Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Interview: Julia Leach of Chance

Late August marked the unveiling of Chance, a lifestyle brand created by former Kate Spade creative director Julia Leach. At its core are design, simplicity, and adventure, and the initial product offerings are imbued with these three elements. There is perhaps not a more fitting example than the iconic striped T-shirt, a classic essential that serves as Chance’s anchor. While the first clothing collection is for women (menswear is forthcoming), the e-commerce site also has a mélange of fresh essentials for summer, like beach towels and a selvedge stitch tote as well as vintage wildflower and seashell guides. The entire package—the shop and the archive of art and media—is neatly packaged in the cleanest of website designs. Ms. Leach was kind enough to take some time to speak with Things Is Cool.

THINGS IS COOL: Can you give a little explanation of your background leading up to the creation of Chance?

JULIA LEACH: Straight out of college I worked at Chiat/Day, an advertising agency. That was a really formative and inspiring chapter. The biggest influence on my point-of-view and creativity was my mentor, Jay Chiat. Working with him remains the most memorable and dynamic phase of my career. I met Andy Spade while working at the agency. I went on to work at a magazine called Paper. And then Andy called and said, “You know, Kate and I have got this young company, and we’re just getting started...” They had sample sales in their apartment, and were off to a great start with the business. They were just opening their first store, and I knew it was going to go somewhere, so I joined them early on and was there for eleven years. I started by approaching the store as an ad because there wasn’t an advertising budget, and I naturally grew into the role of creative director. I did a lot of the campaigns, built the creative team, oversaw everything related to design and marketing. It was another great chapter, full of excellent collaborations; Kate and Andy and their two partners gave me a lot of freedom and I made some lasting friendships.

T.I.C.: Did you know then that you wanted to build your own brand?

J.L.: Early in my time there, I wasn’t ready, but by the time I left I had the idea for Chance. So I let myself spend a couple years exploring other ideas and flexing other muscles outside of fashion. Really, it’s not so much about fashion for me; it’s more about ideas and personal style and design. After a couple of years of consulting and building out three different brand concepts, I said, “It’s time to build Chance.” I felt I’d sowed my oats and really wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and Chance was conceptually well formed. It was very clear in my mind what I wanted the brand to be. I made the decision late last year [2009], and last winter, I dove in. I’m not a fashion designer but I knew very clearly what I wanted the product to be. So I found a technical designer and a production person and off I went.

T.I.C.: What was the initial concept for Chance?

J.L.: Well, I knew I wanted to build out something fully dimensional, and I knew it would be product-based. My mom lives in France and I had discovered the striped T-shirt and it was a series of epiphanies. I thought, “Gosh, the striped T-shirt is so iconic, but other than St. James, there’s not a modern company that owns it as an anchor product.” I didn’t see it out in the market. I mean, there are a lot of striped shirts, but they’re either trendy or they’re classic. I really see it as something that telegraphs what I believe in: it has great design, it’s timeless, it’s about an artful or creative life, it suggests travel, and it has this international symbolism. And I knew that if I could do that really well it would allow me a platform to do home product and shoes and books all the things I love. The full expression of Chance would be a small hotel. Basically, Chance is going to become a repository for all of my passions, which are very much manifest in the launch product, and all the surrounding references and context that’s been established-music, film, design, art, travel, friendships.

T.I.C.: You mentioned France. Is that where you are sourcing the product?

J.L.: I grew up in Minnesota, but my mother moved to France when I was quite young, so I’ve been between the U.S. and France. But, while France does some wonderful production, it’s not necessarily the best place to go for a young company starting with knitwear. Through research, I found the best place to go for excellent cotton is Peru. So, through building production bridges, I found a great partner there who really embraced the idea. They were really excited about being in on the ground floor of an actual brand, and not just more T-shirts. They saw that what I was doing was a whole concept. They were fantastic in helping me find really drapey, soft cottons. It was all custom developmentfive different weights of knitsand I’m passionate about making sure the product is great quality at an appealing price point. The shirts are really well made and a lot of attention was given to fit and feel and fabrication. It’s gratifying that early customers are commenting on how much they love the fabric and fit.

T.I.C.: Obviously, Chance is not just T-shirts, though.

J.L.: No, not at all. It’s just a starting point. It was really important to me to launch with a diverse but focused product assortment. There are beach towels and tote bags and espadrilles and hats and books. It’s—and I wish there was a different word for it—but it really is a “lifestyle” brand. The striped T-shirt is just the beginning. The product story will unfold: what you pack and the appreciation for creativity and simple, quality design, whether it’s a tote bag or a set of sheets or a book or a photograph. It really is a whole point of view, and the striped T telegraphs that sensibility in a resonant way. You have to begin at the beginning. Paul Smith started with a great men’s suit. Lilly Pulitzer started with a little printed tunic. The striped T-shirt is what I want people to know the brand for on its most elemental level, but I want them to keep coming back because they love the product and ideas and they look forward to what we’ll be doing in other categories.
T.I.C.: And, speaking of those other categories, menswear is coming…soon?

