One of my primary interests when profiling people for Dossier has always been those who do multiple things and somehow manage to do them well. A few months ago I met Julia Leach at Wieden and Kennedy, where she works as a creative director. I knew that she had come there from Kate Spade, where she worked for 11 years as EVP/Creative Director developing the brand’s eminently recognizable aesthetic. During our meeting, I also learned that she has her own clothing and accessories line, Chance, which she works on nights and weekends. Chance is a line bulit around well-made, beachy essentials – the perfect striped shirt, elegant beach towels, a leather bag you really want to carry everything in. Along with asking her some questions about how her multi-faceted career has come to pass, I asked Julia to share some of her inspiration boards for the current Chance collection, built around Greece, as well as a video shot there for the brand.
Skye Parrott: Can you tell me about your background? How and where did you grow up, what was your family like?
Julia Leach: My parents (Mom, mostly Danish; Dad, mostly English) raised me and my brother in a wonderfully bohemian setting on an old farm in the Minnesota countryside. They’re both creative - Mom, a writer and art teacher, who was always drawing vegetables from our garden, Dad a potter, who originally set out to be an architect – and I’m grateful for their influence on me. There was a sense of understatement in our home, yet also a passion for clean design, thoughtful craftsmanship, organic food, and great music – all things I value to this day. They both had an effortless sense of style, but we never discussed fashion – though my mother often bought Paris Vogue and Elle, along with Gourmet, when we made trips to Minneapolis for my father’s pottery sales. My grandparents, especially on my father’s side, were very polished in a Brooks Brothers sort of way, so I was aware of quality and formal elegance from a young age. My own sense of style continues to reflect this collision of easy artfulness and classicism, thanks to my parents and grandparents. When my parents split up, my mother moved to Finland, where she met a wonderful French man. They got married and moved to a tiny village in the Dordogne region of France, where she’s been living for nearly twenty-five years. I appreciate that through my mother and Michel, I was exposed to a European way of life as well. My primary residence, though, continued to be with my father, where my horse was the main focus of my teenage years, along with school and my jobs.
Skye: Tell me about your early work life. What was your first job? Did you learn anything there that you still use today?
Julia: My very first job, at age nine, was organizing the desk drawers of a friend of my mother’s. My second (more official) job was as a horse groom on an Arabian farm. I absolutely loved it. I’d been crazy about horses since the age of five, so to be 11 years old and brushing, lunging, and working around these beautiful creatures all day long in the summertime was heaven for me. I was a groom until I was 15. Initially, my parents were a little nervous when I’d go to horse shows around the Midwest for a long weekend, but I’d shown a sense of responsibility, and they trusted me. I look back on this chapter and see the development of my independent instincts. Then in high school I worked in the only clothing shop in my small Minnesota town. I loved that job, too, as I’d started to enjoy expressing my creativity through personal style. The things I learned in each of these roles still come through in my professional life – a strong work ethic and high standards, a sense of order, creative expression, and independent thinking.
Skye: So how did you end up doing what you do now?
Julia: I discovered graphic design when I was in my early teens and took classes one summer at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In learning more about it, I discovered advertising, and was able to secure an internship at a small ad agency in Minneapolis between my senior year of high school and heading off to college at UW Madison. I majored in journalism with a focus on advertising and minored in art history, and set out for New York after graduation, focused on getting my foot in the door at a creatively-driven shop. By some sort of cosmic luck, I wound up getting a job as assistant to Jay Chiat, founder of Chiat/Day, after a short stint at a design studio. Jay was an incredible mentor and was extremely supportive, giving me many opportunities to learn and grow. While I was working at Chiat/Day, I met Andy Spade, and he and Kate had just started their handbag company. After Jay and his partners sold Chiat/Day, I left the agency and worked at Paper Magazine for a year, launching their website. While I was there, Andy called and asked me to lunch. Over salads on a hot summer day, he told me, “Our company is growing, we need help – would you be interested in joining us?” The brand was young, so it was a bit of a leap of faith, but I saw the potential in their sensibility and decided to jump on board. It was a great run – I stayed 11 years – and as EVP/Creative Director, Kate and Andy gave me a lot of freedom, which was a gift. Once again, the company was sold, and I was ready to take on a new challenge, so I departed, and shortly thereafter, I launched Chance. I love the process of defining a brand and building emotion and storytelling into a vision, so it’s been a very rewarding process over the past three years. Having a start-up can be isolating, however, and I missed a sense of scale and collaboration, and leading a team, so when an opportunity came up to join Wieden + Kennedy as a creative director, I jumped at it. The people are fantastic, and the agency’s creative philosophy resonates with me, especially given my formative years working with Jay, so I’ve found it to be a perfect counterpoint to Chance. That’s the path thus far. I love that my career hasn’t followed a predictably straight line, yet certain threads – design, style, innovation, risk taking – tie it all together.
