Q+A: Julia // rennes

my latest conversation is with the lovely Julia, who wears hats as deftly in her personal style as she does in her work as founder, designer, and maker of her own line. the fact that she's a fan of quality BBC television and reads up on quantum mechanics for fun just makes her a kindred spirit in my book.

read on for the interview!

hello! please introduce yourself to LAM readers.

Hi! My name is Julia Okun and I live in Boston, MA and I run the line rennes.  I make leather bags, accessories, clothing, and other random things that spark my fancy.  I grew up in both Massachusetts and Connecticut and call New England my home.

My husband Jesse and I live in Jamaica Plain (JP), a small neighborhood south of downtown.  We love the small town feel and there’s always a lot to do and see here.  My studio space is in Allston, another neighborhood in Boston.  There’s lots of good food options near work and it’s hard not to want to eat out all the time.

1. i first discovered your beautiful leather bags and pouches several years ago. how did you start designing rennes? was there an 'a-ha' moment that led you to create your own line?

Sewing has always been a hobby of mine.  Growing up, my mom sewed quilts and I always liked to go through her scrap pile and make all kinds of things. Long story short, I ended up going to the Museum School in Boston.  While there, I did Egg Tempera painting and took classes in the Art of Africa textiles department (this department was so tiny that when the teacher retired, so did the department).  I dabbled in other things too - like printmaking and paper-making, but nothing really felt as fun to me as sewing.

In 2006 I went on a textiles tour of Japan with my aunt, and I think that really sealed the deal for me.  We went to different indigo dyeing workshops, textile markets, and museums.  There was one town outside of Kyoto we visited called Ohara - it was so beautiful and surrounded by rice paddies and lodged between mountains.  We did a natural dyeing workshop there - we were shown how different plants gave you different colors and how to prepare the dyes.  I knew right then and there that I would pack up my bags and move there to join them, or rather that’s what I continued to say when I got home and wouldn’t shut up about how wonderful my trip to Japan was.

When I was done with school I didn’t have a game plan for what I would do next, so I kept working at the shop I had worked at during college.  One day I bought a leather hide and started playing around with it and made a bag. For fun, I put a few things for sale online, and to my surprise, they started to sell.  About a month later I decided to quit my job and just sew.  I was barely making enough to pay rent at first, but for me that was worth it so that I could be sewing all day.  About a year and a half ago I moved into my current studio space, and then about a month ago I hired my first employee, which is pretty exciting.  It’s hard to imagine I started this 5 years ago!

2. i love that your collection spans multiple materials – leather, textiles, and now ceramics. how did you decide to expand into those areas? 

It’s because I always have to be doing something with my hands - if I’m not,  I feel lost and don’t know what to do with myself.  One thing that’s been challenging for me is that the activity that I used to love as a hobby became my job; so often I’m at a loss when I come home and think “okay, what do I do now?”  Because of this mentality I’m always trying out something new.  Like you mentioned, I recently added some ceramics to my site.  I started throwing on the wheel about six months ago because I needed something to do that was a break from sewing.  That’s what it was at first, but people kept asking me if I was going to sell them and so eventually I caved in and thought, well why not?  The only thing is I have a much more personal tie to the mugs and jars than I do with any bag, it’s hard to let them go - it’s probably because I’m still new to it and they take a long time.

3. how do you approach designing a handbag, or a dress? do you have a creative process, or is it more spontaneous? 

For a dress or a bag I do most of the designing in my head.  I’ve never been big on drawing - I tend to get my ideas across better in 3D.  I’ll usually have an idea for a couple of weeks and try to work out (in my head) what it will look like.  Then when I like that idea enough, I sit down and try to make it happen.  This might mean doing a few patterns, sewing those, and then tweaking them to get shapes and proportions right.  It also means experimenting with materials; some leathers will just not work with some items  - the leather will either be too stretchy or too firm, and you have to find the hide that will behave exactly like you want.  Leather is tricky!

4. who is the rennes woman? do you have a design ethos that informs how and what you make? where do you draw your inspiration? 

