BY RACHEL MORTEN. PHOTO BY COLIN WAY.
Thirty years ago, when then-10-year-old Lara Presber was unhappy with the prepackaged outfits her dolls were sporting, she got to work creating a line of her very own. The resulting couture collection doesn’t bear much resemblance to the sleek, structured apparel she produces today, but, even back then, the Calgary native had an eye for design. “I liked building things,” she says, “whether they were from wood or fabric.” In fact, wood was her material of choice for a while—she chose architecture over fashion after graduating with her first degree (“It seemed more practical”), and worked steadily designing warm, welcoming retail and commercial interior spaces. A decade into her career, Presber craved a new challenge and so headed for Milan to study fashion.
Along the way, she found a way to combine both passions and, in 2005, she returned to Calgary to establish Studio Presber, a line of architecturally inspired womenswear. “For me, a good garment and a good building are all about structure,” says Presber. Her latest collection mixes dark greys with hints of patterned silk, elements inspired by the University of Calgary’s downtown campus. Her pieces are innovative, but her sales system is even more so: Presber’s website offers crowd-pricing (the more people who pre-order, the lower the cost) on limited-edition designs ranging from silk cowl-neck dresses to smartly cut chiffon tops.
The designer (along with other Calgary multitaskers like designer and artist Paul Stady) just launched Tallboy Studio, a multidisciplinary studio created to tackle urban projects of all scales. “It’s taken me all this time to collect my experiences,” laughs Presber. “But, looking back now, it all makes sense.” WL
We caught up with Calgary-based architect and fashion designer Lara Presber who designs her professional womenswear collections around the theme of ‘Building your Wardrobe one piece at a time.’ Inspired by the recent peaked interest in crowd-funding and pricing sites, savvy entrepreneur Lara has recently introduced crowd-pricing strategy with her women’s collection and on top of her regular collection, launches one limited edition piece from the collection online every month. Having trained as an architect first because Lara didn’t feel fashion design was a practical career path, she now shares her time across both her creative passions; architecture and fashion design. We asked Lara a few questions.
Tell us about your background? I was always interested in designing and making things when I was a child, which typically involved sewing or building things in the garage. When it came time to choose a career path architecture seemed like the more ‘practical’ option. Fashion came along later in life after 10 years of working on mostly large-scale institutional projects and yearning for a more intimate design experience.
Tell us about Studio Presber. What inspired you to launch it? Studio Presber evolved organically with wanting to collaborate on design projects with friends and colleagues who are immensely talented and experts in their own fields. It seemed to make a lot of sense after spending years in top-heavy organizations to strip away all of the bloat to provide clients with direct access to the designers who are also small business owners themselves. Design after all is an investment in your business and who better to advise than another business owner; it changes the perspective of the deliverable.
What inspired you to launch your fashion brand Lara Presber? The Lara Presber line was essentially born out of the frustration of the lack of options available for professional womenswear for myself and my colleagues. Our choices were limited to either very formal suits or pieces that were either too casual or were too revealing for the workplace. The line evolved over time to incorporate elements of architecture with a different building inspiring each collection. The result are pieces that can be worn to work, but also transition easily to evening or weekend. I’ve tried to create some options that are still feminine and could be considered as a suit alternative without the overly formal feeling that a suit sometimes gives.
What has been the most exciting part of launching your business so far? The most exciting part of launching both the fashion line and my architecture practice is seeing them come together in once project. We were recently awarded a commission for a cafe where we will be designing the interior, advising on furniture, collaborating with the branding and graphics component, providing the soundtrack and designing the uniforms for the staff. It’s really fulfilling to see so many facets of design coming together in one project and can’t wait to see the result.
What has been the most challenging part? And how did you overcome it? One of the greatest challenges is being based in a city that is just beginning to find their ‘design legs’. There is so much potential here, but it’s been somewhat of a slow start to convince people that, for example, clothing that is designed and made in Canada is worth the extra cost or that small independent designers who band together to form a larger design team are as reliable and stable as the larger, more traditional firms.
