Exclusive Interview: Inspired By Heroines Like Joan Of Arc, Designer Florentina Leitner Is Leading An Authentic New Wave In Fashion

May 16, 2023

Florentina Leitner

Florentina Leitner is an Austrian fashion designer currently based in Antwerp. Leitner attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and shortly after worked for Dries Van Noten. She now has her fashion brand, which she started in 2021. Leitner debuted her newest collection centering around Joan of Arc earlier this year at Paris Fashion Week. Her vibrant patterns, colors, and overall ethereal nature make her work stand out, encompassing the divine feminine. 

Shortly after attending Paris Fashion Week, I ran into Florentina at a vintage store in Antwerp. I instantly recognized and approached her, asking for an interview–the rest is history. 

Elizabeth Haltrecht: Thank you so much for your time; I am so excited to talk to you and learn more about you. I still can’t believe I ran into you in Antwerp; that was a full-circle moment. I was at your show in Paris, and then the next week, I was in Belgium; I saw you and asked, ‘Florentina is that you?’ It was crazy. 

Interview by Elizabeth Haltrecht

FLORENTINA LEITNER FW22, photo by Benjamin Mallek
FLORENTINA LEITNER FW22, photo by Benjamin Mallek

Florentina Leitner: Where are you at the moment?

EH: I’m in Amsterdam; I'm studying here right now. 

FL: So lovely; I'm looking forward to the interview!

EH: I first wanted to ask you how you felt after your presentation and what you took away.

FL: Overall, I think it was an excellent presentation. Of course, there are always ups and downs and things that could have improved, but I think it’s always like that when you're in it. Other people don't see the stress because they don't know what else you planned and how it should have been.

I liked that it was a presentation because I also had time to meet and get to know people and not have this runway moment which is just 15 minutes and it's over. So I think that for yourself, you need to let go and enjoy the moment. Overall, I enjoyed it and got quite some social media output and press, so I am happy with the results. 

EH: I think that was something I liked about your show as well. I spent maybe two hours looking at every piece, and I could examine the craftsmanship. I know that Joan of Arc was the main inspiration for your collection; what ultimately led you to choose that as your focus? 

The Stories of Powerful Women

FL: I think it was in the air when I started researching because I suddenly saw a lot of images of the movie from Dreyer, which is this black and white movie that portrays Joan of Arc before she gets executed at the stake. I saw all those images as striking and beautiful and wanted to know more about them. I started watching the movie and thought, ‘I love how fragile she is but also so powerful.’ This is what femininity is about, which sets us [women] apart.

I wanted to tell the story more positively because I thought, ‘ok, we are already having such a grim time, and everything is going downhill.’ In medieval times, many women were getting burned at the stake. I wanted to empower women and tell the story that all women are surviving these fires.

Working in this creative world helped me to find peace with myself. It was my escape world.

I wanted to tell the story of not only Joan of Arc but also all these other powerful women that were getting doomed for their strength, emotions, and skills. I wanted to give some hope, show that we can blossom after these fires, and tell this story with the presentation and collection. 

EH: Speaking on feminism, have you faced any challenges as a young, emerging woman in fashion?

FL: I think not so far really challenges, but I noticed when I had a showroom in Paris. My team and I were the only girls, and we were the only female-owned brand, and I was like, ‘Wow, you can notice it.’ There were six brands, and we were the only female representative. They [the male designers] are all super lovely and super friendly; I love those boys, and they are flamboyant, and I love it, but I realized solid female CEOs are still relatively underrepresented in the industry. 

The Journey into Fashion

EH: I would love to hear about your journey into the fashion world.

FL: I started studying fashion design at 14. I am actually from Austria, and in Austria, you can already decide at the age of 14 if you want to specialize in something. I was in this fashion high school, and there I realized that I dig it and that I'm also having a lot of fun with it. It helped me through being a teenager; you go through many phases. Working in this creative world helped me to find peace with myself. It was my escape world. I was always doing extracurriculars, helped plan fashion shows in my school, and was always very involved in this world that welcomed me. 

Then, at 19, when I finished fashion high school, I decided to continue studying fashion. I always loved Belgian design and the Antwerp Six, especially Walter Van Beirendonck. He was a teacher at the academy in Antwerp, so that's why I moved to Antwerp. I wanted to stay because Antwerp is a very cozy, friendly small city– I mean you've visited now yourself–it’s different to Amsterdam, it's more like homey. You get to know everybody quickly, you always meet people on the streets, it’s like a big family, and I started to like that a lot. I was there for five years, and I'm still here.

Then I worked after the academy for Dries van Noten for two seasons, and I had a bit of a buzz from social media and the press after my master's. The first stores approached me asking if I would like to sell them my collection, but it was all so new to me, and I was working for Dries Van Noten, so I thought, ‘Should I give it a try or not?’

I started producing while working for Dries, and it worked pretty well. I decided I wanted to start my brand, doing my own thing, and I could focus on doing little things for Dries. Then I decided to stop at Dries and give it a try to launch my label. That was in 2021, and now we are in 2023 already. 

FLORENTINA LEITNER FW22, photo by Benjamin Mallek
FLORENTINA LEITNER SS23, photo by Celia Croft

EH: That's crazy you did so much in two years to successfully launch your female-based brand and to get into the Paris Fashion Week calendar. 

