“Because She Lived”: In Memory of Virginia Leeming

Vancouver Fashion Week Opening Gala Remembering one of Vancouver’s most influential fashion personality… By Jenica Chuahiock

 

Nearly two months have passed since the Vancouver Fashion Week (VFW) had made its forecast of new designers and trends for Spring-Summer 2014. While most runway recollections have now faded from our busy minds, there are some things, or more importantly, someone is worth revisiting again. During the welcoming gala, the folks at VFW surprised attendants by opening the week with a special memorial: ‘Virginia Leeming, July 18, 1942 – January 30, 2012, Fashion Reporter for The Vancouver Sun’. It was an incredibly moving gesture, though tainted by an unruly (and arguably rude!) audience. Nevertheless, amidst noise the memorial proceeded; the guest speakers poured their emotions into their speech, and the image of a woman with graying silver hair appeared on the screen. She had a perfect smile, spread from cheek to cheek, defying her own untimely death at the age of 70. For those who chose not to listen, that is their unfortunate loss. For those who did listen, and found vibrancy in Virginia’s eyes, you would have felt the urge to piece back together the life of a woman, who made the Vancouver fashion scene well before any of us dreamed to.

 

Virginia Leeming is best known as the mastermind behind The Vancouver Sun’s Fashion and Style section, in which she dedicated 20 years of fabulous work before retiring in 2003. But to those who know her, she was more than a fashion reporter. She was an inspirational friend, a dedicated mother, journalist, and mentor. In her speech, Valerie Casselton, now managing editor at The Vancouver Sun, fondly recalled the two decades she and Virginia shared working together for the newspaper. “Virginia started work at [The Vancouver Sun] in 1983. And she never looked back, never whined, never gave anyone the impression that good fortune and respect were her due. She earned her reputation again and again, every single working day.”

Valerie Casselton sharing the story of Virginia Leeming
Valerie Casselton sharing the story of Virginia Leeming

Virginia’s contribution to The Vancouver Sun and the local fashion community stretched far beyond expectations. In her heyday, Virginia travelled on behalf of the publication to London, Paris and New York, where she reported on all the latest fashion shows and happenings. With her on every trip is her film camera, in which she captured the images of people, not just for their sartorial style, but for their stories. This she achieved way before the invention of social media, using nothing but a sense of openness and personal engagement.  Back in Vancouver, she would always have stories to tell. Casselton humorously recalls a few, “[Virginia] recalled shooting Evelyn Lauder of the house of Estee Lauder, only to discover she had no film in her camera. Halfway through her interview with Sophia Loren, she realized she’d left her tape recorder on ‘pause’. She was offered an interview with Tommy Hilfiger but turned it down because, at that time, who knew he’d become famous? She once had a nap in her New York hotel and slept through the Isaac Mizrahi show.”

 

 

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However, Virginia did not simply report on trends and new designs. She sought ways to connect the dots between the outside fashion worlds to Vancouver talent.  She fought for the expression of fashion in Vancouver, paving way for the local style and arts we know today. “Fashion for Virginia Leeming was the tactile manner in which people expressed more complex inner feelings and thoughts, the way people celebrated themselves and celebrated life and art”, remarks Casselton. “She was a crusader for talent and originality, protecting the creative community as much as she promoted it.”   At a time when beauty and fashion were narrowly defined, Virginia dared to break away from the commercial and stereotypical images that dominated the media. Casselton recalls a front-page story by Virginia, which preached the importance of women to be confident and proud with their bodies. Virginia wanted everyone to embrace the idea of a diversified beauty, one that comes in different shapes, sizes, colors and personality. “Virginia sought out the models who were not perfect size fours and sixes. She dared to hire plus-sized women to model clothing and be photographed by our photographers. In the 1980’s, she was poring over catalogues from agencies, choosing women to model for us who were Oriental, Hispanic, Black, etc. She was always looking for real people. She wanted her work in the Sun to be honest.”

Sample of Virginia's work at The Vancouver Sun
Sample of Virginia’s work at The Vancouver Sun

 

The honesty and real component in Virginia’s work also stretched to perspectives in style. Fashion should exist beyond the pages; it should be accessible. Eva Hompoth, a freelance stylist, vividly remembers the continuous effort she and Virginia took to make this possible. “In one of the spreads, I combined Le Chateau outfits with outfits from Holt Renfrew. In those days, you should not do that. Because editorials had specific rules about keeping high-end pieces with high-end pieces, while keeping lower-end pieces with lower-end pieces.” But Hompoth was adamant about mixing luxury fashion with affordable fashion. She argued realistically how people do not have the money to buy all expensive goods. “You just need good taste!”   After seeing just a sample of Hompoth’s spread, Virginia was willing to stick her neck out for it. “Go for it,” responded Virginia. “I will deal with everything else.” The editorial was a huge success, and since then, Hompoth and Virginia continued to push the boundaries in their editorials. Although Hompoth now has a fruitful career as a corporate consultant and image management trainer, she remembers Virginia’s role in her early beginnings. Having moved to Vancouver in 1997, it was a rocky start for Hompoth, who was then an amateur. After pitching in a makeover idea to The Vancouver Sun, Hompoth quickly became acquainted with Virginia, who more often than not responded with so much enthusiasm, “OK! Let’s do it!”

