You might now Julia Leach from Chance, her fresh resort-focused collection of classic striped tees, beach accessories (totes, towels, hats) and more, but her most well-known work might actually be both more familiar and at the same time far more under the radar. Julia is a brand strategist, who honed her skills at the advertising giant Chiat/Day and later as the Executive Creative Director of Kate Spade for almost ten years. Even after launching Chance, Julia kept a serious toe-hold in branding, working recently for companies including Apple’s ad agency, Media Art Lab, Wieden + Kennedy whose clients include Target and Nike, and Ralph Lauren.
Julia has now started a new chapter in her career and is slowly winding down her Chance line to focus on building her own brand consultancy, Chance Studio. I was so thrilled when she agreed to discuss what’s next on TFI, because as much as I admire her as an entrepreneur, she is also a fantastic woman who is thoughtful, forward-thinking and generous. I could go on and on but she’s more interesting….
Please introduce yourself and describe what you do: In the most simple terms, I am a creative director. Sometimes I just say I’m a brand thinker and a brand storyteller. A friend once said that, “Oh, you’re like a brand whisperer,” which feels awkward for me to say that but when they said that, I thought ‘that’s true’. It’s what I love to do. I love to tease out the story and the truth of a brand. I always say brands don’t exist, you can’t reach out and touch a brand, it’s just a series of gestures. What I really love to do is galvanize people around a vision and a voice and then articulate that voice across every single touch point, creatively. It’s super satisfying and I’m grateful that it’s what my career is.
Can you talk a bit about when you were at Kate Spade as the executive creative director? I was really working alongside Andy and doing all the advertising in stores and events–all that stuff. Andy and I had worked in advertising together before and I wound up being at Kate Spade for ten years until they sold to Liz Claiborne so, it was a pretty long run They gave me a lot of freedom and the opportunity to come into my own because I was pretty young and I had just come out of working at Chiat Day. It was a cornerstone of my career.
Then you launched Chance after that? Yes, I did some consulting again around brand work, and then launched Chance. I feel like the striped shirt is one garment that is something more than just a piece of clothing. I had the idea that the striped shirt could telegraph my point of view and the values that are meaningful to me in terms of design and simplicity, travel and personal style. It was about a life lived creatively and less about just more clothes. Another person said, ‘Chance is as much about what you do in the clothes as the clothes themselves.’ And I always felt like that rang really true.
But then, within 18 months I realized that I missed leading and I missed bigger real estate so I went and took a creative director job at an ad agency called Wieden + Kennedy. They do all of Nike and are one of the last creative independent ad agencies. Then I went on to take a role on the leadership team at Media Arts Lab, which is Apple’s ad agency. While I was shaping Chance, I was been able to simultaneously have this creative career in the advertising space and work on bigger brands like Apple and One Kings Lane and Target and some of these other brands at Wieden + Kennedy. But it always goes back to story telling. It’s always about creatively teasing out the truth and coming up with ways to communicate that.
And now you are going out on your own with a branding consultancy: Yes, I feel like what I’m doing now with Chance Studio, is the culmination of my whole career. I love telling stories across a variety of environments and channeling someone else’s stories. So now with Chance Studio, I’m working with presidential leaders as a creative partner to find their brand’s unique point of view, crystallize it or evolve it. In the case of, Ralph Lauren or Beauty Counter, to give shape to it. So that’s what Chance Studio will be.
What does good brand development mean to you? It always comes back to a clear and unique point of view. It’s not about the power of communication or the power of advertising, it’s about the power of finding a unique voice. Once you have that unique voice, and you’ve found a way to articulate it through design and, obviously, identity elements and the product, which is a key piece, that’s what’s going to set a brand apart.
Why do you think so many companies struggle with brand identity? I think that sometimes there’s a tendency to look left and right and outside of what the vision is for the answers. They then come up with trends in the marketplace or tropes that aren’t unique. They take pieces of other things and try to shape something out of borrowed elements. That’s where ideas fall down. You’ve either seen it before or it doesn’t feel genuine or it doesn’t feel distinctive because it’s borrowed.
Three words that describe Chance Studio: I would say the new venture is collaborative, focused and quietly rebellious. That’s four words but, I think that describes the spirit of how I work and what I will be delivering in terms of solutions for people.
Three words that describe you: I’m bad at talking about myself so I guess I’d probably use those same three words. Collaborative, focused and quietly rebellious.
What’s come easiest for you in launching the brand consultancy? I feel like this is what I’m meant to do. I love leading a team and working with business people who know that a unique point of view and differentiation is what they need. Where as starting Chance [the clothing] I had to learn. I wasn’t a designer. I think two dimensionally, almost cinematically, and I had to learn to think three dimensionally and how to design the things.
Now what I’m doing feels easy. Bringing together writers, art directors, designers, packaging people and website designers and leading them forward to give shape to something is fun. They always say you’re at the peak of your career when it doesn’t feel like you’re working. So, I honestly don’t feel like I’m working now. And doing Chance, sometimes it was intense. It was hard, hard work and now, even though I work long days, it doesn’t feel like work.
What’s been the hardest part? I think, Chance Studio, there’s nothing that’s been hard about it. I think the harder lessons came in doing something entrepreneurial with Chance and doing something that was outside of my core. I was trying to do the design piece when I’m not a designer. And just learning from that process of, ‘Maybe this isn’t meant to grow. Maybe the idea wasn’t meant to be any bigger.’ And accepting that. Coming to terms with that was emotionally harder.
