Marni’s Francesco Risso Talks Working in a ‘Cave,’ Students’ Limitlessness and Pratt Honor

As living proof that a designer’s grainy dream can be crystallized with a high-flying career, Marni’s creative director Francesco Risso visited Pratt’s Brooklyn campus.

In advance of being honored with the 2024 Pratt Fashion Visionary Award on May 3, the Italian designer reviewed collections from outgoing seniors’ collections — one of whom will received the Christopher Hunte “On Point” Award.

In the past year, Risso has delved into giving back and connecting with students, teachers and institutions, despite having been asked to for a long time. Shortly after meeting with Pratt students for a few hours Friday, he said, “First of all, you find love — a lot of love for the practice, the making, precision and this beautiful balance between creativity and the real world. I would like to work with many of them actually.”

Having studied at  Polimoda in Florence, earned a degree at Fashion Institute of Technology and completed a master’s degree at Central Saint Martins in London, Risso said that one of the most formative stretches was grasping the technical training at FIT. Coming from the art school, he “didn’t really know much about how to make clothes,” despite having made them since he was a 9-year-old. “But that was a different game in terms of draping. That was a lot. I remember the fatigue and it informed me for sure.”

Studying under Louise Wilson at Central Saint Martins was “equally tough, because she was so mean to me. But I treasure that time. She really pushed for each one of us to not necessarily bring the ideas out of fashion itself, but to really dive into exploration, creativity and whatever inspiration you find, and really go through it for more than a month by exploring every corner.”

Whenever Risso gets stuck today, “which is part of the creatures that we are,” he finds exploring more and being more curious “just helps releasing all that tension,” he said.

Marni Fall 2024 Ready-to-Wear Collection at Milan Fashion Week

Marni, fall 2024

Courtesy of Marni

Walking through Pratt’s corridors, Risso was looking for a flashback to his teenage years at FIT but found surprise instead of memory. At 17, he came to New York after the Twin Towers terrorist attack, not knowing what to expect from the city and discovered positivity and endless opportunities. The competitive educational environment and his fluency in English though made him feel excluded, he said.

After being honored by GQ Thursday night and visiting with Pratt students Friday, the 41-year-old talent said, “I have to say these past two days have been the coronation of years of dreams, sacrifices, a lot of work and effort into our little land[scape.] I’m very humbled. I am always on the verge of crying — seriously. I’m not kidding. I feel deeply.”

While some designers take up residency, so to speak, at designer houses for years and subsequently can be defined or stereotyped, Risso has had the agility to start out on his own, before runs at Anna Molinari, Alessandro Dell’Acqua and Malo and prior to landing at Prada for a decade of working women’s runway collections and special projects. In 2016, the cello-playing Risso picked up Marni’s creative mantle. “My individuality and success comes from the daily practice in my cave and with my people. I despise all the other futile, tricky, platforming, kind of fake designer routines. My progress, being and happiness depends on my hands-on practice and my people around me. There is this bigger brain that is made with multiple hands. I do not exist without my people.”

Marni Fall 2024 Ready-to-Wear Collection at Milan Fashion Week

Marni, fall 2024

Courtesy of Marni

His wish not to put a number on the size of the team is more about neutrality and collectiveness. “It’s more about who we are together. The number doesn’t really change. Sometimes you have to do so much work, but the less, the better. I always compare the way we work to an organism. This type of osmosis makes any limits we might have drop.”

In fact his disdain for any trace of isolation and “the outer referential” is so strong that sometimes during meetings, Risso said that he tells his team, “’Please slap me, if I become too outer referential or I go on an ego trip.’”

Francesco Risso

Francesco Risso at Pratt Friday.

Photo Courtesy

Finding inspiration can require drowning out the world. The creative director recently cocooned his team to develop Marni’s latest collection. “Around October, I found myself sinking, mentally sinking, like the world was pushing on my head too much. One day I read this phrase in a book by Virginia Woolf, where she is inviting her friend for a weekend in the countryside. She tells them, ‘Bring no clothes.’ That stayed with me for such a long time. I absorbed it and my brain processed it before I could express it in words. She [may have been] meaning nudity. She meant really come as you are outside of the social structures that society was setting.”

Considering how social barriers apply today, Risso decided to ban images from his design studio. “I was thinking if I see one more pdf or bookmark…we don’t need that. Then we activated this beautiful collective gesture to cancel every reference, even structural references, in our rooms. We covered everything in white paper — from the walls to the ceiling to the windows and the window frames,” he said. “It brought immediately ‘Ahhhh,’ [exhaling deeply] this breath. We thought, ‘Let’s just make.’ That brought a lot of instinct and love for what we do. Even a few days ago, when I was with my kids in the studio, I said, ‘No, we’re not ready for images yet.’”

Well aware how integral social media is to students’ quest for self identity, Risso understands that they need to allow their teachers and friends to understand them with different methods. “But I would say if there is a way to bring them to a state of pause, that’s beautiful, because you can be protected in this type of environment. It’s like a cave, where you can feel grounded and explore honesty through design and what is happening in the world.”

He discussed this a bit with Pratt students, believing creatives could use a reset in that direction. “Sometimes I’m afraid to drop that bomb because that would disrupt the communication between teachers and students. I don’t want to interfere,” Risso said. “But we talked about, when we open our phones we pass by images of war, makeup and cute dogs in the frame of one second. Emotionally, I don’t think we are set to take in so much in such a short amount of time.”

Intrigued by education more than anything else right now, Risso said, ”I’m not saying this because I am here at Pratt. It is my main inspiration and makes me feel grounded. Education is the answer to our future. The objective is not a capitalist behavior but an honesty between professors giving their time and lives to young minds so they can grow. And there’s this respect from the kids for tutors or whoever. This relationship is fascinating because it doesn’t feel corrupted yet [laughs.] I’m sorry if I sound a little too doomsday.”

Part of what he finds so interesting is that fashion and art students are taught exploration versus how to make something that will sell to millions of people. Whereas in business, many are slightly clustered about the financial outcome and the end results, Risso said. “Education inspires me, because it is before that and even before the process [starts.] It’s formative. I hope that young people will inspire us to do better.”

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