Backstage portrait: Alberto Vasari @albertovasari
The MARRISA WILSON Fall/Winter 2023 Runway Collection was inspired by the role that art and dance have played in Creative Director Marrisa Wilson’s life. As both a competitive dancer and an artist since a young age, Marrisa understood that her design process has always been influenced by her connection to music.
We had the opportunity to speak to Marrisa (@marrisawilsonny) to learn more.
Show images: Jonas Gustavvson @jonas_snapsalot
Q: “Rhythmic” was one of the coolest shows we’ve seen in a long time; like being transported to some historical Jazz Age New York. We know you have a background in dance. Tell us more about your history, and what led you from dance to fashion design?
Thank you! I know that people are marching all around town from show to show and, since we had the closing show at 9pm on Saturday night, I wanted to create a unique and memorable experience for everyone who came out to support. As I was conceptualizing the show, I always knew I wanted to incorporate all the elements that inspire my design process — dance, art and music — and create a soulful, rhythmic vibe.
Dance has been a part of my life from a young age. I started dance classes at 3 years old and was competing by the time I was 5. Tap was always my favorite style — I was absolutely mesmerized by Savion Glover’s footwork. I had two drawers in my childhood dresser dedicated to my dance wardrobe – one filled with tights (mostly Capezio tan and black tights, but always pink for ballet), and one filled with a variety of black leotards. I still have my first pair of white Mary Jane tap shoes hanging in my childhood bedroom, and the calluses on my feet that will probably never go away.
But I never wanted or expected to become a professional dancer, as I’ve always known I was going to be a fashion designer. Still, as my career in fashion began and progressed, I never lost that strong connection to music, movement, and dance. Before I start designing a new collection, I always start by finding the right soundtrack, the right sound and vibe. It’s still the way I am able to first see my collections come to life — when I can hear it, I can see it. That’s how everything clicks for me.
when I can hear it, I can see it
Marrisa Wilson NYFW
Q: Tell us about how this incredible show came together. First, how did you team up with iconic American fashion model Pat Cleveland and this fantastic band, Hera? And what was the influence of iconic American dancer Katherine Dunham?
It was a true honor that Pat Cleveland closed my show. She’s someone I’ve had on my mood board since I was a little girl, so it was a bit surreal to have this come full circle and to see her wearing the styles I designed and to be able to dance with her, hand-in-hand, down the runway.
Pat Cleveland is someone I’ve had on my mood board since I was a little girl
From the first moment that I had started working on the concept for the show, I had the idea that Ms. Cleveland would be a part of it and that she’d dance down the runway with a birdcage on her head — an homage to Katherine Dunham, the matriarch and queen mother of Black dance. I started watching all of Ms. Dunham’s famous performances and was inspired by the percussion, the way she moved and isolated her body, the costumes, her spirit. And I love how she studied the people of the Caribbean and throughout Africa and learned about their culture and rituals, then fused that with the traditional European style of ballet. Blending culture and people with dance and music was something that resonated with me.
So I wrote Ms. Cleveland a letter explaining the show concept and inspiration and how I wanted to honor the legacy of Katherine Dunham, who Ms. Cleveland had first learned dance from when she was five years old. I told her than I wanted to celebrate the generations of Black American dance pioneers — a lineage that started with Katherine Dunham and that Pat Cleveland continued and brought to the world of fashion — and I let her know that we had all of her iconic runway walks playing on the TV screen during our model castings (but of course, no one could work a room quite like her). I sent the letter at night and the next morning I heard back that not only she was in but that we would have a fitting with her that day!
I wanted to celebrate the generations of Black American dance pioneers
She had such a joy and spirit that was unlike anyone I’ve ever met before. What really tied everything together was when she shared memories that she had as a child studying under Ms. Dunham, and how Ms. Dunham would sit in the corner of the room and beat on the drums like she was playing for her ancestors. It was such a special, inspiring and memorable day and I’ll remember it forever.
Q: Tell us about your muse. What are your other influences in terms of music, art, literature, or anything else?
I’ve always been heavily influenced by the role that Black women have played in art and culture. My college thesis was inspired by Josephine Baker through the lens of 1920s Cubism. Music also always plays an important role in my concept development for a new collection, as I need to find the right soundtrack and sonic vibe for the season before I start designing. Motown was the music that was always playing in my house growing up as a kid. And 1990’s Neo-Soul is always a go-to for another dose of nostalgia.
I’m inspired by the idea that storytelling and art of all forms can be an incredibly powerful tool to educate and promote equality in thought-provoking ways. Towards the end of my fitting with Ms. Cleveland, she told me how happy she was to be part of this show experience because it reminded her of the 1970s and the freedom of expression and the movement of runway shows at that time. S
She said that when she was young — and certainly this was the case during Ms. Dunham’s life — Black artists didn’t have the opportunity to verbally express their emotions, their anger, their feelings of discontent. The only way that they could express themselves was through their art, their music, their dance. Hearing Ms. Cleveland talk about that progression and how happy she was to see me continuing that spirit of expression through art and dance was such an inspiration.
Black artists didn’t have the opportunity to verbally express their emotions
Q: How did you create your brand? Do you have any advice or tips for young designers?
I launched my brand back in 2015, when I was just out of college, but it wasn’t until just last year that I was able to commit myself to it full-time. For the first six years, I was working full-time as a designer for other labels — J. Mendel, Oscar de la Renta, rag & bone, Calvin Klein — and then working on my own collections very late at night or very early in the morning. Those were long, long days.
My brand has certainly grown a lot over those years, as has my own understanding of what you need to have your own label as a designer. So now I always recommend that young designers should go through the thought exercise of ‘why you and why now?’ Even now when I’m designing a collection, I’ve found that those questions are a great guiding light whenever you find yourself hitting a wall or I’m feeling uninspired.
And also, that they should do everything they can to find joy in the journey.
Q: What is the core Marrisa Wilson brand value? In other words, although some things may change each season, what will never change?
The core of MARRISA WILSON is always going to be centered around artisan craftsmanship, soulful designs and relaxed styling, imbued with the spirit of bold individuality. I’m a traditional, trained designer and I study and appreciate fashion history and norms, so I’m very intentional whenever I design a style that disrupts those norms. But I feel that there’s a sizable segment of fashion consumers right now that are underserved — those that want to wear high-quality designer clothes, but don’t want to sacrifice comfort, practicality and their unique personality to do so. People that want to go against the grain and stand out, rather than fit in.
So I’ll continue to hand-draw and hand-paint all of my prints each season, but the way in which my artwork gets expressed — whether it’s through printing, beading, embroidery, etc — will continue to evolve. And I’ll always explore new ways to combine my traditional designer sensibility with pragmatic utility detail and a bolder, edgier point of view, but each season there will be new styles and silhouettes to use as my vehicle to tell that story.
Q: Have you begun thinking about next season yet? What might be in the works?
I’ve started concept development for Spring/Summer 2024. My soundtrack so far has been a lot of Otis Redding at the moment. I’ve also been experimenting with AI, and it’s been an interesting tool to add to my process after I’ve gone through my initial research phase and done some rough sketching.
I’ve also been experimenting with AI
I’ve been most interested to see how AI perceives cultural identities. As we’re going through this new technological moment with the advancement of AI, I think it’s important to keep a critical eye to the inputs and the outputs of machine learning. There is a lot of potential danger there for bias, as there always is with new technology. But AI provides a world of possibilities that designers can play with and, in the right hands, I’m cautiously excited for its future. Right now I have no idea where that experimentation is going to lead me this season — OK, I have some idea — but I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.