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Distinctions Magazine - May 2015

Lee Addison, who now lives in Virginia Beach, runs Addison Weeks with Katherine Weeks.
Drawn together by odd coincidence years ago,two friends hold fast, their designs scoring national acclaim.

by DIANNA CAHN     photography by ERIC LUSHER

Long before they became business partners, before they married their husbands and had three kids each – when the tech boom was still booming and cancer was a family cautionary tale – long before the two had even met, Katherine Weeks and Lee Addison will tell you, an extraordinary connection was forming between them.

Kat was fresh out of graphic arts school in 1999 and moved from North Carolina down to Atlanta to take a job at a business-website design company.

At a neighborhood party, she mentioned the name of the company. To Kat’s surprise, the hostess said her niece was about to start work there too.  “She’s also a graphic designer,” the woman said. Kat figured she was mistaken. Another young woman with the same unusual job in the same place. It didn’t make sense. “I just didn’t think there was any way that somebody else my age would be working this artsy fartsy technical graphic design job,” she says.

“Two weeks later, Lee walked in with a purple sweater set on,” Kat says. Everyone was so bohemian and there was Lee.  “She just kind of had it more together.”

Lee and Kat design together now, meeting daily over Skype; Kat lives in Charlotte.

“Ready when you are,” Lee says into her computer.

She sits at a large, otherwise empty table in her Virginia Beach studio. Kat’s voice comes through the speakers, launching into the day’s business agenda. It’s an ordinary Wednesday morning at the jewelry and home accents design company Addison Weeks. Lee is in Virginia and her design partner, Kat, is in Charlotte. They are holding their morning meeting over Skype. They might as well be sitting across the table from each other. The two women shift subjects as if on cue, make vague references that the other understands, and easily agree on most things.

A week earlier, Lee’s table was covered with the designers’ signature products – cuffs and earrings of brass and gold, brass tabletop boxes, cups and candle holders – all set with polished gemstones. She showed a visitor their gemstone-adorned brass clutch, created as a prototype that they weren’t sure would sell. It’s become a hit, displayed in magazines and fashion blogs. Bette Midler bought one.

Today Lee and Kat talk about taking a booth at an upcoming design market – one of several they attend each year – spending a weekend working side by side, showing their goods, sketching together and drawing inspiration from other designers.

An outsider might have difficulty distinguishing between the two as they talk about their business. That wouldn’t surprise them much. People have been mistaking Lee and Kat for sisters from the day they met in Atlanta a decade and a half ago – two pretty young graphic designers, each with a keen eye for style and remarkably similar backgrounds. They both studied art in Italy, they both like to create with their hands. They went to the same graduate school for graphic design, The Portfolio Center – two years apart. They’d been on the same path for so long that they’ve often wondered how they didn’t meet earlier.

“I do think there is this thread that keeps us together on a level that’s so interesting,” Lee says.

In Atlanta, they bonded almost instantly. Kat liked Lee’s eye for the classic and Lee admired Kat’s penchant for the bold and risky. They designed website projects at work and created handmade jewelry together outside the office. They’d go shopping and Lee would get a timeless purse in black; Kat would go for something hot pink. Together they brought out a classy edginess that made designing fun.

They formed a business, navigating the obstacles together. Over years of hard work, they developed an unshakeable trust in each other, and their commitment not just to the friendship but also to their company and to the work they do. They each held down the fort while the other had babies – first Lee’s oldest, then Kat’s twins – three for each in all. They got comfortable enough to critique each other’s work, could withstand tough feedback when the other rejected an idea. Kat can hear it in Lee’s voice when she’s politely trying to tell her an idea doesn’t work.

“We know each other so well and we respect each other so much,” Kat says.

“We each hold each other accountable,” Lee says.

“We show our stress to each other and we don’t really ever have to say sorry. Just like ‘Oh boy, I’ll call you later,’ ” Kat says. “And it’s totally both ways.”

