Steven Shein doesn’t see himself as a jewelry designer.
Sure, his self-titled line of mostly necklaces is sold at hotspots like Kitson – the L.A. boutique worshipped by young, trend-hungry female celebrities – and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The likes of Mischa Barton and Paris Hilton have been photographed wearing his plastic, flat-laminate pieces.
But Shein never thought he’d find himself in the fashion industry. Despite the success thus far, he just wants to be a serious artist.
Growing up in southern California, Shein went to college in Santa Barbara “mainly to surf and smoke pot.” He wanted to study art, but his parents weren’t keen on the idea, so they agreed on architecture school as a compromise.
There he discovered the school’s laser cutter, which inspired his first line of jewelry Lee Riot. Everything snowballed from there, Shein said.
He entered an environmental design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Shein had been making bracelets when one of his teachers gave him some insightful advice: ” ‘You gotta find out whether the world wants it or needs it. What does the world need right now?’ ”
Shein appreciated his teacher’s wisdom later when he finally became involved in the fashion industry.
Without prior interest in fashion, Shein experienced the significance of marketing and advertising in the industry early on after naming his first jewelry line, Lee Riot. The brand started strong until Shein got an angry letter from Lee Jeans, who blocked Shein’s trademark application and attempted to sue.
“I had to keep on moving forward, and I couldn’t use the Lee Riot name anymore. My lawyer told me ‘The best thing to do is just use your own name.’ ” Shein said he never intended to do so, having thought that there’s always a sense of inflated ego attached to eponymous brands, but he felt forced into the situation, he said.
Shein next moved to Los Angeles, where he rented an apartment with Whitestarr frontman Asher Levin (Shein’s brother is also in the band). An L.A. native, Levin knew the buyers of various stores in the city and got the ball rolling for Shein’s jewelry line.
During the duo’s first stop on Robertson Boulevard – one of Los Angeles’s glitziest, most celebrity-laden streets – they walked into a store called Madison, whose buyers immediately bought some of his jewelry.
Shein’s pieces, made mostly from plastic flat-laminate, wood and mirror, are laser-cut into mini-icons like boomboxes, strawberries, roller skates and flamingoes. The jewelry’s tiny details and glittery, candy colors have a smart collectible quality, reminding Gen-Yers of the toys and play accessories they had in the ’80s and early ’90s. At about $100 a pop, the pieces are an obvious step up, but certainly still in the price range of L.A. fashionistas.
“I’d say this is where the sparks began to fly – which is kind of the birth of everything and how it led to a global business,” Shein said. “I would make everything and (Levin) would sell everything. I really credit him.”
Kitson has catapulted to Robertson Boulevard icon status since opening in 2001, practically becoming a celebrity hangout for Lindsay Lohan, Teri Hatcher and Nicole Ritchie. The store carries Rafe, Pucci and Missoni (to name a few) and has since expanded Kitson Kids and Kitson Men down the street.
Since then, things have continued to grow. Steven Shein jewelry has been picked up by stores all over the country and internationally. Projects for Disney and lower-end jewelry boutique Claire’s are in the works, too. On 80spurple.com, one of the biggest online sellers of Steven Shein, 14K rings, earrings and clothing are now available.
And Shein is finally starting to accept his role in the fashion industry, despite his initial reservations.
“I’m kind of like this character who got sucked into this world,” Shein said. “It’s turned out there’s a world out there that I didn’t really know anything about, which is that teenage girls buy jewelry and fashion, and I’ve obviously learned to embrace that.”
Shein said he someday hopes he can go back to school and earn himself a degree in sculpture, but his fine-art endeavors might have to wait – it doesn’t look like Shein’s career in jewelry design is going to slow down anytime soon.