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Trailblazer of Style

Freddie Leiba’s vibrant career as a creative director has illuminated decades and continents and he’s worked with the very cream of photographers, models and stars of stage and screen. So, we ask ourselves, what is Freddie’s enduring secret? It goes without saying that he’s an uber elegant stylist, but he’s also compassionate – ­­we’ll talk about his philanthropy - distinguished, and above all, a consummate professional. To find out more, our Guest Editor Denise put in a call to Freddie at his home in New York City.

Where it all began.

Actually, I’m originally from Trinidad, where, when I was small, my mother worked as a seamstress. I can remember her making beautiful party dresses from organdie, which is a lovely fine cotton muslin.

My mother was really pivotal to my career in fashion. I was quiet as a boy, and I loved to stay home and read. One Christmas, my mother gave me a library card. As a member of the library, I became engrossed in fashion books and glossy magazines like Vogue. Then, in 1957 I got turned on to movies when Rita Hayworth and Robert Mitchum filmed ‘Fire Down Below’, on location nearby to where we lived.

When I was a teenager, we travelled to the US when my mother had the opportunity to become a nanny to a family. I grabbed the chance to get into fashion and went to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I didn’t have the focus for academic classes, but I loved the fashion courses. Soon after, I transferred to Traphagen School of Fashion to concentrate strictly on fashion. I was on my way!

Freddie's inspiration, his mother, Grace Leiba
Freddie's inspiration, his mother, Grace Leiba

Amidst the backdrop of the Swinging Sixties, I moved to London. I got a job working for celebrated British fashion designer Gerald McCann. I couldn’t have timed it better. This was when the Sixties and the Kings Road were buzzing. The street influence of fashion was starting to bloom. I loved it. In fact, fast forward to the 1970s and I found myself there selling American jeans at the legendary denim store Jean Machine. Opposite was a fabulous record store, and the customers went back and forth encouraging an early fusion of rock and fashion. Nearby, antiques emporium Antiquarius fostered an early trend for vintage and boho.

I moved on to work at Browns as a salesman, along with Paul Smith (now Sir Paul). We were ingénues, but the hugely talented savvy founder Joan Burstein was brilliant at scouting and supporting avant-garde new talent. She is credited with discovering Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Sonya Rykiel, and Manolo Blahnik and being the first to stock Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. We were in fine company!

Then, as I was returning to New York to visit my mother, I discovered my visa had expired and I wasn’t allowed to come back to England for some time. In New York, I was asked to work at a number of retail stores, but I declined. But when I was offered a freelance post at Interview Magazine, with Andy Warhol, I accepted!

It was now that I began to hone the philosophy and aesthetic that became core to my work. I love it when art, music and fashion come together. I step back into different periods of time to curate and conjure up my creative direction and styling for a shoot. I am totally curious about what’s happening around me and I love visiting museums and galleries for inspiration.

Philanthropy goes hand in hand with my work. I’ve always worked to alleviate poverty, the AIDS crisis and racism. I’m proud to say I put the first Black model, Karen Alexander, on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in the 1980s.

I also collaborated on a book, Diverse Beauty, with fashion photographer Lexi Lubomirski. Diverse Beauty heralds award winning Kenyan Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o on the cover. It celebrates many different types of female beauty and aims to embrace inclusivity, so that everyone who looks at it, regardless of race, ethnicity, size, colour, sexual orientation or even disability can identify and see themselves as beautiful. Not only that, but the book also has direct charity value. All proceeds from sales are awarded to water charities for Africa.

My portfolio contains a rollcall of personalities – more of that in a moment. But there are two absolute legends of photography that I’ve worked with that I really treasure: Irving Penn and Horst. Irving Penn was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He captured famous cultural figures including artists such as Jasper Johns, Pablo Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and Salvador Dali and elevated fashion to an artform. With Penn, I styled the L’Oreal campaigns that he photographed including these.

