Interview with Yves Spinelli of Spinelli Kilcollin
YVES, TELL ME ABOUT LAUNCHING YOUR BRAND.
"I developed the first set of interlocking rings for myself in 2008 while I was working at Maxfield. I had been dreaming about starting my own brand for a few years, but I was experimenting more with sewing at the time. I met Dwyer Kilcollin around that time, and we soon discovered theat we shared a vision for design, and that we both wanted to work together to start a brand. We liked the permanent qualities of jewelry, and felt that there was room in the market for a collection that was bold, modern and clean.
We officially started Spinelli Kilcollin in 2010, and slowly built a strong following over the next couple of years by working with iconic retailers. I did a lot of things that some people say you “can’t do” - I would call a boutique owner on the phone to make an appointment, or would literally walk ino stores to speak to the buyer about carrying our brand. It helped that we were building a network of great stores, and that we had a unique collection. I always felt that I would rather work with fewer retailers who loved and understood our collection rather than dozens who might just stick us in some random jewelry case."
GROWING UP IN HAWAII, YOU STUDIED JEWELRY DURING HIGH SCHOOL. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE MEMORY OF THAT TIME IN YOUR LIFE?
“I went to Punahou, and we were encouraged to explore art. In high school, we were fortunate enough to have classes in glass-blowing, ceramics, pottery, photography and, of course, jewelry. I took jewelry on a whim, and instantly fell in love. It took about 15 minutes to walk to the open-air jewelry lab, and it felt like you were leaving the campus to enter your own world. The lab was open late, and jewelry was the last class of the day, so you could literally work and play for hours until the sun went down.
I signed up for the class with my best friend Hal, and we would spend hours experimenting with soldering and melting different kinds of metals, making weird things that were impossible to wear – I still have a few pieces hidden in a secret drawer. Our teacher was amazing, and she didn’t dare stifle our creativity, no matter how crazy our projects were. She also let us take over the communal radio to blast the classic rock stations, which no one else seemed to enjoy besides her.”
AFTER WORKING AT MAXFIELD IN LA, YOU WERE INSPIRED TO START DESIGNING JEWELRY. TELL ME ABOUT WORKING AT SUCH AN ICONIC STORE.
“I started working at Maxfield in 1997. I had just moved to Los Angeles two weeks earlier to pursue a career in music, and I needed a day job. My parents were fashionable hair stylists in Hawaii, and they would take me to Maxfield in the 80s. As a kid, I remember seeing Elton John trying on Yohji Yamamoto, and thinking that this must be the most exclusive store in the world. I naively applied for a sales position, with absolutely no experience, and somehow convinced them to hire me as a cashier. I eventually worked my way up to store manager of Maxfield Bleu.
I started working during Tom Ford's second season for Gucci. In those days there was no such thing as e-commerce, and we sold poof skirts and dresses from Comme Des Garcons made from waxed shipping paper. It was true luxury retail, and it was a major experience just to walk into Maxfield. Owner Tommy Perse had a real love and respect for artists, and he would buy pieces from collections that were one-of-a-kind, even if he knew they might not sell. He was also a true retailer from the old school, and you could learn more about the business from a two minute conversation with him than you could from a school course.
Working at Maxfield for twelve years influenced me tremendously, and I started Spinelli Kilcollin with very high standards. I would not compromise our vision, and I work with retailers who share the same integrity and high standards by which I was schooled."
WHO HAVE YOU LEARNED THE MOST FROM IN YOUR CAREER THUS FAR? WHO ARE YOUR MENTORS?
After Tommy Perse, my biggest mentor in the fashion industry is Ikram Goldman. Ikram is a huge supporter of new talent, and she got behind us during the early stages. We had started to incorporate diamonds into our collection in a very small way, and she was the first to see very big things for us. She challenged us to dream big, and make her a ring “covered in diamonds.” We had been waiting for this opportunity, and we made the very first set of pavé Galaxy rings just for her, with over 5 carats of diamonds.
We sent them to her right before New York fashion week, and she burst into our appointment one week later declaring that this was going to be our future, and that she would help launch it. She immediately called Sally Singer at Vogue, and one week later we got our very first press on Vogue Daily. Ikram has heralded us ever since, and continues to push us to dream bigger and bigger."
MAXFIELD WAS THE FIRST RETAILER TO CARRY THE GALAXY RINGS, RIGHT?
"They were the very first store to carry Spinelli Kilcollin. I hadn’t worked there for almost two years, and I brought the buyer a very small collection based on my original set of Galaxy Rings. While she loved the rings, it ultimately would be Tommy’s decision to carry a former employees brand.
