In the Studio with Amanda Thomas of LUV AJ
In the Studio with Amanda Thomas of LUV AJ
PHOTOS BY : JOHNNY LE | INTERVIEW BY : NOAH PHAM
There’s no doubt why Amanda Thomas has such a cult following. With her label LUV AJ, Amanda’s vision in accessory design balances trendiness with sophistication. Like a true Hollywood story, Amanda’s big break fell into her hands during high school, while shopping at LA’s fashion emporium Fred Segal. Decked out in a few of her homemade pieces, the head buyer at the time took notice of her gleaming work and soon enough, bought out her entire first collection of over 20 pieces. Fast-forward to over 10 years later, Amanda’s work can now be spotted on some of the hottest celebrities today. We recently went to her studio, where she showed us her wares and gave us some sound insight on starting your own company.
Let’s start with the obvious. Who are you? What do you do? And how did you get to where you are today? I’m the owner and designer for LUV AJ, as well as APRES jewelry — where I do 14-karat gold and diamond bridal jewelry and engagement rings — and Saint Lola, which is just fun, fast-fashion, high-volume jewelry and accessories. I live and breathe accessories all day, every day. Yeah, you’re generating accessories through all different sorts of channels and revenue. So what company did you initially start with? LUV AJ. It’s like my baby. How did that come about? I was born and raised in LA and both of my parents are entrepreneurs. They encouraged me to get out there and either get a job or an internship at a pretty young age. So I started interning/apprenticing for a clothing and jewelry designer, Corey Madley. She had a studio on Abbot Kinney back in the day and she just taught me the basics of making jewelry. I really fell in love with the process and started making pieces for my friends. Any time there’d be a prom or a dance I would make jewelry to match everyone’s dresses. I was selling pieces at school and then had a chance encounter with a buyer. I was shopping one day at Fred Segal and the buyer loved all the pieces I was wearing and invited me back for a meeting and they ended up picking up the entire line that I had made. That’s kind of when it all started. So I was 14 when I got Fred Segel, and then by my senior year I think I was in twelve locations and had started my e-commerce sites. Wow, 14. It’s a pretty young age to be having this hustle mentality. Yeah, I mean honestly it was just something I would love to do. It’s just like a fun hobby. And then the fact that people were buying it and I was making money was just icing on the cake. It started as a passion project, that grew into my career. I’m really lucky that I’m able to do what I love. You mentioned your parents were entrepreneurs. What did they do? They had a production company based out of Santa Monica for many years. They made commercials. My dad was a director and then my mom ran the company. They’re retired now. How did jewelry fall into your hands? Were you big on crafts and making small trinkets when you were younger? You know at 14, that’s when you start developing certain skills and interests that you’re into pursuing when you’re in high school and you’re exploring, meeting new people. How was jewelry the thing that stuck? I used to experiment a lot. My dad has a pretty crazy range of skills. He did photography and storyboarding; he was an incredible illustrator and things like that. Growing up, he always had me and my sister doing so many different crafts and we actually had our own studio in our house. So once I started interning for this designer and learned how to make jewelry, I just kind of ran with it. And then I started making money pretty quickly from there so that’s kind of the main reason why I stuck with it. But ultimately I just I really liked doing it; it was almost therapeutic to make jewelry.
Yeah for sure. Do you remember any of your first significant pieces that Fred Segel carried that stuck out to you? There were so, so ugly. I mean, it was it was cool. Back then I did a lot of asymmetrical, mismatched, beaded earrings. They’d be long drop earrings but all different color-shaped beads. I used to appropriate vintage jewelry, so I would cut up vintage chains, take charms from necklaces and brooches and then make those into necklaces again or earrings, etc. I did a lot of one-of-a-kind pieces, with vintage findings. That was definitely a big thing for me for many years. You were digging through vintage almost like before vintage was a thing? Yeah in 2004. How was this scene back then for jewelry and accessories? It was pretty cool. There was so many flea markets like the Rose Bowl and the Melrose Trading Post. Those were all open, so I would go every weekend. And obviously the internet is an awesome resource too. I would go to all these strange little stores online and buy old dead-stock chain stuff. I’d get like a hundred feet of chain that could never be reproduced again and make limited runs of things. LA has been one of the biggest entertainment and media hubs. Has living and being born and raised here inspired your work in any way? I wouldn’t say it’s inspired me necessarily but definitely has been very helpful. I did a ton of different internships and having those contacts has been very helpful to help me expand my business. A girl I went to high school with ended up being the accessories editor of Vogue — which is just crazy, but I was lucky enough to get that in for a couple of years while she was there. I think if I went to a high school in another city that might not be the case. Was this the only thing you did outside of high school? I never thought it was going to be my career until a couple years after college. Every summer I ended up doing a different internship or job. I worked for a celebrity stylist. I worked for a PR firm. I worked for a clothing designer, Rachel Kelly. I worked for Rachel Zoe. I dabbled in all these different fields in fashion, and it was more of a process of elimination and figuring out what I didn’t like, and then at the very end, once I graduated college, jewelry was the only thing that I was still doing and still liked to do. So I decided to pursue that. Being a designer is one thing, but running your own business is a completely different ballpark. When did you officially start LUV AJ? Was that when you got your line into Fred Segel or was it after college? I officially started and got a business license trademark and everything in 2004. But I didn’t start doing it as my full time career until 2011.