An attribute that helps you succeed: It’s funny after everything I just said about this doesn’t feel like hard work, I honestly feel like in my career, so much of what I’ve accomplished is because I do work hard. I believe in really hard work and kindness and putting in the time to care about the details and follow through on things and do it in a gracious way.
I never let something slide. I never phoned it in. I never didn’t care. I always saw it through to the best of my ability and tried to in a way that was hopefully gracious. In the business world, it can get tough. The advertising world in particular can be unpleasant and not that thoughtful but I’ve always believed that in being myself and being thoughtful, it does make a difference and I feel like it has helped me achieve what I’ve wanted to achieve in my career.
Advice be to someone starting out in your field: I feel like I’m a little bit redundant but I still believe it’s hard work. Nothing stands out more than a willingness to go the extra mile and keep looking for new solutions. It’s not about, ‘oh you have to work till midnight everyday’, but it’s a willingness and openness to learn and put the effort in and to be honest. I do feel like generationally, that’s a less common understanding that young people have. It surprises me that young people don’t recognize how powerful that is and how far it will get you. It’s competitive out there and it’s not unrealistic or inhumane to go the extra mile.
Role models: Jay Chiat. I worked with him at the very beginning of my career. He sadly passed away several years ago but, really in terms of the advertising industry, he is one of the legends. And to work side by side with him and to have had such a great relationship and for him to have given me opportunities when I was straight out of college. For him to have seen that I had the appetite for big challenges and his instance that good enough is not enough and always looking for creative excellence. He was demanding in a way that I’m not…he definitely had a reputation. He could be hard driving but he also was immensely, immensely generous and immensely supportive of creative talent and I have tried to do that as I become a mentor in my career.
He continues to be the voice on my shoulder sometimes when I think about opportunities that I’m looking for. Innovation and brands that actually really want to stand out rather than toe the line. Because that was what Jay was all about.
What motivates you? Telling stories that move people, that inspire them in a positive and compelling way. Putting beauty and truth and grace out into the world when it seems like there’s less and less around us. It’s not about a title or a dollar sign or any rewards.
Life goals: I think my life goals are now very much about quality time. To take care of my family and friends, and be there for them in a way that sometimes when you’re in a different time in your life and career is a big focus, you aren’t. Family, friends, my horse and travel, those are fundamental goals that are very, very essential for me. They nourish me and if I can continue to do the work that I love and have those four points on the emotional wheel feeling really rich, I’ll be satisfied in my life.
Daily goals: I try to either catch the sunrise or the sunset, to be out on the beach and outdoors once a day. It’s finding space to be present and it goes back to the balance of being motivated and ambitious but pausing and really appreciating where I am and slowing down. That has felt like a really important part of moving to LA.
Favorite inspirational/motivational reads: For a long time mine has been Marcus Aurelius Meditations. It’s old school, but there’s a lot of wisdom in it. I feel like I have a natural inner calm but there are pieces of his writings and philosophies that continue to ring true to me year after year. So, I return to it.
Daily rituals: Long bike rides on the beach, horseback riding on Saturdays, the farmers market on Sunday. A cup of ginger tea and the news. I’m not some eccentric with peculiar daily rituals.
How do you unplug? Horseback riding. When I’m riding, I’m completely free and focused, no technology, no distractions, total mental and physical presence. We found a great trainer and I’m learning dressage. I really, really love it.
Hidden talents/hobbies: Super boring answer, but cooking. As a creative director it’s another opportunity to tell a story.
Favorite charity: Even though it’s based in New York, I still try to be supportive of Publicolor. It’s Ruth Shuman’s organization where she goes into schools and works with the kids to paint. It’s about creativity in education. My mother was an art teacher; I think Ruth’s a visionary.
Do you collect anything? Stamps. I have for a long time. They’re fundamentally functional, have great designs and I actively use them because I’m still a letter writer.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Travel. Every summer I rent a couple different houses in different places in Europe where my mom lives. I’m not renting chateaus, but I do a lot of research to find unique homes in places that either that I love and have been before, like in Île de Ré or places that I’ve always wanted to go. This summer I am going to San Sebastian followed by a week in Corsica.
Favorite small indulgence: Expensive honey. You can get honey at the grocery store for a few dollars but that $16 beautiful Tasmanian honey, or seeded honey from some farmer in Petalum, it always gets me. I have a stash.
Album currently on repeat: The XX, I See You.
Scent that brings back memories: The smell of horses in the barn mingled with honeysuckle. When I had my horse growing up, there was a batch of honeysuckle right outside her stall. Those two scents take me back to my youth in a really beautiful way.
Lucky charm: Set of three studded rings and a horseshoe ring that I bought at a flea market in Copenhagen. They’ve been with me in lots of good times. Also just my history of my mom’s heritage, her side is Danish. There was something about finding them there and wearing them for many years now, they feel particularly lucky and meaningful.
Favorite hour of the day: 5am for sure.
5am??? Why? It’s the best time to walk or ride or drive. I don’t get up at 5am every day, but most days of the week I’m up and no one else is and it’s quiet. I love riding up almost to the end of the bike path near Malibu and the sun comes up and it’s just magical. You have the world to yourself and the whole day in front of you–I feel super inspired and clear.
Follow Julia: Instagram.