Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Virginia Leeming – 20 Years of Fashion

It's been a little over a year since Vancouver lost one of it's truly great icons - Virginia Leeming.  I cannot tell you the number of people who, to this day, still comment on the support and influence she had on both themselves personally and the larger fashion community. When I decided to pursue this series of Behind the Scenes interviews, her name was given me time and time again as the perfect place to begin.  As a self-taught writer I was nervous to say the least, but her charming smile put me at ease from the beginning and she was oh so kind in dealing with corrections. Since that first interview in January 2010, I had the privilege of sitting next to her at several graduation fashion shows for local design schools.  It was a pleasure each time.  So here in celebration of all she gave to Vancouver is a re-post of my article in Fame'd Magazine. Virginia - you are missed.

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Image by Fred Fraser
For 20 years Vancouver's fashion community was well acquainted with Virginia Leeming as she helped shape the city's sense of style. As fashion editor for the Vancouver Sun she produced not only a weekly offering, but a bi-yearly ten-page spread. Her camera was a constant companion while travelling and over the years she amassed a large collection of photographs -- candids of the many famous designers and celebrities met at events, on the street and even at the exit door of shows. Best of all, she loved her job.

Leeming's father was a naval officer. The family travelled from coast-to-coast and spent several years in England. “We had a very good life, a privileged life in the sense that we met a lot of people who were very interesting.” Leaving home at 19, she ended up in Montreal working for a commercial photography studio where she began to develop some of the skills she would eventually need as a fashion editor. Initially the “go for” (as in go for coffee), she graduated to coordinator. If they needed furniture for the set, she arranged it. Models required, she booked them. Clothes, she located them.

After being lured away to the Bahamas for three years, Leeming returned to Montreal where she landed a job assisting the editor at a men's trade fashion magazine. When they decided to start a sister publication she was offered the position of editor. “I learned by the seat of my pants. I interviewed all kinds of designers and manufacturers. I wrote stories about buttons, about zippers, about everything in the industry including all the people that were on top of the fashion world in Montreal.” Then in 1979 her daughter Victoria was born. After moving back to BritishColumbia to be near family, she spent the next several years writing freelance for local publications.

July 2009 Article in the Vancouver Sun
Leeming found herself on welfare in the early '80's when work dried up. With encouragement from her caseworker she enrolled in an investigative journalism course at BCIT. Shortly after finishing she received a call from the Vancouver Sun asking if she'd like to be considered for the job of fashion editor. Initially someone was else was chosen, but three months later the newspaper phoned back to offer her the position. One skill Leeming brought to the table was her ability to work well with the photographers. “When you're working with someone who is a creative person, you don't tell them what to do. You work with them, or you make suggestions, but you don't say do it my way.”

Each fashion page began with a concept. Then it was off to various sales agents to find clothing and shoot details to arrange. Staying ahead of the trends was achieved by following the international wires and gut instinct. Then the Sun began to send her to fashion weeks -- initially Toronto and Montreal. When she finally flew to New York City for the first time she was “absolutely blown away by the number of shows in one week and the number of models in each show.” As a foreign journalist she received invitations to parties where she met the designers first hand. During these years she saw Ivana Trump and Gregory Hines sitting in the front row and met Kenneth Jay Lane on the street. “You'd just bump into people. Sometimes it's serendipity. Sometimes it's calculated. Sometimes it's by invitation only...I felt privileged .” One her career high points was flying to Paris. “New York City was very exciting, but Paris had the atmosphere and it was in the city of light where the international press converged .”

A short question and answer with Leeming produced the following. Best part of her job - the photography, the travelling and the interviewing. Favourite designer – Karl Lagerfeld. “He's a bottomless pit of creativity.” Funniest moments include forgetting to take her tape recorder off pause until half way through an interview with Sophia Loren and taking a photo of Evelyn Lauder at Estée Lauder's headquarters with no film in her camera. She also has some remarkable insights about how the fashion scene has changed. First is the lack of budget at newspapers with most content coming from the wire services(no local spin). Second is the current lack of intellectual content in fashion magazines. Lastly is that we are a little over concerned with image. “I think we need to buoy up our self image rather than our external image.”

When Leeming was first sent to fashion weeks, she had to take
her own pictures.  This one of Betsy Johnson was a favourite!
For now Virginia Leeming is enjoying her retirement. PR requests, judging at fashion shows and teaching keep her involved. With an innate knack to recognize doors opening and walk through them, who knows where she will find herself next.

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