What advice would you give for someone starting out in the fashion industry today? The best piece of advice that I could give to someone starting out in fashion is to do as much interning with established companies as possible before striking out on your own. I had spent some time with an accessory designer in Milan before returning to Canada to launch my own line, but was not prepared for the challenges I encountered. It’s still a relatively new industry here so finding support and mentorship was almost impossible and I made a lot of very expensive mistakes before getting it right.
Who or what has been your biggest inspiration? My biggest inspiration has been my thesis mentor while completing my graduate studies in fashion in Milan. She had started her career in architecture and then transitioned into lighting design before becoming the art director for Christian Dior accessories. She gave so much of herself and really wanted to see me succeed without wanting anything in return. I liked that we had similar backgrounds and that she really understood where I was coming from as a fellow architect; she’s the only person that I’ve met in my adult life that I wanted to be like ‘when I grew up’!
What are your plans for the future? My plans for the future are to continue with Studio Presber and let it grow organically to see where it takes us. Some of the results of the turns we’ve taken have been so much better than anything we could have planned for so will continue along the lines of collaborating with people we enjoy and hopefully making some memorable projects and experiences along the way.
When you look back on life, what would you like to be remembered for? I would like to be remembered for having a full and diverse life. We live in a time where everyone is constantly ‘busy’ and seem to compete with each other on how much we can put on our plates at one time. I am trying to find a balance between creating beautiful spaces and objects and then also having the time to enjoy them with the people in my life that are important to me.
If you could be stuck in an elevator with anybody, who would it be? I think I would choose Coco Chanel. She was such a pioneer in the fashion world, but also culturally with redefining how women saw themselves in society.
Studio Presber Architecture + Design is a Calgary-based architecture and interior design firm that offers a selection of services that go beyond merely creating space.
This versatility comes from the fact that the principal, Lara Presber, is both an architect and a fashion designer. Such a duality of expertise helps give the firm an understanding of style and design right down to the smallest of details – from a concrete panel to a buttonhole, and everything in between. The design of corporate attire gives clients the ability to have custom robes for their spa or uniforms for their restaurant staff, which can provide another element of a client’s identity that can seamlessly fit into the look of a project. Services related to fashion design are available along with Studio Presber’s other services such as strategic branding and positioning; graphic design, signage and wayfinding; space planning and lease assistance; project management; and furniture, fixtures and equipment planning. These additional services present numerous ways in which clients can receive a holistic composition that blends right in with their brand.
One of the firm’s most well known projects to date is a specialty jewelry store in a high-profile downtown Calgary mall, which occupies a compact leasable space of only 80 square feet. The landlord removed two ATMs, recuperated the remaining space, putting the gross floor area barely 1% larger than the minimum required by code for more than 1 person at a time. The firm was tasked with consolidating the merchandising capability from the retailer’s previous 400 square foot location into the smaller space, while allowing the store to sell the same amount of product and with increased sales volumes. The solution was to create a usable storefront window that functions as a store during the day and continues to display merchandise after hours.
The firm is also very involved in local charities in the Calgary area, and were recently invited to design a mirror in support of a charity auction. They were inspired by the idea of adaptive reuse of a beautiful antique door salvaged from the Biscuit Block in the warehouse district of Calgary. The door, originally intended for another purpose, was enhanced with a new component to give it a new life as a mirror. Not only did this project provide an opportunity to bring awareness to and raise money for one of the firm’s favorite local charities, it also demonstrated how sustainable design can be simple and accessible to all.
Studio Presber views architecture as a platform that supports their diverse creative team to make space a unique experience for as many senses as possible. When clients choose to undertake a project with the firm, they have the comfort of knowing that the principal is directly involved in their project. This not only allows for a higher quality of service, but also design decisions that are considered from the perspective of another business owner for maximum return on design investment.
I was recently fortunate enough to pop by my friend Lara Presber’s new studio in Calgary to check out this fabulous new space being used both for architectural work as well as housing and creating the designer’s latest collections.
Lucky to have enough time for a glass of Prosecco and to see Lara off before embarking on a solo six-week El Camino de Santiago adventure through Spain, I was also able to sneak in a few questions about her latest work and inspiration.
KC: As a young professional working in an artistic field, why choose to live and work in Calgary?