Just over a year ago, Kat wrote Lee an email. It was the only way she knew to break it to her dearest friend that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Kat worried about how Lee might take it. Lee’s family had experienced severe breast cancer, and, concerned that she might be genetically inclined, Lee had always been proactive about early detection. It was so unexpected that Kat would be the one. So she put it in writing.

“I felt I could control it more with an email,” Kat says. “Here are the facts. This is the plan. Immediately, my phone rings and she’s crying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ ”

And then Lee told Kat not to worry about a thing with the business. “I’ve got it,” she told her. “You just do what you need to do.”

“She stepped right in,” Kat says. “I can’t imagine going through something like that by myself. She really carried the weight. She still does.”

Thinking about it today, Lee’s eyes well with tears. “It was hard for her,” she says. “It made me hurt for her. But as far as business – I got this, we are good.”

Kat was lucky. Her cancer hadn’t spread. She underwent a double mastectomy and radiation and is going through reconstructive surgery this year.

The women talk about doing a breast cancer line using pink opal. Lee remembers how Kat would put a pink boxing glove on her thank you cards. Kat pulls up a photograph and shows it over Skype. She’s in a hospital bed, having just come out of surgery to remove her breasts. She looks terrible. She’s holding up her middle finger.

“I think we are finally in a place where we can sigh with relief and now we can see this story in a way we feel good about,” she says. “Because I am on the other side.”

“I just think, Kat, what’s next?” says Lee. “You’re a fighter and I think doing this business with you we have learned that it’s work, but … the rewards of seeing something grow that you’ve created are worth the time and the fight.”

In a way, the decade they had together prepared them for that fight. As young designers, Lee and Kat were full of creative impulse. Neither had any background in business. They just bonded over a love of jewelry and design.

They’d worked together for two years in Atlanta when they decided to go into business for themselves, designing websites. They created a mock website of their jewelry products to use as a prototype of their web-building abilities. When they ran the website by friends and family, it took off and people started ordering their handmade pieces.

Almost by accident, they had opened a jewelry business.

The first years of their business, called Turq, Kat and Lee were in a discovery frenzy. They explored new ways of putting beads together and shared a love for inventiveness and color. They learned to be more savvy in sales.

Slowly, things changed. In 2007, Lee’s husband got a job offer in Virginia Beach, closer to her family in Richmond. So they moved. Then Kat’s husband got a job in Charlotte – her hometown. Both women had young kids and, after the economy soured, they started winding down the business. “It was not as much fun, not going to work with each other every day,” Kat says.

Even after they shut down, the two remained best friends. They spoke frequently, trying to figure out what to do next. Should they go back to graphic design? Eventually they came back around to the fact that they’d had a great thing going and nearly a decade of experience under their belts. They were older, smarter and ready to start again. A little over two years ago they launched Addison Weeks, coming back together with a strong vision and sharper focus.

They were no longer making jewelry by hand or getting bogged down by production. They contracted that out so they could spend time doing what they loved most: the design. They went for a higher price point, focused their style – using the gemstones, and crafting with metal – to create a signature look.

The business is booming. Lee and Kat have nailed down a system. They get their kids off to school, show up to work early and are home in time for after-school snacks.

The partners have learned to look toward the future. Marketing, once a cause for consternation for these two artists, has become an integral part of their process. They go to market six times a year and relish the time together. They can see their way forward now, their products also evolving with their tastes. They are experimenting with different metals and leaning more toward home items like the gemstone boxes, barware and candle holders. The pair have found balance between creating their recognizable brand of jewelry and their bolder home pieces that are riskier and serve as markers for the direction their burgeoning company is taking.

And they’ve evolved as people, too. Kat, a people pleaser who’s figured out how to say no when she needs to. Lee, a painter, has picked up her brushes again. The company is their baby and they know now that means they choose what they want to make of it. It also means they know when to take personal time – away from work. They are both more decisive, more mature.

“I’ve evolved since hot pink,” Kat says with a laugh.

“And I’ve evolved since the purple sweater set,” Lee replies.