Joanne Sasvari, For The Calgary Herald
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2008
For a decade, Lara Presber had been designing buildings for a prestigious Boston architectural firm. And then she just stopped.
“Turning 30, you re-evaluate things. I looked back at the last 10 years and thought, I hate what I’m doing,” she recalls.
But while she’d come to loathe the drudgery of her job, she still loved design. What she loved most of all was fashion design.
So one day, Presber hopped a plane to Milan, took a master’s degree in fashion and went to work designing accessories.
Now she’s come home to Calgary to launch her own fashion label. despite all the challenges of finding success so far away from the world’s major fashion capitals.
“Design is design,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
You probably haven’t heard of Presber before this, but you will likely be hearing a lot about her soon.
Although she’s only just released her second full collection (Fall 2008), she’s already starting to generate buzz across the country. (Her first collection was for Fall 2007, and she only produced a few pieces for Spring 2008.)
She’s one of four finalists — the only one from the West — in the Toronto Fashion Incubator’s New Labels competition, the results of which will be announced in April.
Her designs are already being sold in Vancouver, the city where she manufactures her clothing.
And here at home, Presber is set to be one of the anchor tenants in Fashion Central, an ambitious new retail-and-design project on Stephen Avenue Walk, similar to the popular Art Central. (See story, page F2.)
“I really think she’s the up-and-coming Calgary designer,” says Jodi Opsahl, the designer behind the Jodiom label who is also in charge of bringing in fashion retailers for Fashion Central.
“She’s really influenced by retro-vintage architecture.”
Most importantly, you’ll hear about Presber simply because her designs are not only beautiful, but fill a woefully large gap for “age-appropriate” clothing that is both functional and stylish.
“My target audience is myself and my girlfriends,” says Presber, who is now 34. “You want stuff that’s fun, but you don’t want to look like you’re in your 20s.
“But we don’t want to look like we’re in our 60s, either.”
As any woman who has debated whether she is too old to wear a mini-skirt knows, fashion is going through a frustrating phase right now. Designers call it the age of individualism, but in reality, it’s left thousands of women with nothing to wear.
“The suit is dead, but what do you replace it with?” Presber wonders.
When it came to designing her Fall 2008 collection, she created a line that would fill that gap — chic-but-quirky clothes that are all grown up, but never dull or dowdy.
The collection was inspired by the Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, known for her paintings of independent, modern women.
“I love how those women are so strong but so ethereal,” Presber says. “You’ve got this interesting contrast between vulnerability and structure.”
Even as a child growing up in Calgary, Presber was divided between structure and fashion.
She recalls that she split her time “50-50 being in the garage with my dad fixing things or inside with my mom sewing things.”
She always loved fashion — “I debuted my first collection when I was in elementary school,” she says — but fashion wasn’t exactly a practical career choice, so when it came time to decide, structure won.
“Being in Calgary, wanting to be in fashion design was so unattainable, you might as well want to be a movie star,” she says.
Presber attended Boston Architectural Centre (now College), where she worked at an architecture firm during the day and studied in the evenings.
Even while she was learning to design buildings, though, she still continued to make her own clothing.
“A part of it was necessity. I was poor. I was so poor,” she says.
“I never put fashion away,” she adds. “It just took a bit of a back seat.”
For a decade, architecture was her life. And then, suddenly, she knew that if she didn’t make a change, she’d look back at 80 and be filled with regret: “If I hadn’t done this, I would have been devastated, I think.”
So off she went to the fashion capital of Milan.
“After architecture, it was like a holiday,” she says.
“Fortunately, I’d been sewing all my life. I felt like I was using the exact same tools to solve a problem, just in a different medium.”
But Milan, too, turned out to be a different experience than she had hoped for.
“As a young designer, you’re just exploited in Milan,” she says. In fact, she had to take a second job teaching English just to make ends meet.
“I just didn’t see there was a future for me,” she says. “So I came back to Calgary because my family was here.”
Now she’s home, and the lines of fashion and structure have finally met.
As she works to make a name for herself, she’s picked up a contract job at Karo, the branding and communication design firm, where she helps clients articulate their brand through their “built environment.”
“Karo has just been my saviour here,” she says. “They’ve just been so supportive. They figure happy employees are productive employees.”
Then again, she’s been impressed by how much encouragement she’s received everywhere in Calgary.
“I’ve just been finding that I’ve been getting a lot of support. And maybe in Toronto it wouldn’t be so personalized,” she says. “I like the pace, and I like that everyone’s so nice.”
She does feel the lack of a local fashion design community, but thinks Fashion Central may just be the project to close that gap.
It makes sense, too, that as much as Fashion Central is a fashion project, it is also an architectural one, an ambitious renovation of three downtown heritage buildings into a modern lifestyle space.
Even now, just as she never lost her love of fashion as an architect, architecture still influences her as a designer.
Not only are her clothes meticulously constructed, so are her line sheets, which come complete with architectural renderings of each piece.
“When I look at that I laugh and think, an architect put that together,” she says.
On the brink of success as a fashion designer, Presber has no regrets about the route that got her here.
“From my own experience, I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” she says.
She can say that even though she’s exhausted after a chaotic few weeks of travelling to Paris and Toronto, finishing her fall collection, beginning her spring one and working extra hours at Karo to make up for it.
“I’m so tired. I keep changing time zones every two weeks,” she says. “I’m 34, but I feel 80 right now.”
She pauses, then says with delight: “But you know what? I love it!”
Advice for Would-Be Designers
As designer Lara Presber knows, “fashion is a really hard industry to break into.”
That means if you’re considering a career in fashion, you need all the help you can get. Here are some tips for getting started:
– Get training: At first, that might mean something other than fashion design. For instance, Presber was an architect for a decade before going back to her first love. “I would still spend 10 years doing architecture,” she says.
– Get a mentor: A mentor can help you overcome all sorts of unforeseen hurdles. At fashion school, Presber found a mentor who is now the art director for Dior accessories. “She still finds the time to go to my school and be a mentor for these young designers,” Presber says. “And you know, she does it because she loves it. A very inspiring woman.”
– Get a support network: Even an independent designer needs people to go to for advice, resources and a sympathetic ear. And that’s the whole idea behind the soon-to-open Fashion Central on Stephen Avenue Walk, which will be home both to international retailers and local designers’ studios. Aside from that, Presber says, “I have my own little support network, but I think that’s what you really need.”
For More Info
To check out Lara Presber’s complete Fall 2008 collection, go to larapresber.com. To order online or to contact the designer directly, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
This fall, look for her studio at Fashion Central, which will open in the old Macnaghten Block on Stephen Avenue Walk, fashioncentral.ca