The rhythm and soul of designer Marrisa Wilson

  • June 12, 2023
Designer Marissa Wilson sitting in a chair in front of a rack of clothes from her Spring/Summer 2023 collection

Guyanese-American designer Marrisa Wilson dreamed of working in fashion at a very young age. Now, it’s a reality.Christian Wright for Insider

The designer, who has collaborated with Levi’s and Gigi Burris, unites fashion, music, and art to create vibrant garments that encourage Black women to be their most confident selves.

In an intimate loft in Chelsea, Manhattan, funky guitar riffs from Roy Ayers’ 1970 hit “Pretty Brown Skin” glide through a set of speakers. Marrisa Wilson, the founder and creative director of womenswear brand Marrisa Wilson New York, grooves through the space with graceful urgency. She’s preparing to showcase her Fall/Winter 2023 collection, titled “Rhythmic,” at New York Fashion Week and plans on restyling the loft into a runway-worthy venue.

She’ll accomplish just that. In a week, the compact space will transform into a dynamic, immersive NYFW experience: Wilson’s very own canvas paintings will hang along a white brick wall; Hera, an all-female jazz band, will perform live music as models flaunting Wilson’s garments and Afro-centric hairstyles caper down the runway; and legendary model Pat Cleveland will make a surprise appearance and dance with Wilson to close the show.

But when I meet with Wilson, none of that has happened yet. She’s still making ready, and the loft is lined with racks of her unrevealed pieces boasting abstract prints and hand-painted fabrics.

Amid all of the planning, Wilson takes a moment to reflect. She’s come a long way since graduating from Marist College in 2015 — she majored in fashion design and double minored in fashion merchandising and product development — and studying fashion in Paris.

A woman plays the saxophone while a dancer dances down a runway.

At the beginning of Wilson’s Fall/Winter ’23 NYFW show, Chelsea Baratz of Hera sported one of Wilson’s looks while playing the saxophone. Meanwhile, model Lauren Forge danced down the runway in one of Wilson’s bright yellow designs.Jonas Gustavsson

“I wanted to go into this industry from a young age,” she told me. “That’s why I work on having a strong point of view in my designs. I want to make sure that everything feels right coming from me and doesn’t feel like it could just be anyone else in the world.”

As a creative, it makes sense that Wilson covets idiosyncrasy and has mastered the art of merging individuality and relatability. And she’s reaping the fruits of that labor.

She’s a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she’s now shown three collections at New York Fashion Week, her designs have been worn by the likes of Tamron Hall and Sherri Shepherd, and she was recently recognized as a finalist for Fashion Group International’s “Rising Star” award. She’s also worked for brands such as Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein and has collaborated with Levi’s and Gigi Burris.

In a conversation with Insider for our ongoing series, Black Ensemble: Fashion for the Culture, Wilson opened up about her start in fashion, building her brand, and the significance of Black creativity in artistic spaces.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You were born and raised in New Jersey, but your parents are from Guyana. How did being a first-generation Guyanese-American influence you as a designer?

The colors, spices, and flavors of Guyanese culture that I grew up around are things that I draw from. Going to Guyana as a kid — we have a house down there — and seeing the colors, birds, hearing the language, I felt the shift in how the world moved. There was a slower pace of life.

My mom is also a creative person. When I was in the second grade, for my First Communion, she reupholstered all the chairs in our kitchen, and there were these scraps of fabric and fabric-covered buttons that she made. She saw me using those buttons on my Barbies and decided to teach me how to hand-sew. Then I got my first little mini sewing machine before graduating to a Brother machine.

I also used a lot of Teen Vogue magazines for collages. I remember a cover that had Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn. That was the first time that I saw someone that looked like me on a magazine, and I realized there weren’t many people that looked like me in fashion. So as I understood myself as a person, I realized there is value in my experience that I wanted to express in my work.

Marrisa Wilson holds a red printed longline jacket while leaning against a rack of clothing.

“There are elements of function and form but from a joyous and expressive perspective,” Wilson said of her design DNA. “Effortless expression is the way that I really love to describe my brand.”Christian Wright for Insider

What aspects of your upbringing have governed your approach to building your brand?

Guyanese culture involves a strong family dynamic, and I associate that with my entrepreneurial spirit. Starting this company right after I finished school didn’t feel that crazy to me because we had a family business growing up, which gave me a hustler mentality.

That was something that I always had going through school and often being the only person of color in the room. I grew up with this mentality that I’m going to have to be not just good, but better than the rest. I do look back and wish that I gave myself more grace.

But what I have learned is I can really lean into my lived experiences. My new Fall/Winter ’23 collection is inspired by my connection to dance, music, art, and fashion. From when I was 3 up until my early 20s, I did all sorts of competitive dancing, and it was a big part of my life.

What styles of dance were you trained in?

All different types: tap, jazz, ballet, hip-hop, contemporary, lyrical. I really dove into the history of jazz, particularly, because growing up we did a ton of Bob Fosse routines.

But I wanted to feel more connected to something from a cultural perspective, so I dug into Katherine Dunham. She’s considered to be the Black matriarch of modern dance and was known for polyrhythmic movement. She traveled throughout the Caribbean, Haiti, Cuba — all of these different countries — to understand the people and incorporate those cultures into dance. A lot of my new collection is inspired by her costumes.