LP: The choice to live and work in Calgary happened quite coincidentally. I had never intended to stay after moving back from Europe, but I met so many inspiring people and realized that the city has so much potential for design. We have a completely untapped and unsaturated design market partnered with a robust economy. The designers that are here now (in all disciplines) are laying the foundation for and shaping the future of our city. That’s pretty rare for an urban centre that’s already reached a critical mass of 1 million people.
KC: What about Calgary inspires you the most as a fashion designer and architect?
LP: I’m inspired by the openness in both fields of clients who are willing to try something different. People are starting to recognize the value of having something that has been designed by a professional where detail is paramount. That makes me really excited and is so different from where we were when I first came back.
KC: You feature one piece from your collection each month on shop.larapresber.com, stating ‘Building your wardrobe one piece at time’. How did this concept formulate?
LP: ‘Building your wardrobe one piece at a time’ of course is a play on architecture, but also the tendency that I saw in my retail store of women who really coveted one beautiful and unique piece every few months combined with the service of being fitted personally by the designer. It creates a nice memory around the piece and an anticipation that we don’t experience much any more in our instant world. The price break component was inspired by the premise behind Kickstarter; it’s a great way to encourage buyers to share the piece with a friend, which in turn benefits everyone.
KC: Your architectural background tends to inspire your collections. Can you give us a hint of what might be inspiring the next season’s collection?
LP: My Spain trip is going to play a huge part in the inspiration behind the next collection. I have no idea what it will be yet, but feel optimistic that after spending six weeks on an open road wandering from town to town, I’ll discover something spectacular!
KC: Where can people check out your collection?
The current collection can be found (one piece at a time) on larapresber.com, as well as some pieces from previous seasons at fabulous savings.
Photo by Curtis Dez Photography
First presented June 2011: PechaKucha 20×20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images on a pre-assigned topic. The topic on this night was Inspire.
By Michaelle LeManne, Photography by Jared Sych, Styling by Leah Van Loon, Hair and makeup by Teslin Ward, Shot on location at The City of Calgary Water Centre
Born in Saskatchewan, but raised in Calgary, Presber obtained her architecture degree in Boston, where she worked as a healthcare-based architect until a scholarship to study fashion had her jet-setting to Milan, Italy. Fashion design was something she had always wanted to do ever since unveiling her first collection for some fashionable dolls at age 10.At 37, the architect-turned women’s fashion designer is the face, hands and creative power behind her eponymous professional women’s wear brand. And Presber is poised to conquer the runways — one confident, perfectly tailored working woman at a time.
“It didn’t really seem practical to aspire to be a fashion designer, so I opted for the more-pragmatic occupation of architecture,” she remembers. “But, to me, they are both the same; it just depends on whether you execute your design in textile or brick.”
After earning her masters degree in fashion design from Milan’s Domus Academy and interning under Rosa Auito Design Studio for Italian shoe designer Bruno Magli, Presber finally answered the pangs she felt about wanting to lay down roots.
“There are only so many apartments you can rent, cars you can lease and temporary work visas to renew before you start to ache for family and home,” says Presber. After nearly two years in the world’s fashion capital, she packed her bags.
Back home in Calgary, Presber launched her own clothing line in 2007. “I was just doing wholesale. I was sleeping under racks of clothing and had all of these spools of fabric in my condo,” she says. “I never intended on having a shop.”
When she was approached with an invitation to move into Fashion Central, the shopping hub on Stephen Avenue, Presber saw an opportunity to have conversations with the type of women she designs for every day. She formally opened her flagship store and studio in the complex last year.
“I love the direct interaction that I have with the women who come into my studio,” says Presber. “You can see it in their faces when they put something on that they feel really great in. I am honoured to be part of that.”
What made designing women’s clothes the next logical step for an architect?
[Fashion design] was something I had always done on the side. I found a huge void in women’s wear for women like myself and my friends who wanted something unique and interesting to wear to work or events, while still keeping it professional.
What kind of woman do you design for?
A professional woman. But not necessarily just for the office. I was a woman who worked in the office, mostly surrounded by men for so many years, and I felt like I had nothing to wear that was going to be appropriate for the office that still had some fun and some personality. I also found that, while I spent a lot of time at the office, I then had to go to client dinners, so having clothes I could wear during the day, and then at night, and even on the weekends was important. Who wants to have three separate wardrobes? Versatility is key.
