“It truly all started with Barbie,” says clothing designer Leigh DeLeonardo, “pointy boobs, high-heeled feet and all. I have a whole suitcase full of things I designed for my Barbie.” Today, when DeLeonardo sits down to sketch a new pattern, the only trace left of Barbie’s influence is her femininity. “I think in terms of body enhancing and celebrating the female figure. There is no such thing as a figure problem–we’re just all different.”

Wearing an old oversize wool sport coat over a brown cardigan, stretchy palazzo pants, and heavy black shoes, DeLeonardo herself has a quasi-masculine style that’s decidedly unglamorous but comfortable. And comfort is something she seriously takes into consideration with each design. She is also influenced by the styles of bygone eras.

In the late 70s, DeLeonardo left her hometown of Vienna, Illinois, to study fashion design at the School of the Art Institute. There she developed a lust for research. “I used to spend hours at the library poring over old Vogues and French magazines from the turn of the century on up.” These fashions made a great impression on DeLeonardo, who had come from a small town where, she says, “polyester was all the rage.”

In school she was taught to take her designs “to the extreme limit.” But she claims her most valuable experience at that time was working as a salesperson at Mark Shale, the conservative upscale clothing store on North Michigan Avenue. “Everything that was encouraged at the Art Institute was tempered by what I learned at Mark Shale. Working there, I learned about fine construction and fine fabrics. I also saw a need for women to have options.”

It was the early 80s, when professional women were coming in droves to buy the “power suit.” “I’d be helping these women buy these suits that looked horrible on them–men’s suits, made by menswear manufacturers–they just turned the pants into skirts.”

Which is why DeLeonardo set out to redesign the working woman’s wardrobe after she graduated in 1984. She credits legendary Hollywood costume designer Adrian, who crafted exquisite gowns for Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, as the sole inspiration for her entire first line–with one difference. All of the outfits were made out of menswear fabrics. “I wanted to give women something familiar, so, for example, a suit would be made out of pinstripes, but it would be very tight to the hip, and blousey. I hated “power’ blouses, so I designed suits that you couldn’t wear a blouse with even if you tried.”

Eventually Nordstrom and Marshall Field’s were carrying her label. But after a bitter falling-out with her business partner of four years, DeLeonardo decided to strike out on her own.

She got investors to finance her efforts and now concedes that she became so intent on making money that she suffered from creative burnout. “What I learned from all that is you can’t do something so you can sell it–you have to do it because you love it.” The business folded after two years.

Next, with the help of family and friends such as her employer Susan Hahn, whose boutique Su-Zen sells designer clothing, DeLeonardo put together a new line of women’s wear that got some attention at last year’s Around the Coyote fashion show. This time she’s financing everything herself. Her clothes are not available in stores, but she maintains a mailing list and has hired a small staff of sewers to execute individual orders. The custom-made pieces run from $100 for a blouse to about $350 for a suit.

Many of DeLeonardo’s garments have a retro look but are more streamlined and understated. She prefers neutral and somber colors and uses imported linens and rayon. Her signature tunic dress has three-quarter-length sleeves and opens loosely at the waist in tiny pleats. It can be worn as a dress or casually over leggings. Most of her suit jackets are based on the 40s-style silhouette that emphasized the shoulders and trimmed down the hips, using padding and sometimes corsets to create a V-shaped figure. Using the same basic design, DeLeonardo removed the pads and changed the cut so that the jacket is less restrictive. “We don’t need padding,” asserts DeLeonardo. “Our bodies are fine as they are.” She doesn’t care for jewelry, instead accessorizing the tips of collars with a single antique button or a tassel.

It is the feminine mystique that has always intrigued DeLeonardo. Her fashions are not revealing–they leave just enough to the imagination. DeLeonardo, with intensity, makes clear what she is after. “Clothing should be something that a woman feels beautiful in. Period. End of story.”

Leigh DeLeonardo’s spring fashions will be showcased on Saturday, March 19, from 6:30 to 8:30 PM at a friend’s loft at 2315 W. Huron. Admission is free. DeLeonardo’s designs aren’t available in any stores; to arrange for an appointment to see the collection call 267-5887.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Cynthia Howe.