- Food & Drink
COVER: Luxury retailer Maria Leone plans for the future
Maria Leone spent decades building a Vancouver retail empire, and then, at age 50, she learned to swim.
The feeling of treading water must have been a figurative first for the woman who has been the public face of Leone for the past 27 years.
Leone — “Mrs. L” to the style-savvy staff who greet her as her heels strike along the boutique’s central arcade — still casts her long slender shadow across the store’s mosaic tiles each morning.
Every single item that receives the lusty brush of a customer’s fingertips is personally picked by her and her head buyers.
But now, between international buying trips, Leone, 66, goes to Giants games (her eldest grandson is on the team), and bakes cheese scones with the kids on demand.
In fact, her five grandchildren come up in conversation well before the matriarch even begins talking about her other legacy: the 25,000-square-foot clothing boutique she co-owns with her ex-husband, Alberto. The store’s 50 employees. The millions in annual sales. The fabulous outerwear...
She stands today surrounded by Carmen Ruiz y Laza’s JoyTV camera crew and the better part of the editorial team at WE. Ruiz y Laza is filming the first segment for her new show, CarmenTV. For the people who are about to go on camera, Leone graciously presents her store as if it were a wearable jungle gym: “Go play,” she shoos the growing entourage with a smile.
Like a fire brigade the women fan out, making sure there are no smouldering Versaces unaccounted for. Leone herself disappears briefly into an adjoining room, and comes back holding a black-on-black embossed jacket — nipped at the waist and with a bit of peplum.
She slips it onto the shoulders of WE editor Martha Perkins, and the jacket is to Perkins as a cork is to a bottle of Perrier-Jouët — a perfect fit.
Leone knew before she left the room what she was looking for, but she’s made a career of predicting what we are looking for.
Born in Italy, Leone immigrated to Montreal at age eight with her widowed mother. During a teenage stint in the cutting room of a garment factory, Leone found herself daydreaming about the buyers coming in. The foreshadowing was lost on her, though, as her life welcomed marriage to Alberto, a hair stylist, and their two children by the age of 20.
In 1970 the family moved to Vancouver. Alberto established a beauty salon and Maria managed the books. At the urging of customers, they expanded into women’s wear and opened Alberto Boutique.
By the time they were launching their sixth location, Alberto could no longer keep up with stocking the stores, and turned the buying over to Maria. Terrified, she boarded planes to Paris and Milan.
Fast forward through the next 40 years: Leone would find herself in Europe twice a month, curating collections and discovering new designers while raising her children; Alberto Boutique would consolidate into one location at the newly built Pacific Centre in 1974 and then re-brand as Leone for the move to its current location Sinclair Centre, bringing luxury to the wilds of West Hastings in 1987.
Leone was the first retailer in Western Canada to open an in-store Versace boutique. Now, you would just as likely walk out of the store with a McQueen dress, Dior biker jacket or Gianvito Rossi shoe.
Fashion moves fast, but for Maria Leone, time is moving faster: “I feel that my sixties are going by quickly, and I have to start doing things that really matter to me.”
She just recently ran her first 10K. (“It was so exhilarating, just the fact that I did it.”) As our photographer shouts instructions from behind a long lens to lean this way and tilt that way, she jokingly asks him what else he wants her to flex.
An inspiration, it’s no surprise Leone’s surrounded by equally inspirational older women, including her aging mother, whom she cares for: “My mother lives with me — talk about a sandwich generation. She just turned 90 and is still amazing and supportive.”
She also feels empowered, not by success or satisfaction, but simply by her age. “I just feel more comfortable and I want to do things that I didn’t have time to do or a chance to do when I was young and handling the business.”
Despite enjoying her active grandmotherhood and enrolling in every lesson available, however, Leone is not exactly squeezing in weekday games of golf, nor is she succession planning. Yet.
“I don’t think of my age. I work with 18-year-olds; some of them are younger than my grandchildren! It keeps me young and wanting to be better, every day.”