Style Guru to the Stars
"I don’t wear designer clothes at all. I used to when I was younger, but now it just seems very pedestrian."
Freddie Leiba is a rare breed. He is the epitome of a gentleman: talented, insightful, dignified, humble—and far from simple. He’s the style guru to the world’s most recognizable faces. Think Beyonce, Sarah Jessica Parker, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jodie Foster, Hugh Grant.
It’s October 2011 and Leiba is visiting his home country of Trinidad and Tobago, in particular, his long time friend, Anthony Medina. He and Anthony did lose touch over the years; nonetheless, they had a special childhood bond that brought them together once again. We all met at the Carlton Savannah, to share some stories and laughs.
Leiba and Anthony grew up in St. Margaret’s Lane, Belmont, and attended Belmont Boys’ Secondary. They shared many interests, which in those days were considered taboo. As youngsters, they dabbled in drawing, comics, dance and fashion. They would visit the library to find glossy magazines and comic books that were rare items in the country back then.
Leiba says: The only glimpse of fashion was from going to the cinema, listening to stories, and going to the library. He and Anthony, in fact, spent many days in the library researching their interests and opening up imaginative possibilities of their own.
Leiba’s mom was a single parent, and did what she could to provide for their family. When Leiba’s grandfather passed away, he left her a piano, which she sold to get the fare to move to America. She could not afford to take Leiba, who remained with his aunt and uncle in Belmont.
But it was from his mother that Leiba fostered an appreciation for style, more specifically the structuring of garments. Leiba recalls that she made gorgeous party dresses for children, and owned a boutique at one time. He says: She was very unusual, as women did not work in those days; she was just a single mother doing what she could to get by.
Leiba continues: There used to be one thing, a fashion catalogue where they (the women at that time) copied dresses for themselves. In the 1950’s, when the fishtail dress came out, my mom made one to wear to a wedding. He laughs: She didn’t understand the construction of it, and could not get into it. She was better at making children’s dresses.
His mother’s arrival at the aforementioned wedding was an amusing affair in itself. He says: My mother loved dressing up, to the extent of embarrassment. She’d hired a Portuguese guy as an escort to the wedding and he had a red sports car. The taffeta fishtail dress was bright red; so this car was coming through St. Margaret’s Lane, and there was my mother in that flaming dress, and everyone was looking to see what was going on.
She (my mother) hadn’t seen her date before, and he wasn’t good looking. She thought, ‘Oh Lord I made this dress for nothing!’ She was embarrassed but had to go through with it.
When Leiba’s mother left he continued to collaborate with Anthony to explore their artsy interests; fashion was a priority. He narrated one of his many shenanigans: I had a dog name Rex. When my aunt went out, I would take her clothes, dress the dog, clip earrings onto his ears, put on lipstick, and so on. Rex would take off down St. Margaret’s Lane all dolled up.
Anthony’s parents were a bit more conservative than Leiba’s guardians. They preferred he went to church than hang with Leiba. So Anthony would sneak out in his confession attire, to join Leiba in his adventures.
They were in Samba class together, and were carded to be part of a concert. Anthony played the Cocrico, and Leiba, a white egret. Leiba recalls: I wore an outlandish bird’s décor, the white leggings, and everything.
Leiba’s mom had come to visit, and spent hours at the sewing machine constructing and embroidering his costume. Leiba says: So when this concert took place in the Savannah, we were teased. All the boys living in other parts of Belmont would naturally walk pass St. Margaret’s Lane to the Savannah; they would stop by my house…I was totally harassed. They would be flapping their hands and so on. My mother took me away so I could escape this. I was a teenager when I went to New York.
Leiba had already decided that he’d attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. He took all his drawings with him when he moved. He says: I had it all organized in my head and I told my mom, as she didn’t know much about fashion schools. I saw the principal, they liked my drawings, and I got in.
It was the 1960’s, and there was a reinvention of fashion—think big hair, short skirts, Vidal Sassoon, Mary Quant. Leiba says: It was quite something. All the FIT students looked fabulous. They all tried to outdo each other. It was everything that was happening in magazines.
He admits: But I wasn’t a terribly good student, never had concentration; “talkative” was on every report card, but I just loved being creative.
Despite his professed academic woes, Leiba won a contest in New York that got his work featured in the prestigious Women’s Wear Daily. This exposure landed him a job in a lingerie company through which he made several contacts in the fashion industry. He was then invited by a friend to go to London - the mecca of fashion.
