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
In Fine Form: Architect-Turned-Fashion Designer Lara Presber Builds On Clean Lines And Classic Silhouettes
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