 

Hompoth’s determination had made her a favourite stylist of Virginia.  Looking back in those years, she affectionately remembers all the excitement, the incredible events, the burst of fashion into the Vancouver scene. Those were the years with Virginia. Hompoth still has a collection of newspaper clippings from her time in The Vancouver Sun. Dating back to the 1990’s to early 2000’s, the pages have only started to yellow. The vibrant images of smartly dressed models, both slender and curvy, poised elegantly or sometimes provocatively across the page.   Hompoth smiles as she shares some of most glamorous, however controversial, fashion spreads. One of which featured all plus-size models defying the runway, another featured two women, dressed in red and black robes, wrapping their arms around each other.  Somewhere in the corners of the spread, or in another new column altogether, were always Virginia’s words. Times have certainly changed since then; we now embrace the flexibility of style, and we can’t get enough of curvy models in fashion. But one thing is for sure, there is always the need to feel that someone is on your side, to be noticed and to feel believed in; that is perhaps the most tangible absence felt in Virginia’s passing. “She let you be who you are; she did not try to control you. And because of that, everyone got the extra confidence. No matter who came up to her, if she saw your talent, she would help. No questions. Nothing for her, but just her love for fashion and talent.”

 

David Jack, a renowned Vancouver designer, also recalls Virginia’s role in his modest beginnings. Like Hompoth, Jack’s talent and dedication won over Virginia’s heart; she was known to have constantly promoted him in fashion events, even before he made his debut as a designer. “Virginia is just so optimistic. She always says, ‘You’re gonna’ go somewhere. You’re gonna do good things. I can see it!’ It’s nice to hear, especially when I was new student out of school. I didn’t know which way to turn, but she put me into the Vancouver fashion industry.” With an exceptional eye for talent, a pick from Virginia was almost a guarantee of future success. Casselton had pored through many of Virginia’s writing, of which a good amount predicted many of the successes we know today. Virginia is known to be the one who predicted the rise of Lululemon. She had featured a young Michael Buble in her pages way before he even made it to the music business. Lisa Tant was then a fashion freelancer when Virginia hired her for The Vancouver Sun; and in the years to come, Tant’s editor career spanned to publications such as Flare Magazine, Hello Canada Magazine, and Holt Renfrew. The list goes on, from Manuel Mendoza, to John Fluevog, Andrew Costen, and many, many more.

Virginia behind the scenes.
Virginia behind the scenes.

 

However, to simply refer to Virginia as a creative-talent scout is an understatement. Ultimately, it was her nurturing spirit and kindness that made her the most sought after ally in the Vancouver industries. “Virginia was interesting, because she wanted to see where you stand”, explains Hompoth. “She was giving everybody a chance. So it was up to me to see if I could prove I was good enough for what she was doing.” It was not uncommon for aspiring amateurs to come and ask Virginia for advice, and she always did. For Jack, in an industry as competitive as fashion, Virginia was the closest companion he had as mentor. “That’s where her eye for detail came in. She saw the energy in someone, or saw that someone had something special. She would pick it out and be like, ‘This is where you’re headed.’” With such a keen interest on others’ growth and success, no wonder younger aspirants looked up to her. Some would believe that part of her selfless and giving nature comes from being a parent. And if there was anything she was better at than fashion, it was being a mother.

 

It is impossible to talk about Virginia without mentioning her daughter, Victoria Leeming, whose happiness Virginia’s life revolved on. It was Victoria’s early infancy that prompted Virginia to move from Montreal to Vancouver, where she could be closer to family. Virginia was then a single mother. “It was a brave and selfless move that had severe repercussions for Virginia initially,” says Casselton, “and led to four years of struggle for work… let alone satisfying, creative work.” But she had to do it, all for her daughter’s sake. Even after Virginia’s career at The Vancouver Sun took off, she never forgot her years of struggle as a single mother. Hompoth remembered how Virginia would often host events to raise money for family services, “She never forgot what happened, how she was helped. And she was very helpful in supporting family services… She was a real strong advocate for that cause.”

Virginia and Victoria Leeming
Virginia and Victoria Leeming

 

In the years to follow, Virginia and Victoria grew inseparable, a bond that was unique even for mothers and daughters. More than parent and child, they were perhaps soul mates. Jack, who met Virginia through Victoria’s friendship, has many fond memories of them together. It was an interaction that was heart-warming as much as it was hilarious. “[It was] almost like watching two sisters, or an old married couple, or something like that. They were always on the same page. Always joking at each other.” Jack laughs, and recounts how Virginia had once fooled them into buying four course meals, including excessive amounts of wine (“Because Virginia loved her wine!” comments Jack) in a fancy restaurant. But once the staggering bill had to be split, Virginia sheepishly reveals she had no money. “Victoria just sat there fuming, while Virginia just keeps saying, ‘Yeah, I have no money on me tonight’! Ever since then, every time the three of us would go out to eat, Victoria and I would also insist we had no money!”

