NAME: Jennifer Lia Luby
COMPANY: Jennifer Lia
How would you describe yourself in 5 words? Generous, passionate, driven, creative and an over-thinker.
What is the long version of how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in Mascot, Sydney, to an Ecuadorian father and Egyptian/Mediterranean Mother. Mum and Dad are both naturally talented artistically, as is my brother, so drawing and painting were always things I loved doing growing up. In high school, art and music were my favourite subjects. I would devour fashion magazines and sketch my friend’s Oscar gowns in the back of my books.
My first job was a Coles checkout chick (short lived!) but my passion for drawing moved into sewing and I started making skirts and dresses and selling them to my friends and teachers. I then started selling my label, Jenjuno, and hand-painted canvases at Bondi markets every Sunday. I did this for about four years. One particularly dear memory is of one Sunday after an unsuccessful day at the markets when I walked up to Jatali (Bondi Boutique) and Jatali asked where my skirt was from. When I told her that I had made it she wanted to see what else I had – there was basically smoke out the door as I raced to show her my luggage case full of clothes. She bought the whole lot right there! For a 17-year-old that was a BIG deal! Whenever I’m feeling up against it I think of that moment and remind myself that you never know what’s around the corner.
After high school I studied at the College of Fine Arts in Paddington (UNSW) majoring in textiles. I finished with first class honours and made the Dean’s List. While I was studying I started working part time at Esprit head office doing data entry and every odd job under the sun. A kidswear design role came up and I applied with the idea that I would put my small business on ice for now and learn the business side of retail with the plan to merge these two in due time. I worked my way to women’s buyer for Australia and New Zealand and had a stint working in HK.
A highlight of my career there was a campaign I created between Esprit & UN Women with my best friend Maria Catanzariti (who worked for UN Women at the time) to mark International Women’s Day. Every March, sales from the purple collection would fund programs in developing countries, which aimed to help establish gender equality, empower women and girls economically, and prevent domestic violence. I headed this up for three years and am proud to see it continue to flourish after I decided to leave my much-loved Esprit team after 10 years. The campaign and partnership is still my legacy and passion and it has recently been selected for Global roll out in the company which is incredible!
Throughout the last five years at Esprit I really missed my creative side, which was being overshadowed by a whole lot of maths, forecasting and analytics as a buyer (interesting given I’d opted out of maths from Year 10).
I began to draw and paint again, a little each day, and I taught myself how to build my own website. I continued to work full-time until I got to a point where I felt confident going out on my own. At the same time, my husband started touring the States and Europe a lot more (my husband is a musician - Hayden James) and his career was taking off so it felt like the right time to go out on my own, have the flexibility of freelance, and travel together.
This was two years ago and we haven’t looked back since. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses, but the freedom and joy of doing what I love outweighs everything else. At times I was naïve, imagining that stress wouldn’t be in the picture when you’re your own boss, but I definitely have had other stresses, challenges and pressures such as setting a routine, not having a team around me, earning a steady salary etc.
Jennifer Lia came about through my love of, and constant inspiration from, the beaches I grew up on as well as a want to translate the power these natural places have to transport you. I started painting these special beaches to create my own calm, from Bondi Icebergs - which has become my signature - to Bronte and my current home Manly. The beach is my happy place and I wanted to transport the viewer to their happy place, too. To see someone really love one of my pieces or have it up in their home is everything!
My goal for last year was to have just one exhibition and I’m proud to say I did this in December at the Paddington Reservoir, a place I used to walk by when I was studying at COFA. Since then, I’ve had another exhibition at Design Twins in Sydney and a showing at Two Hands, Tribeca, on my recent trip to NYC. I’m stocked in numerous boutiques and online galleries and my work has been featured in Virgin Voyeur Magazine, My Domaine and Huffington Post. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved so far but there’s still so much I want to do!
I think it is really important people can explain their main message in a concise paragraph – if the above is the full version - What is you elevator pitch on what you do?
I’m a local Sydney artist capturing the beauty of Sydney’s coastline line, from the iconic Bondi Icebergs to Bronte and beyond, through my original acrylic on canvas paintings. I’m inspired by the fragility and awe-inspiring beauty of our beaches and the sense of community and pride we take in ‘our’ beach personally and universally. I translate my original paintings on luxe linen cushions, premium prints and tableware, all proudly made in Australia.
Are you doing what you thought you would be doing 10 years ago? (If not, what did you think you would be doing?)
I knew I would be doing something creative and I knew I would be going out on my own at some point but I wasn’t sure it would be this. My 21-year-old self would be stoked to see what she’s getting up to now!
What does ‘success’ mean to you, and do you consider yourself ‘successful’?