The buyer started wearing a custom ring, and one day I received a phone call from her that she had the go-ahead to carry our collection at Maxfield. I was ecstatic, and still am. Besides being one of the best stores in the world, it was the start of my career in the fashion industry; I really felt that I was on the right path."
WHAT INSPIRED THE GALAXY RING?
"It was 2008, and I hadn’t worn any rings for about ten years. I was surrounded by a lot of jewelry at Maxfield, but it was all starting to blend together aesthetically. I saw a lot of figurative and overly ornate pieces, and there was a lot of jewelry that was un-polished and looked like it might have been buried underground for hundreds of years. I wanted to wear something that was bold and heavy, versatile and high-polished. I wanted to see something that wasn’t gender-restrictive, and could be worn in more than one way.
My original idea was to create three connected rings that could be worn across three fingers, and then I started playing with the concept of different gauges, and added more rings. This was the genesis for the original five-link set called the Aquarius."
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH THE FASHION PRESS.
"We’ve been fortunate to be discovered organically by the fashion press. Alison Cohn at Elle approached us early on to write our first feature in print. That was a pretty big deal. We were introduced to Selby Drummond at Vogue in early 2014, and she has been a big champion of Spinelli Kilcollin ever since. She instantly pulled pieces to shoot, and started wearing a ring around the office. We immediately started getting orders from the Vogue girls, and word-of-mouth spread through Instagram. From there, we began to receive emails from editors who wanted to pull for upcoming stories.
I know that fashion editors see everything on the market, and literally go through hundreds of images every week. It’s hugely flattering to get press requests, and even more humbling when we get personal orders from the same editors."
WHAT ABOUT PRIVATE ORDERS?
"The first year that we were in business, most of what we made were custom orders. Friends and private clients would create their own configurations, and we got to play with different ideas. We kept the styles that we liked best, and incorporated them into the line. But every piece really has its own personality. We have standard formulas for our diamond mixes, but the diamonds are set randomly and each piece looks completely different.
Everything is made to order, so each ring is essentially custom. Playing with different colors and gauge configurations makes each piece unique. Ikram’s first pavé ring was pretty major, but there’s an important energy that goes into each custom piece. You’re working with someone to create a new vision, and that is so inspiring. My three favorite ring styles were created for dear friends, and they have also been the best-selling pieces in the collection. That’s not a coincidence."
WHAT'S THE MOST REWARDING PART OF YOUR BUSINESS?
"Seeing people enjoy our jewelry has been most rewarding. Working with iconic retailers and editors who support us is huge. I want our jewelry to be worn every day and become a personalized part of someone’s wardrobe. I love randomly meeting clients who’ve owned our rings for years, and seeing the amount of wear that the piece has. It’s almost like a diary."
WHAT ARE SOME CHALLENGES THAT YOU FACE IN YOUR BUSINESS? HOW HAVE THESE CHALLENGES EVOLVED OVER TIME?
"Designing fine jewelry has obvious challenges – the material costs are very high, and metal prices can fluxuate pretty dramatically. The positive side is that fine jewelry is not subject to the seasonal challenges of ready-to-wear; it doesn’t go on sale, and it has a much longer lifespan in the market. I believe that there are even bigger challenges facing designers in the middle market. With the meteoric growth of fast fashion, it’s hard to stay alive as a brand unless you are producing something truly individual, and of outstanding quality.
We started as a luxury brand, and we’ve never strayed. Each piece is a unique creation with its own personality. Our customer comes to us looking for something new and interesting, and we work hard to create something of value. The idea of mass-production gives me anxiety. I like that I can personally inspect every piece of jewelry that we make, and that I can stop into our workshops to watch the progress – which I do daily. We’ve seen the luxury market grow in the last several years - especially in the area of designer fine jewelry. A lot of retailers have discovered that they have customers who are looking for fine jewelry that is new and modern.
The market for new designers has become more welcoming, and I see that there are a growing number of our contemporaries who are designing really interesting, beautiful pieces and also a move by some costume designers to elevate to the luxury market."
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU AS A DESIGNER?
"I get to spend my days creating a vision, and building our brand. There are days when I will say this is the most satisfying thing that has ever happened in my life. There are challenges, of course, but my work rarely feels like work. My motivation comes from unexpected victories – an earring concept that works perfectly the first time, a new diamond mix that becomes an instant favorite, seeing a complete stranger in pubic wearing our rings. At the end of each day, I’m thankful that I lead a creative life, and that I’ve made it into my career. I start each day as a new adventure, and set out to create something meaningful."