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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.
Lori Leven, with arms full of tattoos and a dainty gold stud through each nostril, is a serial entrepreneur. She would never call herself this—collector and traveler are her self-descriptors—but she's been hustling for years, successfully launching tattoo parlor New York Adorned, a jewelry business called World Adorned, and jewelry/home/curiosities shop Love, Adorned.
We sat down with Lori to talk about her Elizabeth Street store and wound up learning more about the history of tattooing than expected—Love, Adorned grew from the surging popularity of the jewelry shop that occupied the storefront hiding her illegal tattoo parlor. After the jump, how a teenager who got inked wound up selling $10,000 necklaces.
Tell me how Love, Adorned came to be, and how it grew from the tattoo shop, New York Adorned.
Well, they're two separate businesses. We just celebrated seventeen years in July. When we opened, tattooing was illegal. We had glass and metal doors between the jewelry store in the front and the tattoo parlor in the back. We had one of the doors on a garage opener, so if anyone came in—the cops or anyone—we could slide the door shut. You need a warrant to go past a closed door. Even if you could hear the tattoo machines, you couldn't go back there.
When did tattooing become legal?
I opened on Second Avenue in July of '96 and there was a very small community of tattooers in the city. We worked with the government and it became legal in the end of winter '97. I had another tattoo shop before that, an underground tattoo shop on Second Street between Avenues A and B, since '93. We moved into the new storefront and worked illegally for eight or nine months.
Briefly, how did you get into tattooing to begin with?
I got tattooed when I was a teenager and I wanted to get more tattoos, but I didn't have any money so I asked the guy who was doing my tattoos if I could help him around the shop.
Love, Adorned came to be because the jewelry store outgrew the tattoo shop [on Second Avenue]. There was no room for people to browse the jewelry because of all of the people waiting to be tattooed and pierced. I had been wanting to do something that was more broad—home wares, personal accessories, art.
When did you move into this space?
December of 2010.
How did you find your way from tattooing to jewelry?
The jewelry store was a front for the tattoo shop. I'm a traveler and a collector. I've been traveling around the world—I didn't really have a job 'til I was 30 years old, I worked in the bars bartending, and I would pick up project jobs because all I wanted to do was travel the world. When you have a real career you can't really tell your boss, "Hey, man, I'm going to India."
How did you transition collecting into commerce?
It started from the international tattoo community—girls that were desperate to have beautiful jewelry instead of stainless steel plugs. I would go around to Indonesia, to India, to Thailand and I would buy old stuff and resell it and also find people to make us stuff modeled over the old stuff. At the time I had a business called World Adorned for girls that had stretched ears and wanted something more ethnic and tribal but not old lady.
Why did you choose this neighborhood?
It was convenient. I wanted to be able to ride my bicycle. Second Avenue I picked because the space was incredible and it was cheap—no bank ever wants to give me money so every time I do something I have to do it on my own. I would have never opened up on Second Avenue, I wanted to open up on a sweet, quiet, cool backstreet.
Now you have that—Elizabeth is sweet, quiet, and cool.
Yes, and I looked for a year for this space, too.
What was it like opening this larger store?
Whatever space somebody gives me I can fill. It is nice to have high ceilings like this, to be able to hang things high up, and to have the space be expansive. I knocked skylights into the ceiling so that we could get crazy light in here from different times of the day and we could position crystals and things like that. I wanted the place to feel magical. Even though the space is large and open, we set it up so you are moving into different vignettes and feeling the magic of a different space within a space.
When you picture your typical customer, who do you see?
We have a very wide range of customers, for sure, because we have a wide range of prices. One of the things I always felt very strongly about was being universally available to people. I want someone to come in who maybe just moved to New York, or is just starting their career, and maybe has twenty dollars of expendable income—they walk out of here feeling like they got something good and meaningful for them. And then someone in the Hamptons—because we have stores in the Hamptons—can buy themselves a $10,000 necklace filled with old gold and stones and that's meaningful to them.
What is your low and high in the store currently?
On the low end we have these printed, cotton handkerchiefs from Japan—Leonard DiCaprio just came in and bought a bunch—and on the high end we have this Lola Brooks necklace for $7,900.
Do you have a favorite item in the store right now?
I just got back from the flea markets in Massachusetts and found this ring that looks like it's woven with diamonds and 18k gold. It weighs 40 grams. You put it on your finger and it's like the Lost City of Atlantis. [Simulates a sinking motion.]
Are you here every day?
I have four stores. I work a lot.
What do you look for in an employee?
I look for reliability, interest in the product, smart, personable, good follow through.
Is there a Holy Grail item you haven't been able to stock but you're dying to carry?
Yes, there are a couple of brands that I'd like to carry that are carried in other places with exclusivity, but I'm patient and I find other good brands. When things change I'll have those brands, too.
Do you have any advice for people trying to break into jewelry or retail?
The key to success is perseverance and not listening to anyone else who tells you you can't do something. If you show up every day and work your butt off, you'll do it.
8am or 8pm?
Rockaway or Montauk?
Mac or PC?
Item in your closet you'd be lost without?.
My denim snap shirt. Vintage, by the way.
Blue Ivy or North West?
I have no idea what that means. Yes I do—babies. Beyonce for sure. Did you see her HBO documentary? So good. If you only kind of like her you'll really like her when you see it.
Chore you hate?
Most of them. Housework. I love to build but I don't like to clean.
Michele Lamy, Rick Owens' wife.
1920s, 1960s, or 1990s?
Mayo or mustard?