Ursula Labermeier, owner of Riki Design, made the 180-degree lifestyle jump that so many only dream about — switching from a career in research to fashion. A risky choice back then, she now is a successful businesswoman who not only oversaw the management of several stores, but also is designing a new belt collection.
As a teenager growing up in the small town of Trier, Labermeier’s childhood was situated on the border of Luxembourg and Germany. The proximity of the surrounding European nations allowed for her to explore many diverse cultures. Even at such a young age, she traveled to different countries such as France and Belgium. This early exposure has impacted her well. Today, Labermeier is still fluent in French, German and English.
Her love for design propelled her into a world of possibilities. The start of her passion for clothes began when her mother purchased for her a sewing machine. She began designing coats, shirts — anything she could imagine. She would discover prints that caught her eye and transform it in such a way as to add her own touch or flair to each article of clothing.
“Coats, dresses, you name it! I made many things for myself and for friends with that sewing machine,” Labermeier said. “I had always had a passion for design.”
Yet clothing design still remained as just a hobby. Labermeier excelled in the science departments at school, and enjoyed learning subjects such as chemistry and biology. An opportunity for a fellowship at Yale University led her to travel to the United States, and at New Haven, Connecticut, she met her future husband.
A drastic change became necessary with the birth of her oldest daughter. She considered bringing her first child with her to her research lab, but later deemed it too hazardous. So she sought a job that could give her more time with her children.
At the same time, Labermeier recalls finding only American baby clothes made out of polyester. She hoped to provide her daughters with only natural cloths, and the open niche in children’s clothing inspired her to try something new.
Working with the already existent Riki Design in San Francisco, Labermeier finally satisfied her enthusiasm for fashion. She opened the first Riki Design store in Davis in 1987, at that time a store geared towards children’s wear. Riki soon became international — with stores even in Japan.
“I used European elements. My customers could tell that everything was hand-picked. It wasn’t just grabbed in mass piles and shipped to the U.S. I traveled to showrooms in Europe and chose the clothes that shared Riki’s theme,” Labermeier said. “But I also wanted it to be comfortable and affordable.”
Riki Design eventually made the transition to women’s clothing due to high demand. The store eventually began to emulate not only mother-daughter casual play clothes but also more special occasion or businesslike styles. About four years ago, Labermeier decided to “semi-retire,” and chose to stop designing the clothes for Riki. However, she continues to hand-choose the pieces and supervise the store.
Her family has always remained supportive and encouraging in her business endeavors. Labermeier fondly laughs over her daughters’ childhood years playing dress-up in her workshop and hiding under the cutting table with friends. Although both daughters are now married and have left the house, they continue to provide new ideas and advice to their mother.
Today Labermeier is never idle. Her talents are not just limited to fashion: Her creativity and design genius show themselves in her furniture design, interior decorating and gardening. Her varied and numerous hobbies permit her to continuously express her ideas — ones that never stop coming even as she matures. Labermeier will partner with a French company to design her own collection of belts in the future. She pours herself — every ounce of her time and effort– into her work to come out with a complete and detailed finished product. Nevertheless, Labermeier believes all her investments of energy are worth it, as her customers’ positive feedback demonstrates that she has really made “a difference” in others’ lives.
Krystal Schumaker, a Riki Design employee who has worked with Labermeier for more than six years, has only good to say about her experiences in Riki. An Italian herself, she feels that Labermeier has successfully emulated those essential European traces in her store.
“You don’t find that European atmosphere and touch in many boutiques here in the U.S. That’s what is really unique about this store… you can’t find it anywhere else,” Schumaker said.