I think rennes would appeal to a person who enjoys really simple designs but likes something a little unexpected about it.  I like small details - whether it’s how I finish an edge or add hand stitching somewhere, I think it’s little things that add up to a big picture.  For instance, pouch linings should be fun and exciting - perhaps a secret only you know about - everyone else just sees the exterior, but inside there’s matching stripes!  For bags I like to stick to pretty simple designs and shapes - items that will go with everything you have - being minimalist is my ideal!

"I get inspired by songs, historic events, or characters in a book.  Odd as it may sound, Gilgamesh is one of my favorite stories, not only because of how old it is, but because the characters are so interesting.  Names are important.  I found this blue striped fabric one winter but I didn’t know what to do with it.  I started to think it reminded me of the two rivers in Mesopotamia, and then about Enkidu, such a good friend to Gilgamesh.  And then I thought it would be great to have a dress that could be your best friend too."

5. what's a typical day like at the studio? what do you love to do to unwind after a work day?

I try to keep a 9-5 schedule, so I leave the house around 8:30, maybe pick up a coffee and chocolate croissant on the way, listen to either NPR or music on the drive over.  Once I’m there I check emails and then make a list of what I need to do that day.  That usually includes cutting, sewing, and packaging up orders to ship out.  It’s actually a physically demanding job and I’m on my feet the whole day, so I can be tired by the end of it.  I almost never take an actual lunch break, I just eat while working.

Jesse and I usually watch movies or TV when we get home.  I love watching Doctor Who and Sherlock, I’m really obsessed with both.  But, my newest obsession is the Norwegian TV show called I Kveld Med Ylvis - everyone probably knows them at this point for “The Fox” song, but they are so much better and more hilarious than that song - it’s almost too bad that that’s what they are known for because they are very talented.

Aside from that, I have been trying to learn more about Quantum Mechanics and Relativity - which is kind of random but I’m really interested in it even though I don’t understand the math.  I think Astrophysics is amazing and a good break for my brain from all things fashion/design related.     

6. how would you describe your personal style these days? how has your style aesthetic evolved in the past decade? what are you really into lately style/beauty-wise?

I really love color and I used to wear all kinds of colors, often all at the same time to my mom’s dismay. Luckily I’ve learned to channel my love of color into my work rather than into what I wear.  These days I only buy things that are black, white, taupe, grey, blue, or camel - but mostly black.  I know if it’s not one of these colors it’s very unlikely I will wear it.  For instance two of my favorite colors are red and turquoise, but I’ve learned I like them in objects rather than on me.

"Right now I’m into black sweaters and oversized tailored coats; I wouldn’t deny channeling Doctor Who some days."

7. do you have any wardrobe essentials / a style uniform? what do you wear when you're working? on the weekend?

My daily uniform is black skinny jeans, a black linen t-shirt (or white sometimes), repettos (black zizi’s or bb or manon flats) and a baggy sweater.  I also have a deep love of stripes.  I used to wear a lot of dresses but they just aren’t that practical for work as I end up on the floor cutting and leather dust gets all over me in the sewing process.  I’m really happy to be at a place where I know what works and what I can wear everyday.

Over the past 6 years I’ve purchased a lot of really cool things that I love, but can never seem to find the right place or time to wear them.  These things are nice but they are too fussy for one reason another.  So lately I’ve been holding off on things that seem “really cool” but I know I’ll never end up wearing them.  You can never go wrong with all black.  Repetto is the only shoe brand I have never gone wrong with; they are so comfy and go with everything.  Muji is also great for basics, all their things are well made.  Pip-Squeak Chapeau is a good for sweaters - their alpaca is very soft and not itchy at all.

On the weekend I will try to break out a dress or skirt, but a lot of times I’ll be at the clay studio (in that case, it’s overalls for me!) or we’ll be riding bikes / exercising / hiking so fashion gets put on the back burner. 

"Clothes have always been an emotional thing for me, which probably sounds strange.  As a little kid I used to sleep with a favorite shirt like it was a stuffed animal.  I don’t do that anymore (thank goodness) but I still feel a weird connection to the things I wear.  I attribute part of that to having an overactive imagination from watching too many Poirot episodes or Darcy-esque dramas with excellent costume direction - I seem to get ideas of what fictitious situation I would wear what in and the mysteries I would solve while riding the Orient Express."

