“In 2011, I began teaching art at a small college in New York. I supplemented my meager income by scouring thrift stores and selling my vintage finds on Etsy. One day I came upon a beautiful three-piece set labeled Tina Leser Original. It was love at first sight.
I became obsessed and had to learn everything I could about this wonderful designer.
Tina grew up in a family of artists and art patrons and began traveling the world as a child with her adventurous adoptive mother. She was profoundly impacted by the things she saw and incorporated them into her work throughout her 40+ year career. I love what a global citizen she was.
I’m biracial and my father was in the military, so I also grew up traveling from a very young age and being exposed to cultures around the world. Our home was a very creative one – we all drew, wrote, sewed, painted, or played music. I guess I relate to these similarities with Tina. There’s an allure to living a creative life and making beauty out of the everyday things we surround ourselves with. Both Tina’s biological mother and her adoptive mother were painters, and Tina also started out in this medium.
I love the artistic aspect of her work.
Not only did she interpret impressions from her travels within her designs, but she also pored over museum archives and collaborated with other artists for inspiration.
This is my absolute favorite piece: Tina Leser’s Sacred Cow draped hand-block printed linen skirt outlined in sequins and beads, from 1946. The textile is one of her own designs which makes it extra special. I found this one unlabeled on eBay. Luckily, as with much of her work, it was well documented in newspapers from the time. I’m still on the hunt for the slash neck jersey top it was originally sold with. In the meantime, I like to wear it with this Dorothy Korby wool blouse.
My main secret to finding these items is researching her work in every spare minute, that way I’m prepared when a piece comes up for sale.
Another amazing unlabeled piece I found is this 1955 tulle centerpiece skirt from Etsy. The lace was handmade by nuns in a Brussels convent. Tina created a mock-up for them to reference by sewing an old lace tablecloth together. I recognized this skirt instantly because the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising here in Los Angeles has the same one in their collection. I later found the matching top! The fur slippers are 1950s Saks Fifth Avenue.
I have a pretty thorough knowledge of Tina Leser’s design history, and the Gem app has been an invaluable resource for locating her pieces. Labels often go missing, so it’s important to know the designs, materials, and details of these pieces. This way, even a simple search can yield incredible results. I also keep an ever-expanding image archive, read old magazine and newspaper articles, and study images from museum collections online. When I can, I visit museum archives that house her fashion sketches.
This ’at-home’ outfit consists of a felt skirt with an attached printed Swiss challis fringed apron, matching bustier and shawl from 1951. Tina Leser dressed some of the most famous women of the 20th century, including Elizabeth Taylor who owned several of her pieces. This design was among them! I absolutely love seeing photographs of people wearing Tina’s looks back in the day, and now a new generation continuing to appreciate them decades later.
This is a piece I had been dreaming of for a long time. It is one of her hand-painted blouses which she was famous for in the 1940s. It is entitled Falconry, and always reminds me of the Royal Tenenbaums. Tina designed the original and then it was recreated with stencils. Each blouse was signed and embellished with sequins.
A lovely woman contacted me on IG and was curious about this blouse that had belonged to her aunt. Of course, I said please sell it to me and she did! I feel very lucky when people entrust special pieces to me that have a lot of sentimental value. I also appreciate that these items were so unique and loved by the owners that they kept them all their lives. This blouse was meant to be worn with a long, high waisted, draped black skirt. Until I find one, I like pairing it with these great 1980s Thierry Mugler pants from eBay. The gloves are by Mr. John.
I found this turquoise silk caftan on eBay UK, and it was sold as coming from the estate of opera singer Jessye Norman. It was also documented in Vogue magazine in 1967 – I used that image as a reference for styling this photograph. Tina was so inspired by Indian fabrics in the 1960s that she came out of retirement to build a factory in India that produced silk fashions, this being one of them. I love the single beaded pink cuff – it’s such a classic Tina touch.
This is one of the oldest pieces in my collection. It was produced in early 1942. Tina began her fashion career in Hawaii in the 1930s and this piece was designed under her Honolulu/New York label. I bought this from an auction house in Paris. It is made of cotton felt and has undersea appliqués on the pockets which were meant to look like greeting cards. I’ve paired it with 1980s pink gabardine pants and a 1940s coconut hat. I love to wear these vintage gold elf-toe slippers with almost everything.
This chambray sundress was produced in 1945 while supplies were still being rationed for the war effort. Designers had limits on the materials they could use, and I love seeing the ingenuity they employed to continue creating fantastic pieces despite restrictions.
Tina had a huge house party that year which Life magazine covered (see the photo above). Models and guests dressed in her pieces and this design was worn by both Tina and her half-sister during the festivities. I purchased this from The Unordinary Vintage on Etsy. Shown here with Flexiclogs from eBay.
This gorgeous hand printed cotton dress is from a short-lived collection Tina designed in late 1958. It was produced under the Christina label which was her given name. I absolutely love the sleeves and the colors – It reminds me of a William Blake watercolor. I bought this one from Digital Vintage.
What a lot of people don’t know is that Tina designed many of her fabrics – not to mention jewelry, hats, shoes, menswear, and even wallpaper!
I’m forever inspired by Tina’s use of textiles. This brushed wool skirt is a work of art. It dates to 1959 and was fashioned after a bandana print. I’ve paired it with an early 1960s David Goodstein sweater—Tina was also designing for him at that time. I found the skirt unlabeled on FB Marketplace for $26, and the sweater is from eBay.
I search high and low for these pieces, you name it: IG, Etsy, eBay, Facebook, Poshmark. I’ve also had people contact me directly to purchase, which I love!
This black velvet skirt from Tina Leser’s fall 1955 collection has Kashmir embroidery on contrasting blue velvet panels. The gold braid trim is from an Indian sari. Tina borrowed the idea from the triangular sections of a nautch dancer’s skirt. She called these ’fan flair’ skirts – flat in front and full in the back and lined them with pellon to maintain their form. This fantail design was a signature of hers and appeared in many of her skirts and dresses during that time. I think it works perfectly with this cashmere sweater she designed for Hadley that same year. I found this skirt at Upper East Vintage, and the sunglasses are from Vintage Kabinet on Etsy.
Tina styled a line of work wear for women in 1953, and the following year designed the uniforms for Northwest Orient Airlines. I found this one, including the Mae Hanauer hat, on eBay. This isn’t the original blouse, but it is very similar in style to her modern collarless design.
I wear certain pieces out in the world on special occasions. I recently wore my favorite Tina Leser piece to the V&A Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto exhibition in London, but mostly I enjoy my collection at home for research and documentation in my photography – when I’m not collecting vintage, I work as a photographer in the professional hair and beauty industry.
Tina was very well known throughout her career for her swimwear. This green linen suit with embroidered fish was produced by Gabar in 1963. I’m hoping one day I will find the matching coverup!
I’ve outlined many ideas for future Tina Leser projects. Of course, I’d love to create an exhibition, a series, and a documentary, but for now, I’m working on a book. The rest hasn’t quite evolved yet. I think the result should consist of an innovative and less predictable format incorporating multimedia that best showcases this incredible designer’s talent. I’m keeping an eye out for the perfect platform to share and celebrate the creations of Tina Leser.”
Follow Marie-Claire Bozant on Instagram @tinaleserclub