Letter ︎ Branch by Branch
The trees outside of my window resemble spikes. Their bare branches split in different directions, reaching toward the sky haphazardly as if in prayer. In winter, there's less to look at and more to consider. At times it's disorienting to find that my view is unobstructed. When I watch what's left of these trees quiver in the wind, I feel comforted by their silent resolve.
Trees have come up more than I've expected over the years. From Olivia Gossett Cooper's book recommendation, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, to Katie Kitamura's discussion of "tree time" with novelist Elif Shafak, there seems to be an inherent understanding that trees equate to slowness, attention. "Something [Shafak] said to me is, 'you know, tree time is different from human time.'" Kitamura recalled during our interview last fall. (Kitamura was alluding to their conversation about Shafak's novel The Island of Missing Trees.) "She later went on to tell me that when she was talking about trying to access tree time, I realized she was describing not just a different experience of temporality but also a different perspective."
Changing our perspective isn't a new idea. Even still, it's something I'm thinking about a lot as the year begins—regarding the work I do. The questions I ask and the people who answer them.
What would you say if I told you that sometimes I shake before starting an interview? My cheeks flush. Fear sits at the base of my stomach and the tip of my tongue. If I had it my way, my voice would barely register above a whisper. But the world, even now, still demands a level of loudness that is inextricably linked to value and success.
And yet, I like to think of winter as a whisper. You feel its sharp breath on your ear, and just as quickly as the feeling registers, it's gone. Winter is a season when things are laid bare. For many, it's become a time that's synonymous with uncertainty just as much as respite. For me, it's a period where words don't always flow as freely—where the stripped branches catch them mid-sentence, hardening their edges. Where they sit like buds, waiting to blossom into something worth saying aloud.
What if I told you that Slow Stories began as a podcast because I needed to (physically) speak up? Because I had spent nearly a decade operating in the digital realm, where everything could be said with the click of a button. Because I didn't want to lose my voice.
I recently stumbled upon Susan Orlean's series "Afterword" for The New Yorker. Dubbed an "obituary column," Orlean pays tribute to "people, places, and things that we've lost." In the latest installment, "The Tallest Known Tree in New York Falls in the Forest," Orlean examines the rise and (literal) fall of Tree 103 this past December. As the story's name indicates, Tree 103 was a formidable being. But "Tree 103 was scarred and scabby; it creaked in the wind; it sagged in the rain," Orlean writes. "It had lost the dewy glow that it had back in 1675, but haven't we all lost the lustre of our youth?"
It took me a long time to understand the difference between loss and growth. To recognize that, like trees, we fall. But before that, we bloom.
When I was younger, I regarded time as linear and remote. Now I'm less concerned with spending it and more worried about how we'll relate to one another as time passes—how the bonds of trust have been broken as the world continues to shift beneath our feet.
But maybe it goes back to changing our perspective.
In Wintering, Katherine May writes about enduring the difficult chapters of our lives. "The tree is waiting. It has everything ready..." she remarks while writing about seasonal transformation. "It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It's just getting on with it quietly. It will not burst into life in the spring. It will just put on a new coat and face the world again."
The next time I look up, golden hour has descended, and the tops of the trees are glowing. The naked branches sway and bathe in a faint pool of orange light. I watch them from the window and think about what I will ask my interviewees this year. I can pose a question, and it could sprout in a million different directions, or it could go unanswered.
It could fall flat. But before that, it will bloom with possibility.
There are so many slow stories waiting to be told. I want to know them. I want to warm up to the world. I want to rebuild trust in others and in myself, branch by branch, this season and beyond.
Jade Akintola of ITA
It's that time again: Tiny buds slowly appear on exposed branches. Sunlight creeps back into view. The harsh chill in the air begins to retreat. With winter coming to a close, it's interesting to think about our collective relationship with pace as better weather beckons us outside. Yet even as life speeds up, for entrepreneur Jade Akintola, rest and leisure remain essential. To that end, she's bringing inclusivity, beauty, and guidance to the world with ITA—the premiere Black-owned outdoor furniture and goods brand.Tell us about a place in nature that makes you feel at home.
