Meet Austin James Smith, the unapologetic jewelry designer who has mastered the art of maximalism. In his world, everything is over the top: just take a look at his locked-and-loaded Blaster headpiece, his skull-piercing Halloween jewels or his blade-like Saber, Baby Claw and Fang earrings, all of which were made famous dangling from Doja Cat’s head. Today, however, the Smith that we’re acquainting you with wants to leave his extremist fantasies behind for a moment. His latest collection, titled “UTOPIA,” tones down the traditional style tropes that Smith fans are used to — because, in his words, “life isn’t a Doja Cat music video all the time.”
Departing from the label’s usual drama-first, utility-second design ethos, “UTOPIA” is more subtle — or at least it’s Smith’s version of subtle. He was galvanized by the notion that worn objects shape identities, pushing individualism to the fore. The collection tackles the neverending conflict between the urge to stand out and the desire to fit in, all with a futuristic, technological lens. With clean edges, sleek finishes and quieter silhouettes, the designer’s seventh collection is intended for the everyday, but it still possesses his punchy persona.
“I’ve done the big crazy pieces and I always want to do the big crazy pieces, but this is me exploring how I can take my brand identity of being very punchy and tone it down to something more accessible for everyone,” he told Hypebeast.
Inside “UTOPIA,” Smith imagines bullring necklaces in striking gold and silver, alongside a slew of Blaster earrings that appear ready for fashionable combat. Torpedo Pushback Earrings mix gold and silver in a straightforward design, while myriad ear cuffs resemble artifacts from the future with multi-toned balls on their hoops. Individually, each piece pulls back on Smith’s typical full-throttle approach; but when styled together, those longing for his extravagant looks can achieve them just as well.
Below, Hypebeast spoke with the accessories designer about his brand’s journey and his latest inspirations.
Hypebeast: How did you first get into jewelry?
Austin James Smith: It was actually a weird hodgepodge of just me following different inspirations, becoming involved in the New York nightlife scene and more so in Chicago, where I started going out and dressing up. I started making headpieces and getting more expressive with my body. And through that exploration, I felt like there was a niche not being filled. I don’t want to use the term “male jewelry” because my brand is for everyone. But I felt like there was a more expressive, queer side to jewelry that I wasn’t really finding fit for me from any other brands that I was looking at. So I just said, “why don’t I just fill the void with what I want?”
How did you come up with the formula for building your larger-than-life designs?
I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a very open-ended school. You don’t really have a major in anything, and they really push you to try a lot of different types of things. I think that broad approach to general creativity kind of brought down the barriers of being afraid to step out of your comfort zone. So I feel like my education set me up with the ability to follow my creative intuition.
How long have you been in the business?
I kind of figured everything out pre-2020. And then, right when the pandemic hit, like literally the week of, I released my first true collection. So, three years now?
It must have been difficult to launch a brand that is so heavily inspired by nightlife and dressing up during a time when people were locked inside.
It was actually a really big bummer. We were doing our little, close-friend COVID hangouts and I was wearing all my crazy pieces to go sit in someone’s basement. I will say, the most annoying part was that I was getting really into ear cuffs and things that weren’t for piercings, and to have to put my mask over that to go do anything was always a struggle.
What were you thinking about when creating this latest collection?
This is now my seventh collection, and I feel like it’s evolving with the way that I am evolving. I would say this is the most toned-down collection I’ve released so far. I’ve done the big crazy pieces and I always want to do the big crazy pieces, but this is me exploring how I can take my brand identity of being very punchy and tone it down to something more accessible for everyone. For example, I’m doing a lot of small earrings, but you could wear a lot of them at once on your ear and a lot of the ear cuffs and your ear can look really done up. Or, you can just wear one or two and it’s still more chill.
It’s not in a way that is selling out or not true to me because I’m getting older as well. I don’t even like to dress up as crazy for nightlife events anymore. I have a little bit more of a demure vibe about me and my style.
Do you have a favorite piece in this line?
The bullring necklace, honestly. The other part of this collection too was to take ingrained jewelry motifs that everyone recognizes and put my own spin on them. I think that’s fun. I tried to do that with a few of the pieces for this. There are things that you might look at and think like, “Oh, I’ve seen a hoop earring with a ball on it.” But if you actually look closely, it’s very detailed and different from any other normal hoop ball.
What does your design process look like?
I compartmentalize all of my different art aspects. So when I am designing a collection, I’m fully engulfed in it, like that’s all I’m doing creatively. I’m really just drawing a shit ton. And then something I’ve learned is to do that and let it sit for a while and then come back to it. For this collection, I was going for a very sci-fi vibe, and the earrings that are the torpedoes, they’re just straight lines. But when I first drew them, they were full-on actual torpedoes with so much more detail. It really looked like something that was off of Star Wars, which I loved. But then, I let it sit for a while and came back to it and I was like, okay, I actually love the idea of this, but life isn’t a Doja Cat music video all the time. I took that original design and simplified it down to something that’s still, I think, really fierce, but isn’t so specific for one actual moment.
What made you want to start a brand?
I am creative in so many different ways and I think being able to be an art director with the brand ticks all the creative boxes that I always wanted to tick. And it’s nice to have a product so I’m able to sell through that. I can be creative or I can test things out without it being like, this has to be for a gallery show. I can utilize my creativity in a way that still feels true to myself without needing to commercialize a whole lot. That was the whole point of me starting the brand. For example, I did a shoot with Josie DuPont wearing a bald cap, and to me that was a really fun opportunity to art direct with a cool model. It’s totally not something that I do all the time, but between getting to do that, getting to design my own stuff and getting to create my own art, my hand is always ia different creative basket that makes me feel fresh.
Who is the Austin James Smith clientele?
It’s anyone who is trying to be a little bit disruptive. For me, personally, I got into jewelry because I just liked how it immediately shows someone who you are directly on your person. My clientele is anyone that really wants to just exist as themselves and let the world recognize that without caring about how that’s perceived. One of my favorite things is when people who buy my jewelry tag me on Instagram and I can just see how powerful they feel through wearing pieces that I made. And I just like the fact that my jewelry can help people step outside of the box.
The “UTOPIA” collection is now available to shop on the official Austin James Smith Jewelry website. Indulge in the full line above.