When R13 made its debut in 2009, there was something missing. From the get-go, the denim-driven brand had discerning grasp on its signature relaxed-yet-chic spin on staples like jeans, T-shirts, and leather jackets—so much so that Barneys bought the collection that very first season. And since then, things have only gotten better, with new offerings like knits and flannel shirts joining the mix over the past seven years. It wasn’t until the Fall/Winter 2016 collection, though, that one vital factor came to the surface to complete the R13 package: its designer.
Chris Leba, the founder, designer, and driving force behind the brand was never publicly credited for R13’s success, with the brand message attributing an anonymous creative director. It was only this past February during New York Fashion Week that Leba stepped onto the runway at the completion of his women’s show in a Soho loft, taking a bow and accepting accolades for the brand for the first time. We recently chatted with the designer about what drove him to begin the brand those seven years ago and why he’s only recently stepping into the well-deserved spotlight. Read on to hear about his fateful Italian road trip, why he loves ‘90s grunge, and where the future of this unstoppable brand will lead.
The Window: Why did you decide to reveal yourself to be the founder and designer. Why was the time right now?
Chris Leba: I spent 19 years designing at Ralph Lauren and just left this past January, so I was doing R13 at the same time. I felt like I’d done everything I could there [at Ralph Lauren], and I was looking for new experiences and challenges. The brand started on a whim and was a great exercise in creativity for me—I felt unbound. Now that it’s really grown and has some good momentum going, the brand needed my full focus. It’s been seven months since I dedicated myself to the brand full-time, and I’m loving every minute of it.
What’s the transition been like these past seven months?
It was a change for everyone. I used to show up for work at R13 at 4 or 5PM, after I’d left Polo, so the day would really begin for everyone then. People would have to wait to get certain answers and replies from me, but now that I’m here, things work much more smoothly and easily. Without realizing it, you can’t see what’s missing until you’re here and seeing it every day. The line is so much better now that I can really focus on it.
You’ve been able to give it your undivided attention.
Between the Polo offices and R13 office, I used to be running around like crazy. Uptown, midtown, downtown. But now, I get to stay in one place, which I’m really enjoying.
You mentioned that the brand started on a whim, but is it true that it started on a road trip through Italy?
Yes! I was traveling, looking for a belt manufacturer, and a friend of mine asked his son to drive me around since I didn’t speak Italian very well. On that car ride, he mentioned that he knew these denim factories that had been doing great things. I’d always wanted to start my own brand, but it’s very difficult for a denim start-up in the U.S., because most manufacturers are only interested in working with you if you’re able to do very large quantities. Italians are more like artisans, and they’re used to doing things on a smaller scale. So I just gambled and gave it a shot—I decided to produce a small collection to see what happened. I waited until the last minute to even try to do anything with it. The samples came in, and I took them to The News showroom, where they were a little hesitant to take me on. At that point, the market had just crashed, and premium denim was on the wane. But they took a chance on me because they liked what I was doing, and that very first season, Barneys picked us up.
It sounds like working backward—finding your manufacturer first and then backing into the designs.
Well, to me, that’s really the most difficult part for any young designer, finding people willing to work with you when you’re a nobody. Once I found that, it gave me a vehicle to be able to do what I wanted to do.
Can you tell us a bit about this factory you ultimately ended up finding and working with?
Italians in general are very passionate, and there’s a certain culture of craftsmanship where skills are passed from generation to generation. I really gravitated toward that. And it was their ability to work with smaller quantities that drew me to the setup.
That first season, you were putting out what you’ve called “Marlon Brando Basics”—T-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets. Why those iconic pieces?
They’re things I personally love in my closet, and they also happen to be pieces that only get better with age. There are some pieces that you like less, the longer you own them, but the more you wear your leather jacket, the more you love it. The more you wear your jeans, the better they fit you and the more you love them. I have a love for timeless pieces that are easy to wear, authentic, and classic, but those pieces also make up the core of the R13 aesthetic.Speaking of…how would you describe the overall aesthetic of the brand?
I think it embodies an alternative America. When I was with Ralph Lauren, we spent so much time celebrating an idyllic America, and at one point, I realized that there’s the other half of America that could be celebrated, too. That’s the half that I gravitated toward—sort of an underground scene. It’s still classic American sportswear, but we mix it together differently. A flannel shirt can look very different on an Alison Mosshart than on a lumberjack or hunter, you know?
Can we talk about this idea of the underground? For the FW16 collection, there was a feeling of the punk and grunge scenes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Why does that period continue to resonate with you?
There’s a point in your life where everything is fresh and new to you. I came to New York in the mid-‘80s as a wide-eyed kid just absorbing everything around me. The punk scene was here, along with New Wave and grunge. Those were very formative years for me, and they still resonate with me as far as what I feel is “cool.” That was also the period when I was really beginning to discover fashion, and in the mid-‘80s the whole Japanese wave was starting—people were just finding out about Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. It was just a very exciting time. People like Azzedine Alaia, Stephen Sprouse, Helmut Lang, Margiela were so influential for me. Then at the same time, I was discovering American sportswear, with its timelessness and authenticity. It’s all those elements that mix together to create the R13 aesthetic.
How do you translate those elements to today?
That’s my personal history, but I’m very into and very aware of what’s going on today. Those elements perpetually regenerate themselves—it’s like the past and the present colliding to express themselves in this moment.
it’s been great to see the brand grow beyond the core basics you started with, expanding into the flannels and knits. What else can we look forward to?
We’re working on our show for September now, and we’re playing around with the idea of bags. Depending on how they turn out—if they feel true to what we’re doing with the brand—then that’d be next for us. It’s still in an exploratory phase to see if we can find a DNA that’s authentic to R13. We’re always looking for ways to express ourselves. It’s kind of a reverse process—as we add pieces and categories to the line, it’s not about business opportunities. It’s really more about what we’re trying to say, and then looking at what we need to create in order to express that. It’s how we started making flannel shirts, because I wanted to do something grunge-y, so the shirts grew out of that. Or we just started making these floral dresses, and it’s because I used to love in the ‘90s when girls would wear floral dresses with combat boots. It still resonates with me, so that’s what I wanted to make. We’re just launching shoes, and they’re my interpretation of that look. Everything is about expressing a vision, and then the business comes from that.
You do something that resonates with you, and then it resonates with your customer—your passion comes through.
Exactly. If I were ever going to give advise to young designers, that’s what it would be. Everyone I know who’s had some sort of success follows that philosophy and remains true to themselves. Otherwise, people can see it and don’t believe in what you’re doing if it’s not genuine. You have to be honest.