FL: You need to be open, talk with people, and get your name out there. I got into Paris Fashion Week because I saw the guy at an event who is deciding who is in the Paris Fashion Week calendar for emerging brands. I was like, ‘ok, I should just go over and ask him if he wants to come for coffee at my place.’ I didn’t think he would, but the next day he showed up. I thought, ‘Aw, that's kinda awkward but also nice.’ 

EH: I love that you have that energy about yourself. I know you touched on Dries Van Noten; I would love to hear more about your experience working for him and if there was any lesson you took away from your experience. 

FL: Overall, I liked it. I think it was a bit difficult in the beginning because it was coronavirus, we still had a lot of remote work from home, and I wouldn't say I liked that. I preferred being in a team, working with Dries, and doing fittings. That was the most fun I had there– to work in a group.

I realized that the fashion industry is not always the creative part; it's a lot of sitting on a laptop, working, and getting things done. That is a lot of the things I have to do in my brand, which in the beginning, I was trying to escape from at Dries. Now, I am having it even more with my brand, which you don’t think about because it sounds and looks so glamorous from the outside, but it's a lot of dull working days sometimes. 

If you are too shy, nobody will ever see and discover it, so you must dare to post your work and get it out there. 

Overall, I loved the team, and I met many amazing people there to see how they were working and how Dries was managing the team. Interacting with the different departments was very interesting to see how much people are involved. They have a massive team at Dries, and now with me, it’s just me and my team of interns. It’s a different level of starting. I learned a lot there. 

EH: It must be so different going from such a massive team to a small one; it's exciting you got to work in two completely different environments.

FL: I think now I'm doing almost everything, and there I was, an assistant designer doing 100 collages, printing everything, waiting for Dries, and it's more monotone. After a while, you know what you're doing every day. I was happy when I could do something else or a new project. Researching can be boring after a while when researching the same topic for three weeks. I love being my boss because I can do different daily tasks. I like the flexibility of changing things in my working environment. 

FLORENTINA LEITNER FW22, photo by Benjamin Mallek
FLORENTINA LEITNER SS23, photo by Celia Croft

Kylie Jenner and Julia Fox Taking Note

EH: I know you said you gained some quick recognition; I looked at your Instagram and saw that Kylie Jenner had worn some of your pieces and that Julia Fox is following you; what do you think streamlined your internet fame?

FL: I remember I thought, ‘Oh my god, she [Julia Fox] is following me,’ I love her, and I was listening to her podcast and realized she followed me. [For social media], I must say that it was a long-term buildup. At first, you have your friends following, then other people following. It was brilliant that I created my work Instagram at 15 or 16 in high school.

Every time you invest in something, you slowly get things out. With Kylie Jenner, it was a big boost. At the very beginning, I only had 100 followers. I don’t know if it’s the primary target client I had in mind because different people follow Kylie Jenner, that wouldn't necessarily follow my brand.

After all, [the designs] are sexy and relaxed on her. Now I see some people liking fewer posts from people like Kylie Jenner because they are more interested in my more dreamy, girly clothing and not like the more sexy Kylie Jenner posts. I don't know if we are a perfect match made in heaven, but of course, it's still essential to reach different types of people, and I reached her fans, and they bought my catsuit, so it’s giving and taking. 

If it’s not your primary or target client, it's great to get the recognition from their stylist that they like your products and want to place them on their clients. I remember I posted this one photo, and suddenly, it had 20,000 likes. It’s gradually growing; you can suddenly have this viral post.

I was like, ‘Oh wow, that's amazing,’ but it's also this algorithm; I don’t know what I did right there and wrong with my next post. I hear from so many friends that they are too shy to post their work. If you are too shy, nobody will ever see and discover it, so you must dare to post your work and get it out there. It’s all about figuring things out and not giving up. 

EH: What is the highlight of your career so far?

FL: There are many highlights, but one nice moment was my first time in Paris Fashion Week because it was my goal. I had a show in Berlin Fashion Week, digital in New York, and then London Fashion Week, but it was not the same because it was digital, and then you’re with your friends at home watching it. You can’t interact with new people, and you can’t create a buzz or vibe around it. Paris was magical, and seeing that people also liked it and enjoyed it, gives a lot of energy to you again and keeps you creating something new. 

EH: Where do you see the future of your brand? 

FL: I want to reach a wider audience. I am in a good situation with my showroom in Paris and my team. I know that it won’t grow overnight, but I also know it's a journey to get to know the right people and to find your crowd and your universe, and it also takes time to find the right buyers trusting in your brand. I know that it takes time, but in the future, I want to be in the big brands and survive in my universe and brand. 


EH: What are some consistent influences for you on your work and creatives that inspire you?

FL: Wes Anderson was always a huge inspiration, more from the beginning years on; I love his earlier movies, especially The Royal Tenenbaums. Otherwise, a strong female character, like this time, was Joan of Arc. I already had an inspiration collection about Cinderella, but more about her story of going from really poor to rich. It's this bourgeois Marxist fairytale which tells a lot more than a woman finding a prince.

I like looking into stereotyped female characters, getting inspired by their world, and making it my own. Another thing I always have coming back to me is flowers; nature gives so much inspiration to me, especially things growing in nature and blossoming flowers because I grew up in nature. I have a little garden that inspires me. That will always be something I will be inspired by.

EH: What are you growing in your garden?

FL: Currently, we have hydrangeas; they are nice but not out yet. 

EH: I think they are going to blossom beautifully.