Chelsea O’Leary is the head of media and marketing at Elizabeth Suzann, a Nashville-based fashion brand, which has exploded over the last couple of years. O‘Leary is a former scientist as well as the founder of Fenway Journal, a lifestyle blog and collection of the artist’s travels, trinkets and vignettes. (The site is a true testament to her love for arranging, and rearranging, picturesque nooks in her home.) Below, she reminisces on her transition from studying tree frogs to fruit flies to fashion. Turns out, the subjects are much more similar than one would think. O’Leary is proof that past experience is always applicable in the present.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Ohio where I stayed until my senior year of high school. While our town wasn’t demographically diverse, a lot of my confidence comes from being raised in a small and tightly knit community.
You played volleyball competitively growing up, which I assume instilled discipline, dedication, and a strong work ethic.
Definitely. I think about life in terms of a sporting event. Strategy, leadership and teamwork definitely apply in the real world.
Were you artistic as a child?
I squeezed in as much art as I could and was constantly redecorating my room. The sound coming most often from my room was furniture being dragged across the floor. To this day, my husband calls me the Chronic Re-arranger. I am so affected by my environment. I really love symmetry and when things have a place.
A mentality that totally plays into your photography—you have a knack for zooming in on the details.
I see the world in terms of vignettes and definitely notice the little things. Even when I walked into your apartment, my eyes immediately gravitated towards the stack of books on your floor and how the light plays off of them.
I personally need beautiful things around me to feel inspired.
What I look at after a long day matters greatly to me. I think whether you’re into clutter or organization, I think being comfortable trumps everything.
Yet, you chose to study science in school, correct?
Balance was always important to me. It made sense that I could study biology but also take photos after class. I liked that partnership between my interests.
What is it about science that you love?
Putting it lightly, I’m pretty obsessed with the study of life and why our minds work the way they do. Everything from how our T-cells react to a virus to why one T-shirt sells better than another fascinates me. I’ve always been interested in what makes us human— from a scientific to a philosophic point of view.
When did you swerve into a creative career path?
The story still blows my mind. You can plan and work so hard towards one thing and within a day, totally redirect your life. After college graduation, I moved to Boston where I worked at a Harvard neuroscience lab studying fruit flies. Next, I applied to medical school and was rejected from both Vanderbilt University and Meharry. While I was really bummed, it made me reconsider my path. When I was in the process of reapplying to school, I met Elizabeth Pape.
The founder of Nashville-based clothing line Elizabeth Suzann…How did you two meet?
Even before moving to Nashville, she was one of my favorite designers. When my husband and I arrived in town, I sent her an email saying, “I’m not in fashion or design, but if you ever need a hand I’d love to help out.” Several weeks later, we met at her studio and she said, “I don’t have anything available right now but will definitely keep you in mind.” That Thanksgiving she needed someone to take tickets at the door of a fashion event. I immediately said, “I’ll do it!”
What was it about her that so intrigued you?
The fact that she did everything on her own spoke to me. I just loved her clothing! If I have an outfit that I like, I will wear it for weeks straight. That is entirely appropriate with her pieces because each functions as a part of a uniform. Simplifying my life through clothing is valuable to me.
You’re very Parisian in that sense.
That is the highest compliment! I think about buying in terms of longevity.
You wait a year to find the perfect chair rather than just go to Costco.
Ten times out of ten. First and foremost, my mentality is quality over quantity—and that’s in terms of trips, books, photos, and people. My closet right now has about 45 pieces but I can tell you who made each item, how much I spent and the different ways in which I wear them. I’m trying to integrate that philosophy into every area of my life. The fewer decisions we have, the happier we are.
So true! I become paralyzed if I have too many options.
While I think the world we live in is a beautiful one, I believe there’s an instinctual, evolutionary desire to be in a simple community. The company I work for is a solution to a lot of what feels unsettling about our over-caffeinated, stimulated society. We believe clothing should enhance who you are as a woman, which truly comes down to self-love.
The simplicity of the clothing allows the soul to shine.
It allows the wearer to live. We’ve seen customers paint, hike, and go on a safari in our clothes. There is nothing better than that.
How did you transition into being Elizabeth’s marketing director?
After I realized she and I had great chemistry, I reached out to thank her for allowing me to work that event. I said that if there was any way to work for her in a greater capacity that I’d be thrilled. I also used my blog and social media as a source of validation that we shared the same aesthetic. She eventually hired me on to help with social media, creating marketing strategies, coordinate events and photo shoots, and conceptualization.
Do you apply any of your science background to your current job?
Absolutely. I believe the reason I was led to study biology is because I care so much about processes and details. Similarly, at Elizabeth Suzann I analyze data, study our customer, educate them, and constantly inform myself. Two years ago I studied fruit flies all day. Now I’m equally obsessed with who our customer is, what she wants and how her life looks. My core desire is still being fed.
What was the most difficult part about changing careers?
I had to work through a lot of guilt and self-doubt. I had envisioned myself as someone who wore scrubs all day long with a stethoscope around my neck. I had to embrace those voices in my head that asked, “Do you really know who you are if you can switch gears so easily?”
You also practice and release a lot of your own photography.
From pictures of flowers to my travels, it’s so important for me to flex my creative muscles freely. Fenway Journal is my diary and a space to let my ideas fly.
Why is photography your chosen medium?
Photography truly allows me to interpret what I am feeling and seeing. Like my dog takes in information via smell, I learn about my environment through visuals.
How do you make a big decision?
It’s always a culmination of a really strong gut feeling in addition to the people that I love supporting me. There is no greater feeling than knowing my husband and family have my back. I feel so grateful for that.