8. is there a personal or sartorial piece that's really special to you? what's the story behind it?

A year ago I became smitten with this black dress by Samuji.  It seemed like the kind of piece that would be perfect for everything - from walking around the city, visiting different countries or, solving some kind of mystery.

9. what bag are you carrying lately, and what's in it?

I’m always switching bags, haha go figure.  Right now I alternate between quite a few - one of my Sophie Totes, a Vestiaire de Jeanne black tote, a $4 canvas one, a Muji Backpack,  and one of my tan Gretel totes.  I really like bags nice and simple and I usually like ones best that have an open top.

Inside I have too many zip pouches, chapstick, hand lotion, green tea (two kinds), keys, a coin pouch for quarters/parking, my phone/tardis, a power cord because I never charge my phone at home, and a pouch for postcards.  I’ll often have overalls in there too if I’m going to the clay studio.   

10. what are you passionate about? who / what inspires you?

I’m very passionate about staying true to what I think is the right thing to do and doing what I believe in. For instance, I’m very immersed in the concept of leading a minimal lifestyle, but how do you do that and successfully promote your brand?  Sometimes I feel like a walking contradiction.

For inspiration, I turn to things that make me really happy or laugh - like reading things by Douglas Adams, listening to Nick Cave or Pulp, eating bibimbap, or sometimes having dance parties by myself in my living room.


P.S.: to kick off holiday month, rennes is giving 20% off to LAM readers with the code MISSSOPHIE20 (starting today and good until Dec 9). happy shopping, and let me know if you get anything!


  1. Julia makes such wonderful things, I especially love all the ceramics she's been producing lately. Totally going to take advantage of this discount code! Thanks, Julia and Miss Sophie!

  2. also, i never put the two and two together that the enkidu dress is named after enkidu from the epic of gilgamesh. my inner world history nerd loves this!

  3. obsessed with that grey-white blazer! i love how julia's world is filled with a lot of creativity and light. that code is pretty tempting!!

  4. Another terrific interview. Her bags look lovely and that discount code is very tempting :)

  5. This is going to sound extremely creepy, but I love, love, love Julia - in that she's so incredibly talented and she just has magical hands, everything she touches turns out perfect and her home? Swooooooon. I've been coveting the Sophie tote for ages, so this might just be the time to pick one up.

    1. I am going to second Amanda's sentiment--definitely girl crush territory right here. And those are some wonderful Tabi flats :)

  6. I love Julia and her beautiful products. She has such a fantastic eye! Lovely to read more about her process (and oh, I covet that shoe collection!!!)

  7. I've been looking for a small well-made leather pouch to hold my makeup in! this is literally p-e-r-f-e-c-t, thank you for bringing this brand to my attention!

  8. I've been looking for a small, well-made pouch to hold my makeup in, this is literally perfect! Thank you for bringing this brand to our attention!

  9. Oh my, this is so cool! And I can't believe she watches I kveld med Ylvis - the boys are from "my" city, and the company where I work is their main sponsor this year. And oof, those bags, I love them. Like I wasn't enough of a bag-whore to begin with ;)

    Great interview Sophie!

    1. Oh that's so funny Maja! This totally made my day, are you from Bergen? :)

    2. Not originally, but I have lived here for nearly 10 years now! We do adore the Ylvis boys here :)

  10. Yay, it's Julia! Thanks for featuring such a talented and interesting woman.

  11. Thanks so much everybody, you're awesome! :)

  12. So inspiring to read about her passion and conviction - I do hope someday I find that much happiness in what I do!

  13. Great interview. I've been a fan of Julia and her work for a long while now. Her words and work are quite inspiring.

  14. What a lovely interview. Julia's passion radiates in everything that she does. It's so good to read about someone who took the big leap of courage to do what they love.

    I've always loved her bags. The leather just looks so luxe and buttery. I think I'm more in love with the ceramics. And those dish towels remind of the ones my parents stocked up on in the south of France on holiday growing up. I may need to order a few for the apartment;)


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