How would you characterize your personal style?
The word “classic” is so overused, but it is classic in the sense that, when I think about designing a collection or putting an outfit together, or things that I own, my favourite things in my closet are the things I’ve owned for 10 years. I like pieces that you can wear for a long period of time. But they have to have some sort of detail on them that makes them different.
What kind of details?
I have one skirt that I’ve probably had for 12 years … it’s just a plain black wool skirt, but the side seams, instead of going straight down the side, kind of twist around and have a zigzag top stitch on them. It’s a black skirt, but I know no one has that skirt, so it makes it special.
Is the art of dressing up socially coming back?
Clothes should be worn, and not just hang in your closet for special occasions. Get out that sequin dress! Whether for business or social reasons, you only have seven seconds to make a first impression, so why wouldn’t you want to look your very best all of the time?
How would you describe your designs?
Very architectural, and not just by default. I think that’s probably why I was drawn to both of these fields. It’s how I dress, and when I’m drawing clothing, it just comes out that way. Both fields depend on a fundamental blend of science and art.
Do you pay attention to what’s trending?
Not really. I mean, I’m always going to be somewhat affected by the trends, because I only have access to certain textiles that are out. I recently came back from Première Vision, the biggest textile trade show in Paris. When you’re looking at what’s available, you’re at the mercy of what they put out there. If everyone decides to boycott black for the next season, and you can’t get it, by default, you follow the trend.
Ever consider designing a men’s line?
My men friends ask me this all of the time and graciously offer themselves as guinea pigs. But I feel that there’s still much to accomplish with the women’s line and I need to keep my focus there for the time being.
What do you feel most comfortable wearing?
Is it bad to say jeans? [Laughs.] I didn’t wear a lot of jeans until I went to school for fashion in Italy. Milan is a denim nation. So, I just started to wear a lot of denim. And when I say denim, I mean a nice pair, like denim trousers. You can do so much with denim.
Are you partial to any particular brand?
This past season, I did my first denim trousers. The positive and negative sides of being a designer is that I’m kind inclined to wear my own clothes. But I have jeans from H&M and True Religion. Whatever looks good, really.
Do you subscribe to the adage, “You get what you pay for”?
I do, but I don’t think you have to spend a million bucks to look like you have. There is something to be said for having a pair of jeans where you’ve gone into the store and someone helps fit you. A lot of times, we buy jeans too big. And I’m not a big fan of super-suctioned and tight jeans. But sometimes we’re too critical of ourselves, and it helps having someone who’s not you, helping you. Buying those key quality, and sometimes more expensive, pieces always helps set your base.
What’s the biggest fashion mistake that women make?
Hmm, there are a lot. I talk to women on a daily basis and there are two extremes. One is that women wear clothes that are either too big or too small and don’t fit them. When you’re trying something on, if you try on a 12, and it fits, but maybe it’s a little bit big, try the 10, because you don’t know how designers size their clothes. You’re always going to look better in the most-tailored piece you can find. Conversely, I have a pair of jeans that look like someone stuffed me into them, all because I didn’t want to buy a pair of jeans that were one size bigger. I ran out, and bought jeans that were one and even two sizes bigger, and I looked so much better, and much slimmer, because they fit and weren’t revealing all the things I didn’t want to reveal.
Do you like to shop?
For sport, I do. I was recently in Paris, and I had no intention of buying shoes, but I looked in so many shoe stores. I love going into the shops to just browse, especially in Europe. The details are really intricate and different from what you can find at home. And the textures and colours — it’s all very stimulating.
Are there any designers you admire?
I really like Marni. The clothes are really soft, feminine and beautiful. They combine colour and patterns that I would never think to put together.
Are you a slave to fashion magazines?
I don’t have time. I work seven days a week. If I could carve out three hours every day, and just do things I want to do, that would be one of them. I like to know what a lot of the designers are doing. Pleasurable things like that are usually the first things to go when you own your own business.
Do you test drive all of your pieces?
I do. I started doing the sample set in my size, because before, I used a model who was 22 years old. I found that a size four at 22 is different than a size four [for someone] who’s 32 or 42. I had too many surprises when the clothes came back from production. For example, the arms were too tight. Now, I make them in my size, which is a size eight, and go about my day in them — I load the dishwasher in them, I drive in them, I give them an honest go.