Hmm that’s a tough one. For me it’s being in a place where I am doing what I love, confident in my own skin and surrounded by my family and friends. With that in mind yes, I’d consider myself successful. But in terms of my career there’s still a long way to go. It can seem like this unattainable thing to get ‘there’, but I am trying to take things one day at a time and not compare myself to others… just do me.
What do you still want to achieve (personally/professionally)
So much – I feel like I’ve only just begun. Professionally, I’d love to hold an exhibition or collaboration launch in the place where it all began - Bondi Icebergs - and line the pool with my signature painting. I’d love to enter international markets and become a lifestyle brand and household name.
Did you study anything specific for the career you are in?
Not necessarily. I studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Textiles at UNSW (College of Fine Arts), so it wasn’t directly related to my painting practice. The textiles side took me on a slightly different course but it taught me to nurture my imagination and creative side in the true sense of the word. It’s important for me to take the time to sketch or doodle everyday, go to a museum, read and really immerse myself in the creative side of my project. I find that not always thinking about the business side of what I do is something I really savour. It’s an integral part of my creative process that can be taken for granted.
What have been the most rewarding things in your career to date?
Every piece I sell and see in someone’s home is incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing like seeing a piece up on a wall after poring over it in my studio and seeing someone love it as much as you!
Creating the Esprit and UN Women ‘International Women’s Day’ national campaign has definitely been a career highlight and to see the impact it made and support it received has been really special.
Tell us about your workspace (Office / café / couch / aesthetic) what inspires you about your workspace?
I am very lucky to be working so close to the beach, which inspires every part of my practice. My studio is a small, simple bedroom drenched in natural light. I have an admin area with a desk, laptop, candles and stacked books for inspiration – everything from Picasso to Kate Moss. My painting space is my easel and floor, which is covered in an industrial canvas drop sheet with fresh canvases, colour palettes, and brushes ready to go.
What are some frustrations you have experiences on your career journey?
Transitioning from a corporate job to a freelance lifestyle has been challenging. I was so used to my regimented day-to-day so when there were quiet days or weeks I would feel unproductive and start to question things. I just needed to figure out how to get the most out of my day and the first step was getting out of my pj’s. Other frustrations have been related to ‘the hustle’ and being your own cheerleader. After 30 emails you might only hear back from one or two or get radio silence and the ‘Thanks but no, thanks’ can start to pile up, but you just have to keep pushing on - perseverance seems to be my motto of late. If you don’t ask you’ll never know. What’s the worst thing that can happen – you get a no?
When was the last time you where overwhelmed & cried from something provoked by work / workload?
A month ago, thinking: is it good enough!? Why I am doing this? Who will buy this? The same crap negative talk that goes through your head when things aren’t going the way you expected them to! It can be easy to get overwhelmed sometimes, but I try to bring everything back to basics again, take a breath and put things into perspective…often after a few glasses of wine.
Would you say you put pressure on yourself? Has this gotten more or less as you progress in your career?
Absolutely!!! I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself from a young age. I’m not sure why that is, but I just wanted to do my thing and get there on my own. I’ve just always had an idea in mind and found a way to get there, be it sewing through the night while I was studying, going store to store, doing countless early markets etc. I’m learning the older I get to not be so hard on myself, not to set up expectations and stop over thinking everything! Easier said than done but you have to give yourself a break!
As a business owner – you often can’t just check out / have a week off when you are dealing with personal things – how do you keep on keeping on with your business when things get tough?
There’s definitely that reality that if you stop, everything stops. I’m not at the point where I can hire a team so that’s been a challenge but I’ve been used to taking on the load from first to last step. Hayden and I are on the road a lot of the time and in different time zones, but I’m always on email – it’s just what I need to do to keep on top of things for the business and my own sanity, too. I’ve also started using a ‘do it now’ instead of ‘I’ll get to it later’ mentality which has helped to tackle any issues that arise immediately and combat unnecessary stress! Especially if I’m half way around the world, timing can be everything so I need to make sure I’m onto it. It’s a simple strategy but it really helps.
Has your career affected your personal life / relationships? If so how?
No not really. I am really fortunate to have a husband who also has a creative solo career so he gets the stresses, self-doubt but also the joy and flexibility that comes with that. He’s definitely my sounding board and very much a ‘what’s there to lose?’ person, which helps me think: yeah, I can do this!
Has your journey at times felt lonely? How?
For sure. When I first took the leap and went out on my own, I struggled with setting a routine for myself. I was used to a corporate work culture that was very much ingrained in me, so when I found myself on my own I had to find that self-motivation and seek out like-minded people in the community. It was really reassuring to discover that I’m not doing this on my own. At the end of the day, it’s all on you – especially when it’s your name. There’s a quote from Tyra Banks that I remember when I was younger watching ANTM: ‘If it fails it’s on me, if it succeeds it’s on me.’ I like that and think it encapsulates both ends of the spectrum.
