“She is so f***ing cool.” Mention Luv Aj accessories designer Amanda Thomas’s name at any industry gathering and that statement will follow. With a personal style of black (Balenciaga) on black (Phillip Lim) on black (Dsquared2) and a line of turn-the-dial-to-eleven accessories, the 25-year-old has everything Instagram crushes are made of—just ask her 21,000 followers.
But don’t think the root of her success is superficial; Thomas started interning at the age of 15, learning the ins-and-outs of the fashion industry, first in design and then PR, styling, and media—all while racking up a powerbook of contacts in the process. It’s smart career strategy, if not an intentional one.
Luv Aj started as Thomas’s after-school project at the age of 16. Only after three years, six internships, and a degree in graphic design did she make the line her mainstay. Now, with over 100 retailers carrying her line and super-savvy fans including Jessica Alba, Karolina Kurkova and Nicole Richie, it’s easy to see that pacing it paid off.
As she preps to launch into leatherwear—That perfect leather jacket? Found!—Thomas opens up about getting her start, and keeping her edge in a cutthroat industry.
How did you get started? I was in high school and my mom said I either had to get a job or an internship. I thought an internship sounded way more fun, so I started interning for a local jewelry designer. There I learned a lot of the basics of making jewelry. I would go to flea markets and buy vintage necklaces to cut them apart and rework them. I happened to be wearing one of my pieces at Fred Segal and the jewelry buyer saw it and asked if I had any more. I lied and said yes. I went home and made a collection and they picked up every single piece. From there I picked up Madison, Lisa Kline and Kitson. I was 16 at the time.
Did you decide to make a career out of it right away? Not at first. I studied graphic design at Otis College of Art and Design and kept interning at different places--with Rachel Pally, then a PR firm, a Hollywood stylist, and finally WhoWhatWear. I realized I didn’t want to do graphic design and decided to pursue Luv Aj instead. It was then that I made my first real collection and showed it to WhoWhatWear founders Hilary [Kerr] and Katherine [Power]. They loved it and ended up doing a whole story on it. The morning the piece ran I got 300 emails--Shopbop and Nordstrom wanted to pick up the entire line, and Urban Outfitters wanted to do a collaboration. That was my ‘holy shit’ moment. I cried for two days straight and was very overwhelmed. But I just started cranking away, making every piece by hand. I think I made 1,000 rings that summer.
And now you’re stocked in over 100 retailers. How has being a designer changed over that time? As your brand grows your team grows, and my job has gone from being a jewelry designer to being a manager of people. I spend about three percent of my time actually designing. I design probably seven days out of a 365-day year.
Who are you managing? A lot of it has to do with production. Having a manufacturer is like having a husband. Under My Favorites on my phone are my mom, my sister, and my manufacturers. I literally call them that much. Then it’s dealing with wholesale and e-commerce, for example customers contacting you about the ring missing from their order. And then there are my interns, making sure they know what they’re doing all day. Our office hours are strange, we don’t open until 11 am. And that’s because I need the time to myself in the morning to just answer emails and get things done. Because the second people start coming in, I can’t be at my computer.
What would you say is the most important thing to do well to be a successful designer? I think almost anyone can be a designer. A lot of people have great ideas and great taste—just look at Instagram. The most important thing is really being able to work smart. That’s managing your time well, knowing when to say ‘no’ and when to say ‘yes,’ and knowing how to have a voice. You need to be assertive, but still nice so that people will want to work with you.
Of those things you named, none of them are creative. Is running a line not a creative thing? It definitely is. Especially with the sample process, which is the most fun for me. But even that’s very technical. Where do I get this or that material? How do I put it all together? It quickly becomes not so creative.
Is it what you expected it to be? I guess I expected it to be more creative. But I don’t mind that.
What do you think separates those make it and those who don’t? As you grow, it only gets harder. So it becomes about your ability to manage stress and responsibility. Don’t get stressed about stuff that’s out of your hands. So an order is going to be late because your manufacturer is late—then go ask the stores for an extension. In the beginning my stresses were very basic: finding a showroom that wanted to rep me and making my jewelry. Now my stresses are crunching crazy accounting spreadsheets to find out if my profit and loss statements are looking good depending on the size of my next production run.
You’ve done your own laundry list of internships. Did you learn something from each one? They ended up being really important because they showed me what I didn’t want to do. I’m also still in touch with almost all of my old bosses. Having those people that you can come to with questions—How do I do warehousing? What are my options with logistics?—is 100 percent integral to being successful in this industry. You can’t figure everything out on your own.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get the most out of an internship? It’s funny because I was an intern only three years ago, and now I’m managing interns for my own business. Interns need to know two things. One, if you’re going to be there, please be there. Work hard, be eager. Two: Be a good listener. I don’t want to have to tell you something twice. Bring a notebook and take notes if you have to. It goes so far. All of my good interns have gotten paid positions with me.
To what do you credit your growth as a brand? Social media has been a huge part of it. I’ve always been into social media. I really want my personality to come across, and a lot of the brand’s fans are fans because they like the way I write and the things I post. I’ve also learned that my number one source of traffic are bloggers who wear Luv Aj and link to my site, so it's not necessarily via Instagram where you can’t click to buy. And some of the top tier bloggers that post about me are not as great for traffic as some of the more random or niche ones.
So what’s in the 5-year plan for Luv Aj? I want to continue branching out. I’m introducing leatherwear this season—jackets and tech cases all made with the most insane black leather hides and custom hardware. For fall 2014, I’m also working on bags and shoes, which are my next big baby. It’s a whole new field and I’m still learning about it. I’ve done jewelry for so long and I’ve got it down—I can design a collection in one day if I need to. So I’m actually looking to begin outsourcing my jewelry production, which will free up a lot of my time.
Why did you decide branch out? I think I have the potential to do more, and I selfishly I wanted more for myself. I wanted the perfect leather jacket and a cool iPad case, and I saw a gap in the market. That’s kind of the driving force with everything I do. I can’t find what I want, so I make it.
Melanie Bender is a brand and marketing consultant with a work portfolio including Sephora, We Are Handsome, Topshop and Louis Vuitton. Find her on online at melaniezbender.com and on Twitter at @melliebe.