Michael Leva, a multidisciplinary design virtuoso, died on Sept. 14 at his home in Providence.
He was accomplished in fashion, interior design, gardening, teaching, entertaining and management consulting. The cause of death is believed to have been heart-related, due from slipping in his kitchen and hitting his head, according to his friend and fellow Rhode Island School of Design alum Maggie McCormick.
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Always up for exploration, whether that be as a hard-charging undergrad, an inveterate traveler or an arts-hungry culturist, Leva lived by two simple words: “Let’s go!”
He worked on branding projects, including guiding Victoria’s Secret, Gilt Groupe, C. Wonder and Lord & Taylor. Leva, who taught at RISD prior to his death, had also cofounded Sea Star Beachwear and cowrote and produced the Rizzoli book “Recipes for Parties” — testing each one. During his 15-year tenure at Macy’s, Leva helped build the Alfani brand to $350 million within five years. He later was credited in the media by helping to reverse a $32 million profitability loss at J. Jill into a $52 million profit gain in the 2000s.
Leva once told WWD businesses are about service and offering things that people want in a refined way, “and not just about making money. What does Henry Kravis know about crackers? [a reference to the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco that Kravis’ KKR & Co. commandeered in 1988.]” Nobody knows about the companies they own. It’s not about forcing it to make money. That’s why everything has become so mediocre.”
A big-picture thinker, more than 30 years ago Leva drew fashion inspiration from the unexpected, including the children’s book characters “Heloise” and “Madeleine” for their “intelligent antiestablishment attitudes” and Joan of Arc for “encompassing the feminine and the masculine.”
“You really have to have your own personality or you get lost. There is such a desire to be hip, even with some of the older designers. But you just can’t be too trendy,” Leva told WWD.
Born in Denville, N.J., Leva, one of four children, was inspired by his mother Maria’s elegance and his father James’ work ethic. The family’s patriarch rose up through the ranks of General Public Utilities Corp. to chairman, president and chief executive officer.
Leva started working at a young age, long before he started his namesake fashion label in New York. His wanderlust surfaced as a high schooler in the ’70s, touring Europe as part of a Gregorian choral group. His human incandescence applied to all — gardening until dark, tweaking recipes, adjusting decor or polishing up in-store layouts. “I’d get an email first thing on a Saturday morning from Michael, saying the roast is in the oven, the laundry is done, the house is clean and I’m off to the market. Then on top of it, he’s say, ‘And the chicken is marinating.’ Michael Leva could go through walls,” McCormick said.
Along with McCormick, Melode Ferguson, Eric Pike, Allison Muench Williams and Richard Pandiscio, Leva worked hard and played hard at RISD, dancing until dawn at the school’s storied on-campus Tap Room. “We would not only sweat through out clothes. We woud sweat through our shoes,” McCormick recalled Monday.
Williams served as the Tap Room’s DJ, racing down to New York to get the latest music. After graduation the troupe friends later tackled New York clubs like Studio 54, Area, Pyramid — and culture with similar abandon. “The key is to not only know contemporary culture, but to know what’s coming. We would go to find out what was coming, breathe that in and Michael would bring that back to his design studio the next day.”
A family service is being planned in Florida and a celebration of his life will be held at a later date in New York.
Leva graduated from RISD in 1983. His foray into fashion started with an internship at WiiliWear, and he quickly wound up in Japan where he designed a line of sportswear.
Stateside in New York, he worked for Yonson Pak for two years, and then spent a season in Paris designing for the house of France Andrevic, before starting his own company in 1986. His first job was with a casualwear company that was licensed to Bill Blass, and Leva assisted the famed designer early on in his career.
Pandiscio of Pandiscio Green described Leva as his first boyfriend. Partial to wearing Capezios in every color like Mick Jagger at that time, Leva walked really fast as he always had somewhere he needed to be. “In any room he occupied, he was clearly the guy in charge. He had loads of groupies. He couldn’t be bullied,” Pandiscio said.
An admirer of the fashion designers Charles James and Gianfranco Ferré, Leva was “a terrific tailor,” Pandiscio said. A great cook and partial to Italian cuisine, he could pull together an elaborate dinner party in his dorm room with a hot plate and a bathroom sink. “He was the first student I ever met who cared about tableware, proper pots and pans, and a linen napkin,” Pandiscio said Monday.
In an early ’90s interview with WWD, he spoke not only of fashion, but also “this hope for democracy and equalization. I actually felt out of place in the ’80s, which were very Baroque. That’s not my thing, I’m a classicist.”
Before relocating to Rhode Island, he ditched his tourist-ridden Soho apartment to relocated to a former apparel manufacturing space in lower Manhattan; each element of that apartment was art-centric, from the Cope2-spraypainted cheetah print walls to the Gali Rothstein-framed art work. His friend Pike, Nest’s creative director, said that Leva designed and built “gorgeous gardens from scratch. He loved visiting the flower market, curating arrangements and was inquisitive about new flower varieties. Every time that he moved, he created unique, stunning homes that would be featured in the top interior magazines.”
Fluid in his talents, Leva was known to be definitive in what he was after. He once said, “It’s possible to have both a successful company and a point of view. It’s not always smooth sailing, but in the end we always end up on the upswing.”
Leva is survived by his mother Marie, a sister Linda and brothers James and Chris.
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