Horst P. Horst. The career of German American photographer Horst, as he was known was underpinned by his early study of architecture. A photographic legend, he produced outstanding, elegant work that made him one of the most influential fashion photographers of the mid-20th century. With him, I styled the sets and clothing for a Saks Fifth Avenue marketing campaign. We created over a dozen portraits that reflected the essence of individual perfume brands. Horst gave me signed prints of each image and I have them hanging on my living room wall.

In step with the glitterati. It is impossible to talk about my life and career without sharing with you the shining stars I have been privileged to work with on assignments – from curating magazine covers and spreads, to styling for public appearances.

Andy Warhol and Interview
No introduction needed for the maverick visual artist and film director, who was a leading figure in the visual art movement and owner of The Factory. Art Director Marc Balet is the one who brought me to Interview Magazine as a freelancer to contribute to some of their covers. My job was to style the cover star. After the covers were photographed, they were painted by Richard Bernstein. Around this time, I began freelancing for Vogue Paris, Vogue Italia, and Harper’s Bazaar Italia, mostly with Albert Watson.

'Interview' cover stars Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields as styled by Freddie
'Interview' cover stars Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields as styled by Freddie

Glamorous and showstopping. I’ve worked with a star-studded collection of women in the media spotlight. 
Amazingly, some of my collaborations have entered the public social consciousness and become iconic in their own right. I went on to become the creative director of U.S. Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, and InStyle magazines, Of all of the covers and editorials, top of mind, perhaps, is Madonna. I styled the memorable Harper’s Bazaar shot of her in the cone bra corset, created by designer Jean Paul Gaultier, that she unveiled in Japan, on the first stop of her Blonde Ambition tour. The pictures were also used in The Face magazine.

The iconic image of Madonna, styled by Freddie Leiba
The iconic image of Madonna, styled by Freddie Leiba

One of my most outstanding memories is going to Paris to see the first couture show of Gianfranco Ferre as the new designer of Dior. I was mesmerized by this one red dress, and I knew I wanted to photograph it on Paloma Picasso. I met up with her and she agreed to pose for the images when we both returned to New York City. We created this stunning image in front of her father’s abstract painting...

History and art permeate through my work. Two more favourites are a bridal campaign for Badgley Mischka, which was inspired by Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette movie and capturing a new romantic aura. And a shimmering shot of Aneta Zdeb as my interpretation of the legendary The Woman in Gold, Inspired by Viennese Art Nouveau painter, Gustav Klimt.  

I’ve styled Beyonce, Selma Hayak and Charlize Theron. And dressed Meryl Streep, Janet Jackson, Liz Hurley, Renee Fleming, Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant. All are mega famous and have huge public profiles.  So when I work with them it’s vital for me to engender a mutual accord. I get into a conversation and connect with them, talk about my inspiration behind the project and generally empathise and be mindful of their likes and dislikes. This is my recipe for putting my subjects at their ease such as in these stunning images of Elizabeth Hurley and Beyonce!

The relaxing vibe of my home is important to me. At home in New York, I love to have fresh flowers around and enjoy my collection of fashion and art books.  The signed portraits in the picture were gifts from Horst, and the Picasso cushion was a gift from Paloma Picasso.

I love the Gladstn London brand and in it I see parallels of my work in terms of style, innovation, quality and heritage. In my life and line of work, quality is paramount. I need something that is functional and practical, but stylish. The Mad Dash trolley shows the real benefits of a travel trolley case totally ticking the boxes for both travelling and for transporting garments to a photo shoot set.

I have travelled multiple times across the Pond and back. In London, my favourite hotel is Claridges – or I perhaps stay with friends. For inspiration I love to revisit art galleries, take walks, and check out Portobello Road.

I used to dress in Savile Row ……. Now, I mix everything with jeans. My current style is a mashup of high and low!

At this point of my life, one of my greatest pleasures is speaking to students. I tell them about how I navigated my life and career, and I hope to encourage and inspire them to follow their own dreams. 

Gladstonian Journal

To see more of Freddie Leiba's work visit his website
Freddie shared his story with Denise Barrett, Guest Editor and author of Handbag Homage
Missed any of the Gladstonian Journals? Click here to catch up
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