Just six years ago, Lia Larrea was a business student at Palm Beach State College, on the cusp of earning an associate degree, and uncertain what she wanted to do with her life. In need of additional credits, she decided to take a painting class with instructor Clarence “Skip” Measelle. The course had prerequisites, but as she had been painting and drawing since she was a child in Ecuador, Larrea sought permission to bypass those classes.
“I brought in my portfolio of projects from high school, and I showed it to the dean and to Mr. Measelle,” she says. “They reviewed it and let me into the class.”
“In the 10 years I was at the school, we only gave two or three students permission to do what Lia did,” says Measelle. “She was confident and cool and positive about succeeding. Early on, she chose an ordinary sea shell to paint, which is a challenge even for an accomplished painter because of the various planes, textures, shadows and depth. But Lia had the gift of ‘seeing’ the nuances and rendered the form so realistically that it transcended its simplicity. This ability is unique and requires a sensitivity and discipline that can’t be taught.”
For Larrea, the class was life changing. “I was spending more time on my homework for that class than I was on all my other classes, just because I liked it,” she says. “I began to think, ‘Why are you going to school for business? What do you want to do?’ And I thought, ‘I want to be a fashion designer.’ I wanted to do something that would make me happy.”
She completed her A.A. degree in 2009, then headed to San Francisco in January 2010 to study at the Art Institute of California. She now has her own label, and her clothes are sold online and in high-end boutiques on the West Coast.
Determined, disciplined, driven
That Larrea has achieved so much so quickly is the result of the same drive, determination, discipline, hard work and talent that she displayed at Palm Beach State. But the speed of her success should not be confused with ease. For an extended period she juggled four jobs just to stay afloat.
One of four children, Larrea moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 12 years old. They went first to a small town in Indiana, then relocated to Florida when Lia was 17. After graduating from Seminole Ridge High School, she enrolled at Palm Beach State. It was not her first choice.
“I applied to the University of Florida and got in,” she says. “I had received a full scholarship, but because I did not have my full residency, I couldn’t use it. I was going to be paying for school myself, so I ended up at Palm Beach State. That way, I could stay at home and work while going to school. It turned out to be the perfect place for me. I learned so much and met so many interesting, diverse people. The classes are smaller than at a large university, so you can really talk to your teachers. And the business basics that I learned are things that I apply every day in my work.”
Just as she was finishing her studies at Palm Beach State, Larrea visited San Francisco. She fell in love with the city and decided to pursue her dream there, despite the challenges. “If I had known what I was getting into, I couldn’t have done it,” she says now.
She worked at a gym, taught sewing, hauled fabrics up hills, managed a clothing store, and assisted with costumes at a ballet company, all the while attending school. Each job was invaluable. Networking at the gym led to her first design job. Working with ballet dancers gave her the chance to study how the body moves in different fabrics. Managing a store taught her how to deal with employees.
“Life puts you in these positions that teach you something you can use for the future,” she says. “One of my teachers referred me to a handbag designer who needed help sewing zippers. It’s because of her that I started doing leather work, which I’d never considered. Working with her was like a free, extra class where I got to experiment and create.”
A line is launched
Larrea established her own company in 2011 and graduated from the Art Institute three months later. She applied to Fashion Incubator San Francisco, a year-long mentoring program for emerging designers. She interviewed and was accepted – and declined.
“I was offered a designer’s position at Byer California, which designs and manufactures private-label collections for department stores,” says Larrea. “I wanted to get more experience by working with veteran professionals and also be able to handle my student loans.”
When FiSF opened applications for its 2014 program, Larrea was accepted again. This time she followed through. “It was a huge decision, but I gave up the stability of a steady job to build my own business,” she says. “It’s been the most challenging thing in my life, and the most rewarding.”
She unveiled her first collection while in residence at FiSF. “The collection was sophisticated while still being wearable,” says Jeanne Allen, FiSF executive director. “Lia is conscious of function as well as design. She also uses and mixes different fabrics in interesting and modern ways — leather with jersey, sheer against opaque. This was her first commercial collection designed for production, and she’s attracted a cross-section of women. She has customers who range in age from 25 to 80.”
Her clothes are minimalist and architectural, with clean lines and appealing details. “It’s all about versatility,” Larrea says. “I have clothes that are reversible, water resistant, or convertible. They complement all kinds of body shapes. I’m also very conscious of how you move with different material. I don’t like things that are constricting, like jackets that you can’t move your arms in. I want women to be in control not only of what they wear, but how they feel. If you feel good in what you’re wearing, it’s going to make you feel more powerful.
“I want my line to grow and be around for a long time,” she continues. “I’m still at the baby step point. But I used to dream of the day when I could walk into a store and see my garments hanging there. And now I can.”
Lia Larrea tells her story on video: