Freddie Leiba is the embodiment of elegance. He is at once both very cool, and warm. His lyrical voice soothes and charms. Once seated in his resplendent abode in midtown Manhattan, Mr. Leiba begins to reflect on the early days, and how they laid the path to a life in fashion, photography, and style that is undeniably glamorous. His vision has been seen on some of the most beautiful women of our time, from Iman to Beyonce, Meryl Streep to Sandra Bullock. He recounts his humble beginnings, and the path he took, back and forth across the Atlantic, though our story begins in the Caribbean.
Mr. Leiba recounts, "I was born in Trinidad and left at the end of the 1950s to go to England. When I grew up, there was no TV. Instead you joined the library and hopefully, you for a good book. I remember as a young boy, my mother took me for a walk one Sunday, as we often did, and we saw Rita Hayworth filming 'Fire Down Below.' I had never seen anyone like that in life. I was fascinated by this woman who looked like a goddess on a Caribbean island.
“I would go to the library and research books, then to the movies where it would cost twenty-five cents to see a double feature. I felt at home in this world, but it still felt untouchable. I didn’t think there was any way I would ever be a part of a world like this.
“When I went to London, I really found my place. I just fell into the right group of people. I was attending the Royal College of Art, the most prestigious, most respected art school in the world. I drew incessantly. I drew women in dresses. I was obsessed.
“My mother was broad-minded and had no problems with me doing dress design. She sewed for a living, and taught herself how to sew, and how to play the piano. She worked and worked and worked—and never complained about anything. Everything starts at home, no matter how rich or poor you are. She was a single mother. She did everything to make everything possible for me. I will never forget that. I wouldn’t ever disappoint her even though she’d dead now. She worked so hard to get me to the place I am. I still feel I have to shine. I just have to do it.
“Joanne Broughen, Director of the Royal College of Art and Vanessa Denza, the Fashion Director at Escalade introduced me to Gerald McCann. I joined as an assistant designer but later ended up getting fired as I didn’t have the discipline the position required. At the time King’s Road and Carnaby Street was just starting to happen, and I got a job at Rag Machine, where all the pop stars bought their jeans. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I got up early and went to Portobello Road for vintage clothes.
“Robert Forest, Buyer, introduced me to Brown’s in London, the most prestigious boutique at that time. Brown’s was founded by Joan Burstein and her husband Sidney in 1970. They discovered Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, and Karl Lagerfeld when they were designing for other houses. These designers would come in to show their collections, and I got to meet everyone first hand. It was a wonderful environment. When Sinatra came to town, he went to shop at Brown’s. When Streisand came to town, she went to Brown’s. Paul Smith worked with us, and Ossie Clark lived up the street. Grace Coddington would come in. It was kind of wonderful.
“Then I got deported. I had been so busy being social that I didn’t keep up with my Visa. I was supposed to get a stamp every six months but I never went. I was too busy with the parties. I even went in and out of the country without a problem until one day in Heathrow Airport. They stopped me and held in Customs. Paul Smith and Joanne Burstein was trying to get me out, but I was deported t to America two days later.
“I ended up living with my mother in New York. I had nothing. My clothes were in London. My life was in London. But I had made some wonderful connections in England, including with Marc Balet, the Art Director for Interview, who invited me to help them out when I arrived in New York. I did the painted covers, and I began working as a stylist. I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought it was a strange thing that I’d be dressing people; I thought the people dressed themselves.
“I thought being a stylist was temporary; I wanted to design clothing. But I met photographer Albert Watson and began to work with him, doing covers for French Vogue. From there is snowballed. I began working with Peter Schub, the agent who handled Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Lord Snowden. He was the most powerful agent in the world, and yet I still thought one day it’s going to change.
“At that time Anna Wintour had come to America. She was first working at Harper’s Bazaar, then went to New York Magazine, and made it what it is today. She did a story on stylists and used me as the opening of the story. Then I got a call from Bazaar, and went on to become their Creative Director. There, I began working with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Horst P. Horst, Francesco Scavullo, Patrick Demarchelier—all the iconic photographers of the time.
“Anna saw what I was doing. I received a call from Anna and Mr. Alexander Leiberman. They wanted me to join Conde Nast. I felt awkward. I had a gentleman’s agreement with Bazaar. I wouldn’t have just walked out on you. It was eventually arranged that I would join Allure. It was 1990. The Gulf War had started. People got worried about magazines. They flew into a panic. They were terrified of getting on planes. I rallied through Allure. But I also wanted my freedom.
“In the 70s, while I was at Interview, I used to go to Studio 54 with all the models. I became part of the scene. When it closed Steve Rubell and Ian Schraeger went to jail. After they came out of jail, they went into hospitality. Ian and Steve proposed to open their first boutique hotel, the Morgan Hotel, and they asked me to design the staff uniforms.
“While I was at Allure I kept me collaborations. I started freelancing for the hotels, doing consultancy for different magazine, and campaigns for Clinique and L’Oreal. Then, in the mid-90s, I got a call from InStyle. I did all the covers for 15 years, While doing that, I worked with Elizabeth Hurley on contract for Estee Lauder. I also did her costumes in ‘Austin Powers.’
“I left InStyle, and continue my work with hotels. Calvin Klein asked me to design the uniforms in his complex. I do the photo shoots. I make a look out of it. The most perfect suit for the man. The most perfect dress for the woman. I first look at the interiors and then I design the uniforms to look like they belong here.
“For me chic is a kind of confidence. It comes from within. Style is more of what interest me. Chic feels wealthy. Style is broader. I can get on the subway and see the most interesting looks. I like people who own a look. They are not copying. They are dressing for themselves. They walk into a room and there is something about them that is special.
“You find people burst into radical looks, like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. The streets of London were like this. Alexander McQueen represented that. Annie Lennox, Sade, Boy George, Leigh Bowery. They are innovative. That’s what I am interested in. You find this fantasy of what you want in life. It comes from within you. It’s something in you that makes you want it. It’s an extra heartbeat.
“To make a statement and it be your own statement. It’s a lot of hard word. I remember doing shoots until two in the morning. We were so passionate about it. It was magical. It’s what gets you up in the morning, knowing that someone ants you to do something for them. You are worthy of doing something magical, and every day can be like that day.
“I love to get up and feel I am contributing something. Retirement is not in my vocabulary. I will be 70 in October. The reality check to all of this is my mother did everything possible. I never forgot that. I would never disappoint her even though she is dead now. She worked so hard to get me to the place I am. I still feel I have to shine. I just have to do it.”