Chris Leba on Authenticity, Heritage & Timelessness
The creative director of cult New York label R13 reflects on the people and places that informed his creative trajectory, the challenges that come with being a young designer in NYC and more.
Chris Leba is the creative director and CEO of New York-based ready-to-wear label R13, known for its distressed and shredded denim, and deconstructed grunge ensembles composed of floral silks, torn apart tweeds, leopard prints, and lug-soled combat boots.
In spite of the brand’s instant success after its 2019 launch, Leba did his best to keep his given name out of the public eye. He remained entirely anonymous, working behind the scenes, until 2016 when he emerged and began taking interviews. Given the subversive aesthetic of the collection, you might be shocked to find that Leba is an alumnus of some of the most classic Americana brands in the country—J. Crew, American Eagle, and most recently, Ralph Lauren, where he spent 20 years training and eventually serving in a VP role before his departure.
Leba is originally from Vietnam but moved to New York during the punk movement of the ’80s. He spent most of his childhood summers seaside, hanging out in the surf shops of Montauk where his mother owned a motel. A blend of American Southwest iconography, studs and chokers, and floral aloha shirts are reimagined by Leba in his recent collections—an amalgam of experiences and inspiration that quickly makes sense.
This year, Leba opened up his first-ever freestanding retail location at 34 Howard Street in SoHo. He worked with renowned architect Leong Leong to design the store, which feels a bit like a polished warehouse despite its fairly intimate size. Exposed brick and concrete surround the five modular aisles of well-merchandised racks.
We spoke with Leba, who lives in Dumbo, Brooklyn, and works regularly from his showroom above the new SoHo boutique, about some of his favorite new neighbors, memories with Ralph and the challenges of being a designer in NYC today.
What appeals to you most about Dumbo?
Chris Leba: The thing I love most about Dumbo is that it has a beautiful view of Manhattan. I think it’s incredible that I can see both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge from my apartment.
In what ways does New York City inform your work as a designer?
CL: I think it’s very important for me to be present and sensitive to my environment no matter where I am. I need to be aware of all of the things that are taking place in my community. There is so much to notice and be inspired by no matter where you are.
What about your upbringing in Montauk?
CL: My mother purchased a motel in Montauk in the early ’80s, so growing up most of my summers were spent helping her out at the motel or hanging with my friends on the beach. Although I don’t surf myself, I do love all things surfing related. I am sure this is because I spent most of my childhood wandering through numerous surf shops in Montauk. My mother still lives there so I find myself visiting frequently. Whenever I do visit, I try my best to relax and unwind as much as possible. Relaxing to me mostly includes my family and friends coming over for some barbeque and a good glass of Chardonnay.
Can you tell us about the new SoHo store? What was the inspiration behind the design?
CL: With our SoHo store, I wanted to create an innovative shopping experience—an elevated yet minimalist setting in line with our brand’s DNA. Regarding the design of the store, I worked with well-known architect Leong Leong to develop the flagship store’s concept, which took about a year to develop and execute. I think our customers will enjoy the interior design- exposed brick and raw-edged interior, some of which was inspired by Comme Des Garcons first NYC store that opened up in the late ’80s, and Helmut Lang’s first NYC store which opened in the ’90s.
Why did you choose Howard street?
CL: Howard street is one of my favorite streets in New York City. It’s basically a cul-de-sac, which is rare in this city, and because of this, the intersection has a piazza-like vibe to it. It makes it feel secluded yet very welcoming. I’m very happy to be a couple of doors down from Rick Owens, as I am a huge fan of his work. I also love having Opening Ceremony across the street as well as Smile to Go for a great coffee or quick lunch.
What are some of your favorite memories of working with Ralph Lauren? How has your work with RL and other very American brands helped shape the work you do now?
CL: I have so many memories from my time at Ralph Lauren, one being the first time I met Ralph during the interview process. I was literally shaking in my boots then all of a sudden, he came out to greet me wearing a cream turtleneck, a pair of vintage jodhpurs and knee-high boots. Ralph is everything he portrays to be, he is warm, inquisitive and gracious. Long story short, I spent the next 19 years working and learning from him. At Ralph Lauren, I learned about authenticity, heritage, and timelessness. These three things are very much a part of the DNA of R13 even though the context is different.
What do you think the biggest challenge is as a young designer in New York? What do you find most rewarding?
CL: I think NYC is the Super Bowl for all things creative, and because of that the competition is intense. I think it’s important for young talent to spend time learning and investing in their craft, that way they can nurture their talent and grow into someone that can contribute to society and their field. That is still the most rewarding part for me.
In terms of your career and the brand, what are you most looking forward to this year?
CL: I have been going non-stop for the last ten years since we launched R13 in 2009. This year, I would like to do things a bit different and take a slight breather and reflect on the past 10 years, and then plan for the years ahead.
What are your go-to places in New York for…
Discovering new art?
CL: The Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea.
Spending time outside?
CL: Taking my daughter, Bella, to Prospect Park.
CL: An Choi or BoCaphe
WORDS Jenny Hartman