This Women’s History Month, we’re putting a well-deserved spotlight on female founders in the fashion, beauty, and lifestyle space. Next up, Cary Leitzes, founder and CEO of NYC-based creative agency LEITZES&CO. Ever wondered how era-defining partnership and collaborations at the intersection of art, fashion, and culture come about? Wonder no more! Alongside her team, the industry veteran—who cut her teeth at W and Harper’s Bazaar—helps brands bring grand ideas from concept to reality. Having worked with a who’s who of the industry (Karl Lagerfeld, MAC, and many, many more), Leitzes has cemented herself as a go-to for executing projects that capture the attention of the zeitgeist. Here’s how it all began…
What was your first ever job, what did you study, and did you ever think you’d run your own creative agency in NYC?
My background is in magazines, photography, art and fashion but my first job? Ha! That was Häagen-Dazs, scooping ice cream in Westhampton. My first career job was with W Magazine. I went to NYU’s Gallatin school at night while working for W’s creative director, Dennis Freedman, by day. It was back when they were still a newspaper and transitioning into a hard bound magazine. It was a unique moment in fashion history…British fashion photographers like Craig McDean, legends Pat McGrath, and Eugene Solouiman were doing their first shoots in America for W. It was here, in these formative years at the Fairchild family, I learned the importance of having a mentor. The exposure, to see how the best of the best worked, handled problems, and so on. It wasn’t that somebody outright said you need to know this or that but it was the ability to be on set and soak everything up. I saw first hand how important teams and collaboration was. A photo was the end product of a collaboration between the photographer, model, hair and makeup stylist, set designer, etc… I remember Dennis saying “We’re going to Morocco with Steven Klein, do you want to come and pack the trunks?” It was always an adventure with this extended family. The importance of caring for your team like a family as much as you did about all the details that went into creating extraordinary fashion images was deeply ingrained in me. It all started here. There was no “no.” It was make it happen and if you get a “no,” try another way. I never imagined I would’ve had my own business, in large part because I was quite shy, but I took all these learnings with me and started LEITZES&CO. And although I’m still shy, I’ve become an extroverted introvert!
When and how did LEITZES&CO come about? Was there one particular light bulb moment or was it a slow burn?
I was the director of photography at Harper’s Bazaar when Murakami, Louis Vuitton and Kanye West collaborated together in 2017. It was a pivotal and magical moment, a triangulation of art, fashion and music. Marc Jacobs collaborated with Takashi Murakami on an iconic set of handbags that were photographed in every magazine globally. Louis Vuitton then sponsored Murakami’s solo exhibition at MoCA. It was the first time a luxury brand had a stand alone pop-up in a museum. Murakami also did West’s album cover and in turn, West performed at the opening benefit dinner. The culmination of these worlds was so glamorous. In the years prior, artists were shunned from crossing over into the fashion world. It was looked down upon in the industry as “selling out.” This however is another story and of course, it has all changed in the past 10 years, but this change and the beginning of the wave was the ride that I wanted to be on! So, I jumped off the cliff. I’ve always had extraordinary mentors and one of them, Jeffrey Deitch, shepherded me through and into my new chapter. I was fortunate enough to see the contemporary art world through his eyes and at the time, there were no other companies doing what I wanted to do. When I started LEITZES&CO, I was focused on partnerships between contemporary artists and brands. Over the years this has expanded to encapsulate partnerships that drive cultural relevancy and working with creatives from all fields—fashion, architecture, finance, you name it. We’re industry agnostic.
In a nutshell, what is the goal and ethos of LEITZES&CO? How do you stay true to that mission?
Well, our goal is to make magic, of course! But truly, we build strategies and execute partnerships that create magical moments and drive cultural relevancy for our clients. Constant curiosity, a huge appetite for creativity, learning, and caring deeply about people power these magic moments. We aim to connect brands with creatives, who share values and truly respect and admire the work the other is doing. Observing the creative, collaborative process is so inspiring, and ultimately, we stay true to our mission by looking at everything—from building a strategy to bringing on talent, negotiating contracts, and managing the creative process and project deliverables—through the lens of true partnership.
What was your first major lesson you learned after branching out on your own?
Honestly, finding out who your real friends are! I had such a tribe when I worked in magazines by being around people in the office but when I branched out on my own, I had to learn how to create and stay engaged with my own community. It shed a light on loyalty: who would take calls when I left a big name magazine and who were my friends for me and not where I had worked. Starting out on my own, I also had to do everything for myself, where in corporate culture you have an infrastructure to lean into. All of these lessons are hard at first, but turn around to be the foundation of new strengths. I’m especially supportive of those who go out on their own, because of this.