Skye: Did you set out to have the career you’ve had, or was the path more of a surprise?
Julia: I set out to have a career in the design and advertising space with style and retail as a subset of my interests, and never considered an alternate path, so there haven’t been any big surprises. Each chapter has unfolded organically and each has come with great lessons and rewards, so I plan to continue to trust my instincts. We’ll see what lies ahead.
Skye: Can you tell me about your line, Chance? How did it come into being? What are the inspirations behind it?
Julia: Coming off the Kate Spade years and having been quietly instrumental to building the brand, it seemed like an intuitive next step to launch my own concept. The striped t-shirt is such an iconic item of clothing, and it telegraphs all of the values I wanted to place at the center of the venture – design, simplicity, personal style, and adventure – so that was where I started (the striped tee also happened to be a constant in my wardrobe). I didn’t want Chance to be seen as just a t-shirt line though, so I also created beach towels, totes, hats, shorts, pajamas and loungewear, and so on, all elements that further communicated the sensibility. It’s become a repository for all my interests, many of them posted on the Discoveries page of the website, and I plan to continue to build it slowly. I’ve enjoyed learning about the apparel design process, and my biggest satisfaction continues to be expressing the brand vision through imagery, films, and collaborations. Chance is about slowing down in a world that seems to be going faster and faster, so I feel no sense of urgency to accelerate its growth. I’ve realized that the sense of freedom that’s so important to me is imbued in Chance.
Skye: You mentioned that Chance is very inspired by travel. What are some of the specific places that have inspired the line?
Julia: The Chance launch collection was inspired by the core idea, “Artful classics that travel the world,” so I mined both French and American style, a reflection of my own background. I didn’t want people to see it as only French nautical, however, so the second collection was inspired by California, where I spend a significant amount of time. I’ve had a long-time crush on the whole state, but in particular, I love Palm Springs and areas of Los Angeles, and have recently been spending more time in Santa Barbara. And then there’s San Francisco and Marin, and so many areas in between. It was a special collection to develop creatively given my connections on the west coast. The most recent collection is inspired by Greece, a place that’s long captured my imagination. I traveled to the island of Paros in April to shoot photos and two short films with a small team from Athens. It was a fantastic trip and the assortment captures another side of Chance… floaty fabrics, simple tunics and caftans, and a color palette that telegraphs the natural beauty of Greece.
Skye: Where are some your favorite places you’ve traveled to?
Julia: In terms of personal travel, I return to Mexico again and again, and absolutely love Japan. I visited Tokyo frequently during my Kate Spade years, and look forward to going back again. I’ve enjoyed traveling to many other places, from Argentina to Cuba to Sweden to Switzerland, but Mexico and Japan keep calling me back.
Skye: You currently have two seemingly full-time “jobs,” between Wieden +Kennedy and Chance. How does that play out?
Julia: Wieden + Kennedy and Chance are great complements to one another, and enable me to play at both ends of the spectrum in terms of scale. There’s a tribal quality to working at Wieden + Kennedy, a place where there’s a relentless quest to do impactful, compelling, and culturally relevant work. In all candor, it can be challenging to spend most nights and weekends on Chance, but in the end, I do feel like my dual professional life offers the best of both worlds.
Skye: What is your role at Wieden? What are the projects that most interest you there?
Julia: As a creative director at Wieden, I’ve been focused on design, style, and retail oriented clients. Initially, I oversaw a batch of Target campaigns. Then last summer, we won the One Kings Lane account, and they’ve been a wonderful client. We have interesting new business opportunities on the horizon, so it’s an exciting time at the agency.
Skye: When I recently visited the office I got to see some of the design you’d done during the renovation. Is that sort of project part of your job description?
Julia: The office is also currently being renovated and knowing my experience with showroom and store design projects, the management team invited me to do the sourcing for the lounge spaces, not something that was technically in my job description, but a nice bit of happenstance.
Skye: It seems that you have your hands in many creative pots. How do all those pieces fit together for you? Do you have any more projects on the horizon? Is there anything you’d like to do but haven’t yet done?
Julia: “Strong visual storytelling driven by design and optimistic emotion.” That sums up my voice as a creative director. All the pieces fit together when I step back and see (and hear) this voice coming through and all my passions syncing up through various initiatives and roles. I definitely feel like there are more great challenges ahead, and I trust they’ll be a continuation of these themes. The next chapter will probably open with a dose of healthy ambition and a little bit of chance.
Portrait by Chris Shipman