How did you learn how to operate a business? Most of it was by trial and error. I was definitely very blessed because my parents were super helpful; I used my parents attorney and I used my parent’s accountant. They had all those things in place for their company so they let me piggy back on some of their stuff, which was really great. If I didn’t have them, I don’t know where I would’ve even started. For sure. That’s really great that you have an amazing support system. I think that’s like one of the biggest factors of starting and pursuing your career into a legitimate profession. Definitely. It’s very daunting all the things you have to do to be up and running legally. It was really helpful to have someone else who knew what they were doing, guiding me along the way. Very cool. Yeah, in today’s day and age with social media, I think that you can’t just be an artist. You have to be your own producer, web designer, marketing manager and all that. I guess you caught on at a pretty early age. Definitely. You have to be this jack-of-all-trades, but you know, as your business grows and as you become more successful, it’s about figuring out what things you’re really good at and keeping those for yourself and then delegating the things you’re not good at to other people. I think that is most people’s downfall; they try to do too much stuff. Yeah, for sure. Speaking on downfalls and more challenging things, when you first started this company, what was a difficult process that you wouldn’t have imagined? I think one really big challenge in general, that I still deal with, is cash flow. Especially when you’re growing and going from a really small company to a medium sized one, there’s this awkward jump where you’re now getting a ton more orders. You have to place more production orders, sometimes you’re having to spend a lot of money, but then one day you’re waiting for money to come in later. It’s a bit of a balancing act. Making sure that you have actual cash to pay your bills and pay for your products, that’s something I was never taught. It was just something I figured out on my own. But yeah, I think in the beginning, being resourceful and only spending money on things you really need is important. Maybe the first time you do a lookbook, you don’t need the most expensive photographer, maybe your friend models. Or when you’re building your website you don’t need to pay for a completely custom design. You can find a template that already exists and feels on brand. I think there’s definitely a lot of ways to cut corners when you’re first starting out. Try to be as frugal as possible as you’re growing for business. Are you still involved with the design work? What is your place with LUV AJ, APRES, and Saint Lola? That’s actually the one saying I’ll never compromise on: I design everything myself. Something that’ll never change. I just think it’s important. You can tell that someone designed it and I try to make things original and unique. I think that’s a huge part of the brand and why it is popular. I would definitely never compromise that but I’m not making the jewelry anymore, so my design process is much much different than it was 10 years ago.
Do you have any pieces that are your favorite or the most interesting you have designed that sticks out to you from 2004 till today? I’m sure you’re proud of all of your pieces. I think in 2012, I did this shark tooth collection. I’ve just always been obsessed with sharks and collecting old relics. I bought a megalodon great white tooth that was about four-inches tall; it’s insane. I cast the tooth into brass and then I ended up making an entire collection based on it. It was one of my most popular collections to date. I also feel like when people see it they’re like, “Oh my god! I remember that!” It was just really cool, different and bold — one of the most fun ones to make. How many different iterations of a shark tooth could I do, yet still make it really cute and wearable? Can you take me through the creative process of the lines and series you make, like the shark tooth? How do you find inspiration from your other pieces? Each season I look at two different things; I look at the analytic side and see what’s selling really well for us. I try to synthesize that down into different styles and categories, and then on a more creative side, I look at vintage jewelry. I look at books. I look at jewelry, museums and Pinterest. I look all around trying to find inspiration and then from there I create the collection. It’s always based on what’s selling, what’s still left and how people are going to buy again. Making it original with the different motifs, symbol and designs that I have like been looking at. Would you say your techniques for developing more extravagant jewelry has grown? What sort of techniques have you learned that stood out to you? Yeah, just like like taking raw crystals and figuring out how to set them into earrings, necklaces and bracelets and things like that in a cheap way. I mean my process is so much different now because now I really do everything digitally. I make tech packs that go to a factory. It’s less hands on in terms of the materials I’m working with but it’s also cool because I can really make anything I think of. Now for me, it’s about expanding my mind and making sure that I’m taking in inspiration as much as possible, so that I’m not like a one-trick pony and I’m making things that are innovative. Yeah, for sure. If you make a piece by hand is it more difficult to hand to your distributor and say I would like to get this replicated, rather than a digital file? It’s actually way easier. I don’t necessarily have access to all of the materials that my factory has access to. What would be some advice you would give for people that are new to accessorizing themselves? Start small and just start building your collection. It’s just about finding pieces that you’re comfortable with wearing everyday. The jewelry that I wear everyday is not necessarily crazy, but I usually wear a lot of it and are all special pieces that I’ve collected over the years. It’s kind of like getting tattoos. It’s like getting a sleeve, you don’t get a sleeve in one sitting. You get a sleeve over time. That’s how I feel about jewelry. Collecting it over the year and collecting pieces that really mean something to you.