralized information on turquoise jewelry, and widespread forgery makes expertise a necessary tool in finding the best pieces. Now, he’s deep into eBay auctions, message boards, ancient websites, hunting for quality stones and bits of history. Which is how, somewhere outside Austin city limits, 1,800 miles from Queens, our man finally found his subculture.
Back inside the Havas offices, after an impromptu piece of performance art—what does it mean to use a glass-walled office as a changing room?—Bernstein leapt barefoot onto his desk. Adorned in bangles, he struck another pose, half-yoga, half-Amy Cuddy, before settling for a Talmudic shrug. Surveying the small group of employees below through discontinued Warby Parker frames—turquoise, of course—Bernstein murmured, “I’ve done this one before, but it works.”