What causes you anxiety / sleepless nights?
Sometimes it’s things that are outside of my control, which is silly! Things relating to logistics or deliveries. In that way I guess I’m a bit of control freak. If I could hand deliver every single piece I would. Making sure every customer is happy is so important to me.
If you had your time over again, from when you started your career to right now, would you do anything differently?
I wouldn’t have been so shy at times. Everyone is out there just trying to do their best – we’re all just people – so it’s OK to go up to that person, artist, inspiration that you admire and say ‘hi’ or ask a question! I always felt that I wasn’t “there” yet when I started out (whatever “there” means!). There’s no time like the present – you really just have to go for it and things will come together eventually. No one is really an overnight success.
What advice would you give your 21 year old self?
Have more confidence in yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance. Stop comparing yourself, everyone is doing their own thing and you have your own style and place in this world! Plus there are a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors' in the industry that are misleading, so just keep doing you!
Who are some women in business you admire & why?
Jenna Lyons. She’s a retail goddess who really inspired me with her strength, keen eye, business mind and creativity. When I was in the retail biz I aspired to her fashion sensibility and “no bullshit” attitude.
Arianna Huffington. My mum bought me her book Fearless when I was in my early twenties and I have read it over and over every few years. I found I always take something new from it each time I read it and needed encouraging words or to refocus at that point in my career.
Samantha Wills. I have been a fan of Samantha since I started out and always felt comfort and inspiration from her story and the fact that she also started out at Bondi Markets. Watching her grow into the international force and boss that she is while still remaining humble and supportive is always inspiring.
What traits do you admire in people you surround yourself with? Kindness, positivity, tenacity, giving zero fucks.
Work life balance… Does it exist (I don’t think it does!) and how to maintain it, or a sense of it?
I think it does. I’ve had to implement strict boundaries to ensure I take the time for self-care. I think that’s incredibly important. At the end of the day, family and friends are what I cherish so I make sure to try and put things into perspective. It was hard when I was working corporate, but it gets to a point where things have to wait – I’m clocking off at 5.30pm! Hayden and I tour the US and Europe 4 to 6 months a year which can be pretty hectic! We always make sure we tag on a couple of days to each leg so we can have a chill and take the time to enjoy it, too. It makes it sustainable.
Have you ever thought about giving up / quitting? If so, does that feeling hit from the same triggers? Why haven’t you quit?
I’ve had a pause but I’ve never thought of giving up. I always knew I would be on a creative path in one form or another so I just kept pushing on and keeping that dream in my mind. Even if there was a 10 year hiatus!
What is the biggest misconception about what you do?
That it’s a cute hobby – spare me the condescending convo! It doesn’t fit into the 9-5 but it’s a business.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your industry?
Collaborate and go out to meet people who are starting out and also established in your field. Find a communal studio space so it gives you a routine and you can work with like-minded people in a creative hub and be exposed to exhibitions, new opportunities etc. Get started with a website (shopify and big cartel are super user friendly) and socials so people know where to find you!
If you knew what you know now, about how much work was involved to get you to where you are now, would you do it again or do something different, if so, what?
Yeah I would do it again! I would say perhaps I would have started down this road earlier, but at the same time I really believe in timing and that those years prepped me with that business sensibility that meant I could start on my own.
I like the quote ‘Don’t just have a job, have a purpose’ - What do you want your legacy to be?
I hope it will be that I went after it! That I made a difference and was inclusive. The UN Women & Esprit partnership will be a legacy that I’m incredibly proud of and goes to show young woman that an idea is powerful. The partnership came about through my best and friend and I having a coffee saying we’d love to do this, let’s make this happen! And we made it happen!
Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate the milestones and not get caught up with the ‘what’s next?’.
The SAMANTHA WILLS FOUNDATION is about bringing women in business together – why do you think this is important / (why did you want to be involved in this interview)?
I am a big believer in collaborating and that a rising tide lifts all boats. I truly believe there is more than enough room for everyone so why not encourage and support each other? We know empowering women across the board - but specifically through education and economically - makes for a more productive society. It just makes sense. From experience, that’s where really special things can happen and giving women and girls the opportunity can unleash so much exciting potential. I’ve had some good karma sent to me over the years from great people who have helped me and I try and send that back out there, too.
What are some of your favourite quotes?
“Say yes first and you’ll figure it out afterward” - Tina Fey
“It took me 12 years to become an overnight success” - Samantha Wills
“Amazing things happen when you’re having fun doing something you love” - Jenna Lyons