Designer Interview

By: FashWire
Aug 11, 2023 11:20 AM

What inspired you to become a designer? 

I always loved and gravitated towards clothes and fashion, so I’ve known since I was very young that I was going to be a fashion designer and one day start my own brand — even though at that time I didn’t know of any other designers that looked like me. And I come from a very entrepreneurial family, so starting my brand right out of college didn’t seem all that crazy to me. 

My mom is a very creative person and when I was in the second grade, she was making new curtains and reupholstering the chairs in our house in preparation for my First Communion. And as she was making these fabric-covered buttons for the seat cushions with some leftover fabric scraps, I took the buttons and fabrics and started making dresses for my Barbies. When my mom saw me playing with the fabric, that's when she taught me how to hand-sew. And then, a few years later, she bought me my first mini sewing machine.


How would you describe the style of your brand?

MARRISA WILSON New York is built around the philosophy that all women should be able to Wear Their Soul. My brand mixes my classic designer training with my personal belief that clothes should not only be functional, comfortable, bold and never boring, but also that they should always be an outward representation of who you are.

My style is definitely a bit bolder and edgier, so I gravitate towards designing with vibrant colors and prints and an overall optimistic aesthetic. By hand-painting each custom print in all of my collections, I pour a little bit of my soul into everything I design, giving every piece a level of artisan craftsmanship and unique quality.


“My brand is for real women who live real lives. I design with a focus on quality, functionality, ease and structure and will always create clothes that you can live in, work in, dance in, or even just hang out on the couch in.”


When was your first industry experience and how did it impact you?   

I was lucky enough to have my first internship in the fashion industry during my senior year of high school at a dress company in NYC. I was able to learn from each of the departments - design, merchandising, sales, fabric. I would commute two hours each way from my home in New Jersey, and absolutely dreaded those long, crowded bus rides. But I worked really hard and thought that the team I was working with saw and appreciated that. So, on the last day of the internship, I asked if I could come back and continue in the summer before I started at Marist College. That’s when I was told that they only take college interns from FIT.

After that, I was worried I was going to be at a disadvantage because I didn’t go to a school in the city, believing that I wasn’t going to receive the same education as those students. And while I know now that certainly wasn’t the case, that stigma and assumption within the industry is certainly real. I knew I would have to work harder and go above and beyond all the other talent from the city to prove that I could succeed in this industry, and so that no one would ever make me feel like I was less capable again.


What did the beginnings of MARRISA WILSON look like?

After I started MARRISA WILSON New York right out of college, for the first several years I was working full-time in the fashion industry as a designer for a variety of brands — J. Mendel, Oscar de la Renta, rag & bone and Calvin Klein — and running my brand on the side in any spare time I could find. It was a lot of very early mornings and very late nights, very little sleep, many days where I’d skip lunch at work and use that time to sneak off to Mood or B&J and then (literally) run across the city with heavy bags filled with fabric slung over my shoulder so that I wasn’t late getting back to the office.

If I had to describe that time in one word, I’d say it was a lot of “hustling.” But that experience was also so valuable to me, not only because it was a crash course in time management, but also because those years that I spent working for large brands taught me so much about every facet of the industry. And so, when my brand started to grow and gain momentum and I was able to dive in full time, I had all of that experience to lean on.


What is your favorite part about designing?

My favorite part of the design process is creating the new prints in every collection. Once I’ve finished conceptualizing the line and done all the soul searching and the research around it, that’s when the fun begins, and the collection can really start to come to life.

Every print in all of my collections is completely custom, meaning that I hand-draw and hand-paint each one. What they don't tell you when you start your own brand as a designer is that a lot of your time is going to be spent dealing with the business side of things. So that artistic process, when I’m able to just put on some music and sit at my easel with my paintbrushes and create, is something that really brings me a lot of joy, especially in this increasingly digital age.


Do you have a passion other than fashion or design?

Dance and music have been a part of my life from a young age. So that’s why there’s always an element of musicality in each of my collections.

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 callouses on my feet that will probably never go away. 


Where do you find inspiration?

I’ve always been inspired by the role that women have played in art and culture, especially trailblazing women of color. I believe that storytelling and art can be an incredible tool to educate and promote equality in thought-provoking ways. I like to say that I design clothes for dope women who do dope things, so it’s those women throughout history that inspire me to keep working and striving.

From a design perspective, when I’m working on coming up with the concept and aesthetic of a new collection, I often find inspiration in music. I used to be a competitive dancer, and I never lost that strong connection to music, movement, and dance. So, before I start designing a new collection, I always begin 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. 


Do you have a favorite piece that you have designed?

That’s like picking a favorite child! But if I had to choose, I’d say the Utility Midi Dress With 3D Floret Appliqué from my FW23 Runway Collection.