Under Akintola's leadership—and with the brand's design-driven staples like its Leisure Chair and Market Bag—ITA is poised to become a force within the industry. But aesthetics aside, her mission is resolute: "I hope people will engage with ITA and understand that leisure is not a luxury. It should be afforded and accessible to everyone. It is essential."
While Akintola admits that "spending more time outdoors is a new habit," it's clear that she understands the importance of paying attention to her environment. "I love seeing nature change around me as it inspires change in my life," she responds when asked about her relationship with the outdoors. "The fallen leaves and bare trees ahead of Spring's blossom encourage me to think about what I might want to let go of as I rest, reset, and look forward."
Below, Akintola shares more about the development of ITA, how she engages with nature during the winter months, and the (slow) stories on her reading list.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
Not to say my work life and personal life are inseparable, but I believe my sense of self, goals, and mission are consistent. 2020 was an unexpected year of change for everyone, myself included. I began the year by resigning from my leadership position at an agency and co-founded a creative and production company with the mission of creating change in the advertising and marketing industry. I then started working on ITA that Fall, wanting to create change in the outdoor industry. I'm someone that questions the world around them and actively works to do what I can to improve things.
Spending time outdoors—truly outdoors in nature—versus socializing at restaurants and bars as I have in the past was a real benefit to me that year and one that I wanted to share with others. I know a lot of people in my community that prioritize work and similarly have not been exposed to the outdoors or felt confident tapping in. There is also a large number of BIPOC who do frequent the outdoors that are looking to see themselves represented.
I value the time and company of loved ones, our ability to create as people, and any experience that brings me closer to enjoying life. Spending more time outdoors is a new habit I'm forming, so being out in nature isn't a place that immediately feels at home, but something I'm working on. In November, my husband and I traveled to Maui, Hawaii, and the mountains were breathtaking. I recall it to myself as God's Country as it is so beautiful. This setting made me feel a sense of calm and awareness of the world around me that; I felt very much at home within myself.
What has building ITA taught you about slow, thoughtful storytelling?
The concept of ITA came about when I was craving a creative outlet. Having worked in advertising and marketing for major brands for just shy of fifteen years, the desire to build something of my own was very real. ITA challenged me to dig into a problem and deliver a solution that hit across many areas. The outdoor industry in the U.S. is pretty dated and homogenous, while the story I was determined to tell—and the world I was looking to share—was one of diversity, design-forward, and community-driven.
ITA is the first-ever Black-owned outdoor furniture and goods brand, so there aren't many direct references to pull from. The process required a lot of research, questioning of the status quo, and re-imagination, as the lane wasn't pre-established. My main takeaway and guiding truth is the power of personal experience and how fruitful this can be as a way to connect with others. I've previously doubted my personal experiences and desires, but they have consistently served as a source of inspiration and starting point for authentic storytelling.
How would you describe your relationship with nature during the winter months?
When in New York, winter means hibernation mode. I get out a lot less but am very partial to getting my heat tech on and taking walks in the morning. I love seeing nature change around me as it inspires change in my life. The fallen leaves and bare trees ahead of Spring's blossom encourage me to think about what I might want to let go of as I rest, reset, and look forward. I was lucky to spend time in California this winter for work, and that's always a game-changer. Having grown up in London and living in New York for the last eight years, winter on the west coast feels like I've cheated the system, so it's a lot of sneaking off to parks and basking.
And with spring around the corner, what are some rituals that you'll be cultivating to help you prepare for the upcoming transition(s)?
Spring sees a lot of planning, so in terms of rituals, I'm working on being as intentional as possible—forming habits that will see me prioritizing wellness and my work equally. I search for new books, plan trips. This year through work with my therapist, I'm devising a framework for personal, professional, and wellness goals so that I can better assess opportunities without losing sight of the progress I'm looking to make. I've been prone to being reactive and trying to make it all work year-round.
What's one question you hope people will start asking you more about leisure?