 

Like her mother, Victoria was a free spirit. Her Canadian- African heritage had made her an exotic beauty, as well as an incredible artist and painter. She had often modeled for some of Virginia’s fashion spreads, fearlessly flaunting her curvaceous form. Somehow, she had also become an extension of Virginia; and whichever event Virginia attended, Victoria had to be at her side. After her retirement from The Vancouver Sun, Virginia was recruited as a public relations representative for VFW. As always, Victoria had to be at her side in all the shows. Jamal Abdourahman, producer at VFW, barely had the chance to mingle with Victoria himself, but he knew everything about her from Virginia. “[Virginia] talked about [Victoria] all the time. She would describe to me [Victoria’s] artistic abilities, her boyfriend, what she was doing for work, her friends…So I knew everything about her, that’s how much Virginia loved her. That’s how much Virginia loved [Victoria]; every time, [our] discussions would lead to Victoria. She was everything for Virginia. ”

The glamorous mother-daughter duo.
The glamorous mother-daughter duo.

 

In retrospect, Abdourahman’s words have its somber connotations; and knowing what we do now, it is heartbreaking. One fateful day in January 2011, Victoria suddenly died from seizure and heart failure, and the aftermath had been devastating for Virginia—now a mother without her daughter. Victoria’s absence had certainly left a black hole in all her friends and family’s life. “Victoria was my best friend,” says Jack, as he pulls on his sleeves to reveal a tattoo of her name on his wrists, the elegant cursive swirling on his pulse point. “Ever since Victoria died, Virginia’s deterioration got worse. We went to a few fashion shows, but you can tell she had checked out.”

"Victoria" on David Jack's wrist
“Victoria” on David Jack’s wrist

 

Abdourahman had tried his best to pull Virginia out of her depression. After the tragedy, he had visited Virginia in her home, where she had eventually given him a tour of Victoria’s room. It was there he got to know more about Victoria, even after he was too late. Abdourahman saw her paintings and words hanging on her wall. He remembered how poignant they were. “[Virginia’s] health completely went down. I just wanted to get her busy, to get her mind off it” says Abdourahman. Dejectedly, Virginia told Abdourahman she could not be part of the VFW that year, when she was most sorely needed.

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By early 2012, Virginia was finally at peace. She died a year since Victoria’s death, as many have commented. It was an eerie coincidence with only the comfort of knowing that both mother and daughter are together again. It was a huge loss for the Vancouver fashion industry, one that is still felt more than a year after her death. Abdourahman certainly felt this; he still regrets not having Virginia take on a bigger role at VFW. “Virginia meant a lot to us, for me and for the industry. I wanted to have her speak in front of the industry, for the younger people to know her; because so many people from the industry don’t know her.” It is hard to move on after a mentor and friend has passed away. But in moving on with times, many are inclined to reminisce the past. Abdourahman remembered the first season of VFW in 2001, he had ensured that Virginia and Victoria get a front seat. By 2005, he had hired her to join the VFW team. “She was working for me; but to me, I was working for her,” said Abdourahman, “ ‘Just taking in all her greatness. ‘Trying to learn from her, and listening to her. ‘Just to be at her presence, to be beside her. And I always told Virginia, ‘Virginia, let’s do something big.’ But she didn’t want to be in the spotlight. She always brushed it off. The reason I asked her to be part of VFW was because she was Vancouver, and she was fashion. She was the only one who had that presence.”

Many people feel we have lost Virginia and Victoria too soon. But for the friends and family who came to pay their respects in the VFW opening gala, this was not the time to grieve; this was the time to remember, to celebrate. Casselton’s final note to everyone was hopeful, as Virginia probably would have wanted. The best tribute would be for all of us to move forward, with all talent and humility. “Thus honoring the memory of a woman who believed that we should: be the best that we can be… have fun with our work… repect the work of others… be good and hopeful to one another… celebrate art and style in all its many colors and with all its beautiful differences… and to continue to make Vancouver the unique and fashion-forward city she always knew it was.”   The memorial ended with Hompoth taking the stage, in restrained tears, she reads from her papers a poem by David Harkins: (excerpt)

 

“She is Gone.

 

You can shed tears that she is gone

Or you can smile because she lived…”

Eva Hompoth ends the memorial with a poem
Eva Hompoth ends the memorial with a poem

 

When all has been said and done, Hompoth was certain of her friend’s presence that night. “It’s funny. After this [memorial], I just realized the greatness of her,” concludes Hompoth. “I just want to smile, because I know that’s who Virginia was. Forget the tears, ‘not worth it.”

 

Have a wonderful week to all!

 

Photo credits: The Vancouver Fashion Week, Kuna Photography, and by courtesy of Kama Toulan-Souter and David Jack.

Special thanks to Valerie Casselton, managing editor at The Vancouver Sun, for providing us with her research and words.

Also, many, many thanks to Eva Hompoth for providing the essential information needed to make write this piece.

 

www.tattlestalesnthings.com 

Twitter: @JenicaChuahiock

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