The extent of Freddie Leiba’s influence is not apparent on first impression. Freddie Leiba is a genteel, elegant man with a soft-spoken and very deliberate manner. He is proper yet warm and welcoming, dapper yet uncomplicated. In a word, he is a gentleman.
Despite his understated demeanour, however, Leiba has had anything but a gentle impact on the fashion industry. Hopping from New York to Los Angeles, and to England, Paris and Italy, he is truly a stylist of international repute and influence. Through his work with some of the most famous and most photographed women in the world and the magazine covers he styles for InStyle magazine, Leiba inspires and influences millions of people on a regular basis. When the newspapers or society columns call him a ‘celebrity stylist’ they are accurate in describing a man who has worked with some of the most recognised and respected names in the world.
On a mild winter afternoon in New York City, Leiba invited me to his apartment to discuss his life and career over what any proper gentleman would offer his guest: a hot pot of tea. It was no surprise that Leiba’s home was no ordinary New York apartment. Located along Manhattan’s famed Central Park West, Leiba’s home is a stunning two-storey penthouse with breathtaking panoramic views and a one-of-a-kind style. The walls are adorned with captivating artwork and intriguing photographs from some of the top photographers of this era – all of whom Leiba has worked with at some point during his career. Against a backdrop of warm, dark hues, ornate African artifacts nestled between Freddie’s exquisite furniture. The apartment delivers an informed knowledge of the personality known as Freddie Leiba – cultured and practical.
Leiba’s journey from humble origins to the top of the fashion world is as interesting as it is unique. He was raised by a single mother in Trinidad. From a young age he was quite aware of his passion for, in fact a budding obsession with, the fashion world. His early introduction to the world of fashion and glamour came from movies and high-fashion magazines – British and American Vogue for which he had to go to the public library. When his mother moved to the US he stayed behind to live with his aunt and uncle and continued to hone and refine his love of all things glamorous. He candidly relates of his early appreciation for style and beauty, “All my girlfriends had to be glamorous! I wouldn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t glamorous.”
Leiba attributes much of his success to good luck and great timing, but there is no doubt his raw talent, passion for excellence and gentlemanly nature took him most of the way. To hear his tale is to appreciate the importance of solid values, a strong sense of self, and resisting the temptation to become consumed by “who” and “what” surround you in life.
He left Trinidad at the age of 12 to join his mother in the United States. His natural flair for sketching and hopes of becoming a fashion designer drew him towards the acclaimed Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. While at FIT he won a scholarship for young top designers, which led to a TV appearance and a feature in the prominent fashion publication, Women’s Wear Daily. The exposure propelled Leiba forward and landed him a job in the early ’60s as an assistant at a lingerie company.
Through his scholarship he was also able to make a number of contacts in London. For him
London was the mecca of fashion in the 60s and it took little encouragement from his contacts to get him to relocate. When he arrived in the English capital, he immediately contacted Joanna Brodden, the then fashion director at the Royal College of Art, and Vanessa Denza, a fashion buyer at Escalade (a very trendy shop in the ’60s), both of whom provided him with key introductions and guidance.
Leiba’s first major job in London was working as an assistant with designer Gerard McCann. He later took an opportunity to design a collection for Baron & Company (Baron supplied prêt-a porter to the department stores in England) but because the company soon went bankrupt Leiba was once again in search of work. His big break in London came when he landed a job on the famous King’s Road. At that time, King’s Road was simply a ‘great place to be’. It was where all the celebrities and models went to shop. He worked retail at Brown’s of London (the US equivalent would be Barney’s), one of the most influential boutiques in the world of fashion, then and now. Under the direction of owner Joan Bernstein, Brown’s developed a reputation for discovering and showcasing young and extremely talented designers. Some of the designers discovered at Brown’s include Karl Lagerfeld (at that time designing for Chloe), Giovanni Versace (Kaligan) and Giorgio Armani (designing for Cerutti). Brown’s clientele included the top models of the era, along with all the top stars in the world, including Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra.
COMING (BACK) TO AMERICA
Leiba’s time in London was cut short abruptly when the authorities forced his quick exit from England. He never took care of his immigration status, which in those days was a very simple exercise. Such was the pace of his world that he simply deferred the mundane details of his life. His decision to put off dealing with his immigration status ultimately had serious consequences as that fateful day arrived when British immigration officials forced him to leave London without notice – leaving behind his apartment and everything he owned.
From London, Leiba moved back to New York and although he had developed a number of contacts in the fashion world, he more or less had to start from scratch. Thankfully he had a strong network of friends and business associates, which in time opened up new doors and opportunities. Through a friend at Molton Brown, an affiliate of Brown’s, he met top photographer Albert Watson. Leiba began working with Watson and although there was no defined role for stylists in the world of photography at that time, he began learning how to put together a creative piece through the photographer’s eyes. It was his work with Watson, and later Irving Penn and some of the other masters of photography, to which Leiba attributes much of his success.