For that piece, I took the brushstroke of one of my hand-painted prints that season and replicated it on fabric by using a circular motion and then accentuated it with contrast piping detail. The floral motif was designed to replicate the ‘rond de jambe’ ballet technique, meaning “round of the leg.” That connected back to the inspiration behind my FW23 collection — Katherine Dunham, the Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black dance in America. So, each piece in the line was made to be danced in, to allow you to freely express your personality and Wear Your Soul through rhythm and movement.

I think that piece captures the essence of everything I love when designing collections. It combines crafted materials with unique textile manipulations, sporty pops of color, and edgy utility details. The result is a dress that is as unique as the wearer, allowing you to Wear Your Soul.


“Wear Your Soul means that despite what the world tells you that you need to be, no matter the challenges you’re going through or the negativity you endure, you still choose to show up each day and show the world your true, authentic self. And that’s a powerful choice.”


How would you describe your personal style? 

My personal style is definitely easy and relaxed. I don’t like clothes that are overly fussy or precious, and don’t believe that you should have to sacrifice style for comfort. Clothes should be a pleasure, not a challenge.


What brand values are most important for MARRISA WILSON?

There will always be an element of musicality and soul in each my collections. Each season, I hand-draw and hand-paint all of my prints and that level of craftsmanship and artistic expression is central to my philosophy as a designer and something that I will always be sure to maintain as a brand value. What has been a fun journey for me recently is to explore new mediums to express my artwork in my designs, whether that’s through printing, beading, embroidery, etc.

But while I want the women who wear my clothes to feel like a piece of art, I don’t design clothes that are precious or fussy. My brand is for real women who live real lives. I design with a focus on quality, functionality, ease and structure and will always create clothes that you can live in, work in, dance in, or even just hang out on the couch in.


What was the toughest circumstance you overcame when just starting out your business? 

In the beginning, it was hard for me to sort through and make sense of all of the feedback I would get about where my brand should go, what I needed to do to stand out, to grow and get recognized and get sales. It felt like everyone I spoke to said something that conflicted with the last person that gave me advice. I learned that I needed to focus on listening and trusting myself and believing in what I knew made me and my brand special, versus what everyone else said. It helps me to better receive feedback to productively improve my brand, rather than just swinging the pendulum.


How has the fashion industry changed since you first started out?

The industry has been shifting for a long time, and in a variety of ways. There’s a lot of emphasis now on celebrity placement and social media buzz and hype, and less on quality design and craftsmanship. But I do believe that people are getting over the hype and want to connect with brands that make them feel something. So, I believe that the industry is going to shift to getting behind brands that will shape the future of the industry in an authentic way.


What sets your brand apart from the rest?

I started MARRISA WILSON New York because I felt there weren’t other contemporary womenswear brands that spoke to me, and other women in the industry like me. If your sense of style is a bit edgier, your personality is a bit bolder, a bit more unique, and you don’t want to be placed in a box, you don’t want to look like everyone else, you shouldn’t ever have to feel like you don’t have clothes that allow you to express your personality. You should always be able to Wear Your Soul, and you should be able to do so in a way that is practical, comfortable, and distinctly speaks to you.

Wear Your Soul means that despite what the world tells you that you need to be, no matter the challenges you’re going through or the negativity you endure, you still choose to show up each day and show the world your true, authentic self. And that’s a powerful choice.

I believe that if you resonate with that message, you’ll instinctively understand why my brand is different from the rest. 


What has been your biggest accomplishment to date?  

I’ve put on runway shows at NYFW each of the past three seasons, and all have been incredibly taxing and rewarding. But my biggest accomplishment would be when I won the FGI Rising Star Award in the Ready To Wear category just last month.

It was such an honor to have been nominated, and it was a surreal privilege to be awarded as the winner. Like most designers in this industry, I’ve had a long, winding and difficult journey, so simply sitting in the room at the awards ceremony, alongside generations of immense fashion talent, was rewarding, validating and inspiring. And then when I heard LaQuan Smith call my name as the winner, it just ensured that it would be a day I’ll never forget.


What do you envision for the future of MARRISA WILSON?

I love collaborating with other designers and creatives of all types and working together, melding different aesthetics and artistic points of view to create a new, cohesive form of expression. So, I’d love to do more partnerships and explore how my prints could be expressed on different canvases — whether that’s interiors, footwear, eyewear, headwear, etc.

I also envision getting to a place where I am able to make more of an impact in this industry, support young female designers and designers of color, and work to create a tangible pipeline to help jumpstart and further their careers in this industry, because I know just how difficult it is.


What is the most important thing you would like your brand to be recognized for?

I’d like my brand to be recognized for its unique design point of view and my commitment to artistic quality. As brands grow, it gets easier and easier to get more commercial and think only about profit margins and ROI and all of those other industry classified ‘metrics of success.’ But while, of course, running a successful business is vitally important, the ethos that I built my brand on will never change. And that’s something I hope will be recognized.