TALK TO ME: Rita Liefhebber, part I

Story by Paul Aguirre-Livingstone. Illustration by Ayalah Hutchins.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Rita Liefhebber, with her model-worthy looks (yeah, she was one), would be intimidating in person. But the Toronto fashion designer is as lovely as her mesmerizing mermaid hair—not to mention smart, down-to-earth, and—oh yes—talented.

Liefhebber has dipped her toe into almost every fashionable pond: modelling, assisting veteran stylist Lori Goldstein in New York, and overseeing the fashion pages as an editor at Flare in Toronto. Last fall, she launched her eponymous collection and continues to work as a stylist.

What I love about her is that she’s not afraid to dream big: She’s about to show during New York Fashion Week for the third time, a major feat for a new Canadian designer. Liefhebber isn’t about being a big fish in a small pond—she’s the girl who wants to run the empire.

Tell me about your journey. What made you decide to start your own collection?

“I started in fashion as a model at 15. I then became a stylist while living in New York and later moved back to Toronto. Shortly after, I became the fashion editor at Flare. New York called again and I returned to be Lori Goldstein’s first assistant. I had been planning on starting the line for the last few years but I didn’t want to pass up those opportunities.”

Do you have a favourite fashion memory?

“Assisting Lori on a Hedi Slimane shoot in L.A. He is cooler than you can ever imagine and he travels with an entourage of skinny well-dressed guys in a Rolls Royce. Amazing.”

What inspires you?

“Confident women like Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lauren Hutton,  Annie Leibovitz.”

Who is your favourite person (other than a designer) in the fashion world?

“I don’t have one favourite person. I surround myself with strong, creative, ambitious, salt-of-the-earth people and each of them inspires me in different ways.”

Two stylists you admire?

“Tonne Goodman and Lori Goldstein.”

You’ve shown during New York Fashion Week twice now. What was the response like?

“New York and Europe are my focus. Canada has been such a nurturing environment to develop the collection, but the opportunities for further growth are not in the Canadian market—we’re more frugal and conservative here. I showed in a giant moving truck in New York and everyone said the whole presentation felt like fashion in the ’80s when designers were very creative with their presentations.”

You did something similar with your Fall 2010 collection in Toronto. It thought it was awesome, but: Why?

“I came up with the truck idea after facing the challenge of trying to find a show space close enough to M.A.C & Milk [in New York]. When I did find a space, it was thousands of dollars to rent for eight hours. As a young designer, it was financially out of the question. So I rented the same truck in Toronto to plan and build the inside.

The problem was that you can’t drill into the truck, and we had to figure out how to light it without any power. We made a suspended plexiglass mirror ceiling, magnetized maglites and collapsible stairs. We drove it down to New York on the roof of a car and installed it in a similar rented moving truck. We parked it around the corner from M.A.C. & Milk and rolled open the back loading door. The response was fantastic. It was such a change from the typical runway.”

What is the best part of your job? The worst?

“The best part of my job is that I can be creative every day. I’m challenged every step of the way. The worst is coming to the realization that I’m not super woman, and I have to say no sometimes.”

Below, a quartet of lovely looks from Rita Liefhebber’s Fall 2010 collection.

W cover styled by Lori Goldstein.

Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall, in W’s September issue, styled by Lori Goldstein.

Kate Moss spread in Vogue, styled by Tonne Goodman.

Actress, musician and model Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The amazing Lauren Hutton.

Check back tomorrow for part II of our conversation with Rita, in which she talks about her ideal customer, ideal collaborators and whether she’ll ever leave Toronto.

In the meantime, read our other Talk to Me stories with Kealan Sullivan, Nathalie Atkinson, Robin Givhan and other fascinating fashion personalities!

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