His foray into the world of photography piqued an interest in directing his design skills toward print media, particularly fashion magazines. However, 1970s New York provided limited opportunity for him and his new aspirations. First, fashion photography had no defined role for stylists, and second, the magazine industry was extremely elitist, which in those days meant there were simply no black people working at magazines. It was Leiba’s experience in London that gave him enough of an edge to push past these barriers and demonstrate his unparalleled talent. He was hired by Interview Magazine where he most memorably styled a 15-year-old Jodie Foster for the cover, as well as Mary Tyler-Moore and a whole host of other leading stars of the time.
The 1970s in New York were also about the period of Studio 54, and having become fast friends with owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, Leiba became a regular. Studio 54 was the spot for the glamorous and fabulous of the fashion and celebrity circuit – where you could spot Iman, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Patti Hansen all in one night. Until Studio 54 was closed down by the authorities, Leiba was a veritable habitué of that establishment.
As his work with Interview Magazine and with top photographers gained exposure and recognition, Leiba began working with leading figures in the fashion world. Among the best were Irving Penn and Horst P Horst, two of the most highly regarded fashion photographers of the modern era. Leiba’s first job with Penn, whom he describes as “the Rembrandt of Photography”, was a L’Oréal shoot in Paris. Years later, Leiba met Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Penn’s Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As he noted in a 2002 interview with CNN, Kennedy was “…the most stylish first lady ever … [and] … a big fashion icon. She charmed Americans and Europeans alike. And even today, designers are still inspired by her!”
THE ANNA WINTOUR STAMP OF APPROVAL
A defining moment in Leiba’s career came in the late 1970s when Anna Wintour of New York Magazine did a story on the top stylists in America, naming him as one of the Top 5. In the early 1980s he was recruited to be creative director of Harper’s Bazaar (of the Hearst Group) and later recruited by Anna Wintour herself to come to Condé Nast. He eventually left Hearst in the early 1990s to become fashion director at one of Condé Nast’s biggest publications, Allure magazine. Leiba left that position in the mid-1990s having decided to return to freelance work.
In the mid-1990s, Leiba re-connected with his old Studio 54 pals Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, who were then recently released from prison on tax evasion charges and ready to enter the “luxury, glamorous hotel market”. The first of their hotels was the Morgan Hotel, designed by the world-renowned Andrew Coutman. Leiba was retained to design the look of the staff, and the word uniform is not nearly sufficient to describe the final product – sleek cuts of cashmere and silk, befitting the ultimate in luxury. In fact, his designs were so stylish that they proved a tad impractical for regular wear and the rigours of active hotel workers. With a quick redesign, his ‘uniforms’ were a hit, and his relationship with the expanding hotel group blossomed. Since then, he has designed the uniforms for all the Ian Schrager hotels, including the Morgan, Hudson and Royalton in New York, the Delano and Shore Club in Miami, the Mondrian in Las Vegas, the Cliff in San Francisco and St Martin’s Lane and Sanderson in London. Most recently, Calvin Klein commissioned him to design the uniforms for the staff at Klein’s luxury condo residence in New York.
In the late 1990s Leiba began to work with InStyle magazine. Among other things, he styles all of the covers that draw in millions of readers wanting to see their favourite celebrity and get “the look”. He also works with Vanity Fair in Europe and a few other select publications around the globe. He worked with Tom Ford of Gucci for his perfume launch, consults with designers for their collections and shows, including Bill Blass and Catherine Malandrino, and freelances on a wide range of projects, including the design for the Sony concept stores.
Leiba remarks that the fashion industry has changed tremendously throughout his career. The influence of the photographer as being the all-important factor appears to have diminished. At the start of his career when he began working with Albert Watson, the role of the stylist was non-existent, but now the stylist has become somewhat of an appendage of the photographer. Stylists are, in some instances, ‘stars’ themselves. Leiba sees this shift as a positive, as it has both pushed wages up and caused the fashion industry to take stylists more seriously. But on the other hand, the entire viewpoint of fashion has changed, in Leiba’s opinion. Today’s pop culture suggests that where, in the past, models were vehicles to showcase clothing, today it’s almost as though the clothes are accessories to the celebrity or personality being photographed. So how do you succeed in this environment? In Leiba’s own words: “The key to making it in fashion in today’s world is not to focus on being a star. Be passionate about producing good work because you are only as good as your last shoot.”
Freddie Lieba’s is a story of which we should all be proud – proud, in terms of absolute success; he is at the top of his game and recognised as such in a global sense. But the pride to which I refer should especially resonate as Caribbean people to see where his talent, conviction and perseverance have taken him. This is not a tale of success “in spite of” (obstacles), this is a tale of success “because of” – that is because of talent, belief, perseverance and, as Leiba himself says – the right choices and being in the right place.
Whatever the field, walk of life, or ambition, there is a lesson in here for us all.
Freddie Leiba is the 2014 recipient of the Ocean Style Fashion Foundation Award and will be honoured at an exclusive dinner at the Iberostar Hotel, Montego Bay on Friday, October 24.