Midtown: Community

Style maven uses fashion to make a difference

Rather than follow a dark tunnel of grief over the death of her husband to leukemia in 2009 and a stalled retail career soon after, Kendra Leonard followed a light that illuminates the life within her – and all of us.

“She took all that energy and threw it into positive endeavors,” said Lisa Luten, Leonard’s best friend since they were teens. “That has always been inspiring to me.

“Some people go into a dark place. Kendra decided she was going to make a difference in the world.”

Tonight, Leonard brings together fashion and fundraising in The Art of Style Summer Charity Fashion Show for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of North Carolina. The show is from 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at The Cottages at Brier Creek, 10511 Sablewood Drive, Raleigh.

In addition to the runway fashion show across water, there will be silent and live auctions, food, beer and wine tastings, and on-site bone marrow donor registration. It’s $10 in advance, $20 at the door.

In the show’s third year, Leonard hopes to entertain 200-300 people, register at least 50 bone marrow donors and raise at least $10,000. Each November, Leonard also holds a holiday charity fashion show to benefit the organization.

The shows feature fashions from Leonard’s Midtown boutiques, The Art of Style, which offers an eclectic mix of clothes that are “modern and classic, sophisticated but not trendy. Edgy,” Leonard said. Most of her clients are in their 40s, 50s or 60s, she said.

Just as her boutiques reflect her own sense of style and fashion, the models in her charity shows reflect Leonard’s belief in fashion as a healthy mind-body-soul experience for people of all shapes, sizes, ages and races.

“Clothing is an expression of who we are as people,” said Leonard, 34, voted last year in the Top 5 of the 25 most stylish people in the Triangle for Carolina STYLE magazine. “It’s not about age. It’s about lifestyle. We are all-inclusive.”

Half of Leonard’s boutique is for men, so men’s fashions will be on the runway, too. And Leonard will debut The Art of Style Kids, a blossoming line of children’s clothes.

Leonard’s boutiques have been a launching pad for about 20 local artists, she said. “I use it as an incubator for local designers. It’s a partnership...to help other people chase their dreams as well.”

Leonard, who dreams of designing, carries her own private label, too. Kendra Michelle is about 75 percent of her stock, and the work of about 25 designers who create one-of-a-kind pieces for her store.

“I don’t sell clothes, I transform lives,” Leonard said. “I tell my clients, ‘brace yourself for compliments because that’s going to happen, but don’t let it go to your head because then you’ll get stuck.’ ”

Fashion and fundraising

Leonard has been in retail all her professional life. It is where, at 15, she met her BFF Luten, then 16. It’s also where she learned a lot of what she knows about fashion and fundraising.

During a nearly 12-year career at Banana Republic, Leonard introduced the concept of fashion shows as fundraisers. The result: benefit fashion shows for Habitat for Humanity and The Alliance of Aids Services, NC.

After a 2008 summer charity fashion show, Leonard and a store associate decided to help the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, in honor of the son of their favorite salon owner. That night, Leonard’s husband, Miguel, announced his own diagnosis. That winter, Banana Republic raised more than $10,000 for the organization.

Miguel lost his hard-fought, 17-month battle with leukemia one month shy of his 40th birthday. Soon after, Leonard was passed over for a promotion at Banana Republic.

Rather than wallow, Leonard wrote in two months a business plan for her own store and ran for Woman of the Year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For the win, she raised $30,000 in 10 weeks. She sold her house, bought a new one and quit Banana Republic.

In November 2010, Leonard opened her first boutique in Brier Creek. The second opened in Cameron Village on 11-11-11. Then on 12-12-12 – deemed by her daughter, Kayla, 13, as the “last cool day” left – Leonard self-published “you only live once,” a memoir about overcoming adversity.

“ ‘Find yourself’ is the motto for her store,” Luten said. “A lot of people like fashion, but Kendra really believes that how you look and how you dress can really impact how you feel about yourself.

“The clothes are beautiful and the accessories are beautiful, but what she really wants is for you to leave there feeling better about yourself. If it’s in her clothes, that’s great. If it’s not, it’s OK, as long as you know yourself better and feel better about who you are.

“That’s really who she is, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts of her.”