Leiba attended the Royal College of Art, and subsequently worked as an assistant to designer Gerald McCann, whose clientele included Princess Margaret. He says: He (my boss) liked having me around, but I could not cut fabric; learning how to sew means you had to be precise, so my style didn’t suit his clientele. He fired me and I moved on to King’s Road and then to Browns of London—the most fashion forward boutique in the world at the time.
Browns was known for discovering young talent the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, and Giorgio Armani. Its clientele included all the models and top stars in the world. Leiba says: They only hired you if you looked the part. Instantly, I was surrounded by all these incredible people. And this world opened up to me in a very intimate way. We had a close-knit relationship with clients, and I got invited to all the high profile parties. It all happened very organically.
Leiba had a British passport at the time; when he left Trinidad the island was a British colony, and later gained independence. Thereafter, he had to have his passport routinely stamped to maintain his residency abroad. Due to his fast paced life, he delayed updating his immigration status, to detrimental effect. Whilst boarding a plane to visit his mother in New York, he was arrested, and thrown into a Heathrow jail.
His influential friends intervened on his behalf but their efforts were fruitless. He had to leave everything behind, including his home and apartment in London, and move to the United States (in his holiday clothes). Luckily, he had many friends in good places, which helped him land on his feet once more.
He was given the opportunity to work with Andy Warhol, who had then started Interview magazine. Leiba was asked to style Jodie Foster, who was fifteen years old at the time. He says, “Every week I was seeing these big pictures with these people and my name on it. But I thought it was a temporary thing.” He had not yet reasoned that his forte was that of a “stylist”. That profession was still being defined at the time.
He later worked with Albert Watson, a prominent photographer who not only photographed the royal wedding, but also shot over one hundred covers for French Vogue. Through these stints, Leiba developed his passion for putting photographic images together.
His work got the attention of Anna Wintour, who then worked with New York magazine. She approached him to do a story, about stylists. Leiba says: She very cleverly found five people, including myself, and gave us each a white suit from Calvin Klein; we had to create a picture with this one white suit. I used a Swedish girl as my model. I created a scene with her and a black and white poodle; she wore a big straw hat, and glasses, like a paper doll. Anna used this as the opening story.
New York fashion insiders took notice of Leiba’s talent. Harper’s Bazaar, a then very elitist magazine, approached him to become its Creative Director. He says: So I got this wonderful opportunity; and worked with them for a while. They were starting a new magazine named Allure.
Thereafter, Anna Wintour contacted him about working for Vogue. He says: I’d made a gentleman’s agreement with Harper’s, so I was upfront with them, and stuck around until they got my replacement, before I went to Vogue. I had to tell Anna that I needed to honour my relationship with them.
Even though Leiba worked for Vogue, he discovered that certain staff members were off limits to him; he had to get his own editorial team. He says: I sought the help of Irving Penn’s assistant who is a master at lighting images. It sounds simple but it’s not that simple. You’re only good as the company you keep. You have to surround yourself with the best.
Leiba decided to freelance in the 1990’s. He started working with Elizabeth Hurley, who was just being brought in as the face of Estee Lauder. He was then approached by Time Inc. who owns Sports Illustrated and In Style magazines. In Style had just started the trend of using actresses on their cover, instead of just models. He was contracted to them for fifteen years. His contract has only recently expired.
We ask Leiba about our own designers and what he thinks of the Caribbean fashion industry. He affirms that he is familiar with Meiling’s work, which he deems appropriate for the region. He says: It has a point of view; it does not copy American fashion. I have to look at it for what it is.
We ask him about the Caribbean woman’s style, and what he thinks she should have in her closet. He says: The Caribbean woman is no different from any other woman. It’s just the climate. She should ultimately have a white shirt, black pencil skirt and great fitting jeans.
He cautions young, enterprising designers about the hard work involved in fashion; and that it’s not all glamour. He says: You have to know the construction of a dress on a woman, know the woman, and make sure the dress looks like it belongs to her. A star like Salma Hayek is only five feet tall, but she has a big, important face. You have to be mindful of the person. The industry is tough; you’re only as good as the last job you did.
Leiba is known for his own classic yet understated style. Among his essentials are custom-made suits, and Levi’s, accented with embroidered vests, colorful button-downs, ties, and pocket squares. He says: The thing about style, I don’t wear designer clothes at all. I used to when I was younger, but now it just seems very pedestrian. I love well-made clothes, so I just have my suits made by a proper tailor. I can spot every dress—I know exactly what season, and what year, and what collection they’re from—I try to remove myself from that. I’m involved in the subject, not myself.