Marrisa Wilson and Pat Cleveland dance down a runway together.

Wilson and Cleveland enraptured NYFW guests with a dance to conclude the Fall/Winter ’23 show.Jonas Gustavsson

I would love to hear more about the process of creating your Fall/Winter ’23 collection.

I explored a new medium this time, playing with pastels, which was very new to me, and sketching a ton. I also experimented with painting directly onto the fabric. I had 10 yards of fabric that I painted with this circular motion to replicate a rond de jambe in ballet. I wanted the fabrics and the prints to feel like they were dancing and moving, so there are some that have this lyrical motion to them.

Then I dug into what I do best: tried-and-true silhouettes; split details; pops of color; utility pockets. And I dove more into sweaters, which I think is a really great place to explore novelties and textures.

 

You’ve been releasing NFTs and digital art collections as part of your Woman’s Prerogative Project. What has that been like for you?

I’ve built a strong community in the Web3 space, and community is something that’s always been important to me. I’ve been able to bring people into the Fashion Week space and connect with other enthusiasts who might not necessarily buy the clothes but can connect with my artwork.

A side-by-side collage of two images: one of Marrisa Wilson's sketches and another of a model wearing Wilson's red abstract-printed design down a runway.

As Wilson evolves as a designer, she continues to keep things in perspective. “I’ve been going back to that idea of, ‘Why me, and why now?'” she said.Christian Wright for Insider (left); Jonas Gustavsson (right)

Why was it important for you as a Black woman to explore the Web3 space?

Right now, this space is heavily dominated by white men who are going to take inspiration from things that exist in Web2 and in the real world and monetize it. So I knew that I needed to learn and understand this in order to establish a point of view in this space. Because if it’s not going to be me, then it’s going to be someone else on my behalf.

How do you feel about the luxury industry’s relationship with Black creatives?

We’re in an interesting place right now where we’re starting to move toward more Black representation in these spaces. But I think there are still certain unfavorable perceptions of Black women, which is wild because we’re the ones that are driving the volume, the business, and the culture. I think we’re starting to make progress, but I would love to see more women of color in positions of leadership in the luxury space.

 

Something else that’s important to me as a Black woman is the styling of all of my shows. I intentionally cast models who bring the clothes together through their own personalities and can command a room with their energy. That’s what I feel is really fresh and directional in high-end fashion and what I want to see more of: Not being one archetype of a character for a brand.

A side-by-side collage of two images: one of Marrisa Wilson painting on a canvas and another of a rack with Wilson's green and black garments

Wilson hopes that her work as a designer and an artist will expand into other realms beyond the runway.Christian Wright for Insider

Is there anything in particular in Black history and culture that inspires your designs?

In terms of the process that I went through with my new collection, I listened to “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane as a starting place and began sketching.

I also looked at historical photos of Katherine Dunham and the costumes, headwear, voluminous skirts, colors, and patchwork that she wore. I watched these old videos of a guy playing the bongos while she shook her hips in a very intentional way. It was so cool and inspiring to me. I wanted to use those elements of rhythm. That’s why the name of my new collection is “Rhythmic.”

A side-by-side collage of two photos featuring Katherine Dunham dancing

The late Katherine Dunham, a renowned 20th century dancer who performed all over the world, inspired some of Wilson’s Fall/Winter ’23 designs.Baron/Stringer via Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Stringer via Getty Images

What do you think the future of fashion will look like, and what do you think it should look like?

I think because of COVID, there’s going to continue to be a big shift toward comfort, whether it’s visible comfort or something that looks sharp but feels comfortable to wear. We’re getting into this hybrid place of dressing up maybe three or four times a week.

It might actually be easier to dress up now because you’re not doing it as often. You’re having these moments that are less frequent but more impactful. So I think easy-breezy looks that are more elevated and cool is where the industry should be going.

What advice would you give to the next generation of fashion designers?

Give yourself grace. You’re not going to have it all figured out. School, especially art school and design school, is tough. You’re at an age where you’re figuring out who you are, and you have people poking at everything that you think you might know about yourself.

Marrisa Wilson stands surrounded by racks of her designed garments

Wilson is hopeful about where her brand is heading. “I’ve got a wonderful team,” she said. “It’s starting to feel like we’re building the groundwork for a well-balanced business.Christian Wright for Insider

What I’ve found helpful is having a point of view on specific elements, like silhouettes, hems, and color palettes. That way, when somebody starts to poke, you can say why you made a decision.

That’s the artist’s journey of figuring things out. You’re going to get critiques, and it’s still going to sting sometimes when you hear things that you don’t want to hear. But it certainly makes it easier to have a point of view.

What have you learned about balancing your creativity with running a business?

I’ve learned to separate those things. It would be creatively stifling if I went into a work session and tried to be creative and business-minded in the same setting. I creatively explore and let things sit. Then I look at numbers, pricing, and costs and come at everything as if I’m a different person.

What are some goals that you have for yourself in the near future? 

I would love to see my art, prints, and brand in a different medium — maybe footwear or experiential art. Continuing to grow as an artist is something that I’m really excited to do. And then, I’m planning on getting married this year, so I want to just take a moment to have a moment.

Stay tuned for more Black Ensemble stories in the coming months, featuring some of the most important trendsetters in fashion.

Read the original article on Insider

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