What would you never wear?
Up until recently, I would have said skinny jeans. But that was my H&M purchase, which was, frankly, out of necessity. When you’re in Europe, you walk like 5 km to 10 km a day, and all my pants were too long to wear flats with. And I refuse to cut my pants. I wear heels all the time. I decided to buy a pair of flat black boots so I could walk around as much as I needed to. And I simply didn’t have any trousers that I could tuck. So my sister talked me into [buying the skinny jeans]. Maybe it’s just the nicely thin fabric of the H&M ones, I don’t know, but I’ve crossed over.
Are accessories necessary in pulling together a look?
I love accessories. Going back to the skirt that I’ve had for 12 years — I can change my shoes and it’s always a current skirt. There are coats that I’ve had for a long, long time, and all I need to do is change a scarf, and it updates it. That’s what accessories do — they update your look.
What advice do you have for women who want to build a quality wardrobe?
Buy key pieces that you can wear for the next 10 years. Then, maybe wear a shirt in the hot colour of the season to make it a little trendier. Change the shirt, buy a tank top or change the buttons on your blazer. There are simple things you can do that are inexpensive and keep your look current.
Do you plan to stay in Calgary?
I have been so fortunate to have lived in several countries, so spending time away again, getting stimulated by new surroundings, is exciting. But I will stay, for the near future.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t know. OK, I do know, but that’s a difficult question. We just recently picked up a store in Sweden, so we’re trying to grow internationally. I think it’s a really hard place to be in, because I’m not just a designer, I’m a small-business owner and an entrepreneur. I don’t have time to read fashion magazines because I’m doing the accounting. It’s overwhelming to do everything by yourself, so I would love to grow my business to a point where I can just go back to designing. And, really, that’s why you start doing something in the first place, because you love doing it. I’m hoping that the time comes where I can let go of some of the responsibilities, and I can get back to just [designing].
Meal International cuisine
Book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Fragrance Rocky Mountain Soap Company’s Jasmine Natural Parfume
Spa Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs
TV Show Being Erica
Music Hôtel Costes compilations
Artist Tamara de Lempicka
Architect Jean Nouvel
Fashion Designer Marni
The National Post, Posted: January 28, 2010, 9:30 AM by Karen Hawthorne
Lara Presber, Calgary architect and fashion designer, begins a two-week guest spot, blogging about her “sustainable” approach to her women’s wear line: designing for a sustained period of use, not a throwaway one-season garment. Her collection is available in stores across Canada and next month at her Flagship Store and Studio space in downtown Calgary.
Lara Presber for National Post
When I first started working in the fashion industry, one of the most exciting parts was participating in fashion shows each season. That was actually how I got started was by participating in regional and national competitions that culminated in final runway shows. It was always incredibly stressful as they were always in other cities which meant organizing from afar and dragging 30-35 pieces across country, but the exposure and exhilaration of having 4-5 minutes that were devoted to seeing my collection come to life is indescribable.
Runway shows are still very exciting, but once I started to realize that this is actually a ‘business’ it really changed my perspective on how and where to allocate funds. A friend of mine who at one time had her own line told me that her partner always said to her after a show “yes, it was a great show, but where’s the financial return on your investment of both time and capital?”. This brings us to a very common point in the fashion industry these days, to show or not to show?
I’ve taken the route of participating in more intimate events where I can show my pieces to a smaller group of people who are my exact target market. This season I’ve done a smaller fashion show at a local wine store, which is nice because I get a chance to talk to everyone and have complete control over what the show looks like (and of course the ability to have a glass of wine!) and then just last week I showed my current collection at a Women’s Networking Spa event for a local law firm.
Typically at a show, there’s a bit of fanfare and they turn the music up loud and the models all file out one by one, but I decided to try something different this time based on one of the most important feedbacks I’ve had from my clients; many of them are unsure of how to break up their suits and maximizing the versatility of their current wardrobe so I ended choosing pieces from my current collection and showing how to wear the same thing 3 different ways; office, evening and weekend.
Making it your own whether that means deviating from the norm for the designer when it comes to presenting a collection or if you’re an individual taking ownership of the way that we express ourselves though clothes.