Hopefully, nothing! I hope people will engage with ITA and understand that leisure is not a luxury. It should be afforded and accessible to everyone. It is essential. Hopefully, they are inspired to take more time out and perhaps ask themselves, "What took so long?"
What stories do you find yourself returning to during the winter months or can recommend for those looking to slow down and reconnect with leisure, time off, and nature?
Winter is a great time to escape with a book. I've been reading Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. The story takes place in Lagos, Nigeria, where my family is from—being transported to the rich, warm, and familiar environment through the food, language, and gestures brings me a lot of comfort.
I've also spent the winter planning our upcoming Spring collection and campaign, so daydreaming about warmer, brighter moments has been a respite. I highly recommend Afro Surf by Mami Wata for an unapologetic exploration and correction of surfing and the lifestyle around it.
Perhaps this is a pandemic trend, but puzzles in the winter will remain a fail-safe way for me to get offline, and I was beyond excited by Black Archives' collection of puzzles that launched last month. "Two Women" drives home the power of representation, especially in these recreational spaces. I feel a real sense of pride from this piece of art that centers the Black experience and encourages play.
Billy Reid, Designer
Take a moment to think about your favorite article of clothing. How does the fabric feel between your fingers? Does the material envelop you in warmth? Encourage you to stand a little taller? How was this piece made? What memories does it evoke? Where did it come from—where will it take you next? For Billy Reid, these ideas have been inherent to his creative process since founding his namesake label.
The celebrated “modern southern studio” has become known for crafting design-forward essentials like denim shirts and tailored silhouettes, and Reid’s thoughtful approach continues to resonate with conscious consumers—online and off. “With digital, the customer cannot feel or try on the garments online,” he explains when asked about the impact of operating in the digital age. “It’s critical that the communication is thorough and builds a story that is equally as powerful as the product. Building that trust is vital for longevity.”
Below, Reid shares more about his enduring relationship with design, the role of slow storytelling in his revered brand, and the (slow) stories on his list.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
Can you tell us about a life moment or memory that you think best captures who you are outside of your work?
Other than my family life, I would have to say it’s coaching baseball. I had a wonderful group of kids that I coached for several years that made it all the way to the Babe Ruth World Series. Those memories and experiences, and now seeing those kids committing to colleges, is something that we will all cherish forever.
How would you describe your relationship with pace as a designer?
It certainly is moving faster in regard to reacting to business and supply chain trends. I try to stay focused on the product itself and not get bogged down in the pace. To me, the pace has always been there, and keeping the end result top of mind keeps things on track.
How has creating in our digital-first landscape affected your process the most?
With digital, the customer cannot feel or try on the garments online. It’s critical that the communication is thorough and builds a story that is equally as powerful as the product. Building that trust is vital for longevity.
As a champion of enduring design, it’s probably interesting to reflect on the pieces that have remained constant in your life. With that in mind, can you tell us about a winter piece that’s special to you or helps you slow down?
This is a baseline principle for our design efforts. We strive to make garments that live with you. You want them to be like a great chair that gets better with age.
I still have the original denim shirt we made in a small factory in Boaz, Alabama. I’ve worn it camping, around the house, and have dressed it up with suits. There’s an intangible comfort and familiarity to the piece that feels like a good luck charm. The shirt is a mainstay in our collection to this day and is usually our top-selling shirt season after season.
What is one question you hope people will start asking you more?
I believe garments should have versatility, so we love when a customer asks, “How do I wear this?” Having pieces that have multipurpose use means you get more out of your purchase. That to us is investment dressing at its best.
What stories do you find yourself returning to during the winter months?
I’ve collected art, design, and photography books for many years, and I guess certain ones can stand out seasonally. I’d probably list the ones on my nightstand now that are mostly geared towards places and interiors: Cabins, Souls Grown Deep, Jazz Covers, A Life Less Ordinary, Jeremiah Ariaz. This assembled stack reflects a look at simple existences, making things from your surroundings, and explores creativity in general, which I find soothing and inspirational.
Wes Montgomery’s “Fingerpickin’,” Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.” Jazz is just great for the soul, especially when working from home. And Lucinda makes me think of my family and where I’m from in South Louisiana.