J.L.: [laughs] Well, it’s funny. You know, the brand is technically four weeks old. I’ve definitely always seen it as men’s and women’s. And, over time, kids’, home, and the whole idea of travel and luggage, but all of that is the long-term goal. I was going to develop a small set of men’s items for the launch, but I found that I needed more time. I did the collection really in seven months, and the men’s samples just weren’t where I wanted them to be. But since the launch, the number one question has been, “When is the men’s line coming?” The enthusiasm for a men’s line has been really encouraging. It’ll probably be Spring 2011.

T.I.C.: I’m not surprised to hear you say that. There seems to be a lot of interest in men’s style right now.

J.L.: Yeah, very much so. Living in New York City, I see a lot of it, like Freeman’s [Sporting Club] and J. Crew and, of course, Jack Spade, which I still admire. But I hope Chance will be a little more simplified and definitely more international. It won’t be as steeped in the American tradition. That space has already been claimed by some great brands.

T.I.C.: Absolutely.

J.L.: And Chance really is more international. My aesthetic and experience draws on what I’ve seen in different countries, from the Mediterranean to Scandinavia to Japan. It’s this idea of the guy that you can find on any continent in any country wearing simple, quality clothes. I want it to feel refreshing in its simplicity and quality, but have a confidence to it as well. It has to have a subtle kick to keep things interesting.
T.I.C.: Do you have a team or is it just you? In other words, are you designing and doing all of the strategizing for the brand?

J.L.: Gosh…I am. It’s very much entrepreneurial in the old fashioned way. While I don’t have a staff, I have great relationships in that my web design team and warehouse fulfillment partner are both fantastic. The production person out of L.A. is a consultant, and my web developer is a consultant. I did design everything, but I hired a technical designer to do all the tech packs. The goal now is to grow the business, and then there most definitely will be a team. I really want it to feel authentic, to put it out there in a way that I would want to discover a brand.

T.I.C.: So you are Chance at this point.

J.L.: [laughs] Well I am, but I have to say that on a certain level, it has been like a barn raising. I have an incredibly generous and inspiring group of friends who have all said, “What can I do to help?” It’s a very loved brand; it has a lot of godparents. So while I am Chance, I could not have done this without my friends.

T.I.C.: What about the name, Chance? Where did it come from?

J.L.: Well, I was considering several options. But then I was watching the Peter Sellers movie, Being There, in which he plays a character named Chance who’s a gardener. The quote on the Chance website slideshow, “And all will be well in the garden,” comes from the film. And in the movie, one of the journalists says about this character, “He has a particular brand of optimism.” And when I heard that, I just thought that chance and optimism are so much what I am about. And I never looked back. The name was Chance.
T.I.C.: Regarding product sales, will you vend exclusively through the website, or do you hope to find retailers that will carry the brand?

J.L.: The business model is to start it online and then to build it through a network of really special, stand-alone retail stores. So it’s a retail model. I’m not building wholesale into it unless it’s done strategically, like if a compatible store were to want to do a capsule collection.

T.I.C.: You know, I have to say that Chance has the kind of beach aesthetic that I wish I saw more here in Hawaii. Speaking of, is that first video still on the website’s homepage in Hawaii? That beach path looks like it could be.

J.L.: No. That’s Fishers Island, in New York.
T.I.C.: Wow, I never would have guessed. The water is the same turquoise-blue that you find in the tropics.

J.L.: That’s the thing. The spot that’s on the homepage is about lines in nature. My friend Risa went out to Fishers Island, which is between Connecticut and Long Island out in the Sound. It’s this very special, unpopulated island and she and a friend just shot images for a couple of days. What I loved about that image—the minute she showed it to me I knew it was going to be the introductory shot in the video—is that it looks like it could be anywhere. It’s this magical path that is so emotionally identifiable to people as how they get to the beach, at least in their imagination.

T.I.C.: I think people will pick up on that.

J.L.: I hope so. I want it to be a brand that inspires people. These are difficult times, but I think doing something entrepreneurial, as much as it involves some anxiety, is worth it. It’s worth it for me creatively, and hopefully it can provide some oxygen to other people who want to do their own thing but aren’t sure where to begin. I do want it to be a business, now and always, that people will be inspired by and learn from, and I mean that in a very humble way. That’s what will make it all worthwhile for me.


Anonymous said...

Thank you again, ThingsIsCool, for bringing us, your loyal followers, original content by fresh and inspired talent.

Anonymous said...

I'm so excited about this brand. I worked with JL for a short time at KS and not only is she incredibly stylish and creative but also just a very kind friendly person.

Things Is Cool said...

Anon 2/26 @ 5:27--Could not agree with you more. The brand has extraordinary potential and it couldn't be run by a better person.