What was the first big project you worked on that made you take stock and realize the agency was a success?
Gaga’s Workshop at Barneys and the MAC x Cindy Sherman collaboration were big ones for me and both resulted in massive success for their own reasons. Collaborating with creatives like Karl Lagerfeld and Pharrell Williams has also been super inspiring. And I love all of the work we do with Target!
On average, how many projects are you and the team working on? How do you balance/manage/delegate/keep on top of that?
We’re typically working on about six. Our scale allows us to be nimble, turnkey, and move at lighting speed. So, for example, while we love the creative, building strategies, and coming up with the perfect partners, we also often take on the talent contracts, which helps streamline the process for our clients. We all know not having momentum can be a deal killer and corporate culture just can’t move fast enough to compete. We’re always teeing our clients up for the best possible success and proactively identifying problems before they even come to life, not just reactively tackling them once they do. Again, for me, this goes back to what I learned from magazine culture—you need to become the ultimate in proactive problem solving as there’s always something!
How do you make time for each other as a team?
We’re in a flow. I’m also just so lucky to have the most badass babes on my team! Like most, we’ve been remote since March of last year. Since we’re a lean team, we’re in communication a lot and since there’s a ton of autonomy, trust, and respect for one another, checking in while remote happened quite naturally for us! As for bonding, we’re constantly sharing things we see that we’re loving in partnerships, art, fashion, and beyond with each on social media and finding fun ways to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves (we all have a mutual passion for seeing art and practicing self love through wellness and spirituality!)
You’re a mainly female team. Is this something that you consciously considered when building the LEITZES&CO team?
It’s not intentional but we are all women and it’s wonderful. In my experience, women hold themselves to such a high accountability and strong attention to detail.
What do you look for in a new team member?
Everything in life is a combo of both math and magic. So, I look for things like solid communication skills, a strong work ethic, being detail oriented, a problem solver, and a proactive thinker—but then there’s also that little thing, a spark, that you can’t put your finger on. The potential we see in someone that maybe they don’t even see in themselves. The math and magic. That’s what we look for.
Tell us about some projects over the years that are a highlight for you and the team.
That’s a hard one, there has been so many and each one so different and special. We love a true partnership where both sides go above and beyond in what they bring to the table. There’s good spirit, generosity, mind expansion, a cross pollination of sectors, a breaking of barriers and comfort zones, creativity and, most importantly, unexpected and beautiful results for everyone. A standout one was Marilyn Minter for MAC Cosmetics. She had two requests before agreeing to the MAC collaboration. 1) Can we have good catering on set? and 2) can I use MAC’s videographer for a personal art project at the end of the collab shoot day? James Gager was the president of MAC at the time. A visionary, he of course supported good food and the videographer request! The collaboration turned out to be a huge success for the brand but also for Marilyn personally. That video she did at the end of the shoot day, Green Pink Caviar, went on to live in the MOMA’s permanent collection, become the backdrop of Madonna’s Stick Sweet concert tour and was splashed across billboards in Times Square. The flexibility and generosity of spirit was a win for everyone. Some other fun partnerships we’ve had the pleasure of either helping connect or putting together and bringing to life were Untitled by Pharrell Williams for Reserve Properties, Diplo for Gentle Monster, and Missoni for Target.
How different did the last year look compared to a normal year? It seems like you still worked on some awesome projects!
Jeez, well, it was quite different but luckily, busy! Just like so many other small businesses during the pandemic, we pivoted. One fun pivot was working with Vistaprint on their face mask initiative by helping to bring in some of their licensing and art partners. Overall, we made the best out of the situation and looked at working remote as an opportunity to really put our heads down, get focused, work harder, be less distracted and become an ever better, well oiled, effective and harder working machine. Last year reminded us as an agency of the importance of stepping back and taking the time to add value for our clients. Fluff and tone deaf marketing just won’t cut it anymore. We continued to build strategies that were relevant to our client’s marketing, PR and business needs that were relevant to the times and represented the need for inclusion, sustainability, creativity, diversity, brand love and awareness.
What’s ahead in 2021 for you, the team, and the company?
2021. It’s the year of collaboration. The year of partnership. Trying new things.