Style + Society

The Woman Who Dresses Society

Since opening her eponymous specialty store in 1975, Marissa Hartington has been the main style resource for Southwest Florida's chicest ladies. In a conversation with longtime client and girl-about-town Jennifer Parisi, the founder of Marissa Collections opens up about her outsized, fashionable life.

BY January 27, 2020
Marissa Hartington outside her store in Naples. Hair and makeup: Dani Taverna. Hartington wears a Peter Pilotto Metallic Jersey Dress, Silvia Furmanovich Botanical Orchid Earrings, Sidney Garber Rolling Bracelets, David Webb Single Horse Head Bracelet (in blue enamel with emeralds and diamonds) and Manolo Blahnik BB Pumps. (Photography by Anna Gunselman)

“Marissa Hartington has forever influenced how local women adorn themselves. She’s revolutionized fashion in the area with a savviness that transcends the signature pink walls of Marissa Collections. My first real encounter with Marissa was 11 years ago when I signed up to co-chair my first philanthropic, black-tie event in Naples and went to the store for guidance on wardrobe. I was standing there in the ivory taffeta ball gown we’d just selected, surrounded by her smiling staff. My look was still missing an elemental piece: jewelry. 

Marissa entered the room, studied me, and asked a member of her team to retrieve a particular necklace. As quickly as she placed it around my neck, she removed it, stating, ‘That’s not it, it’s too much.’ She dismantled the necklace, taking the large turquoise gemstone off the chain, and asked a staff member to retrieve something that ‘looks like golden leather shoelaces’ from the stockroom. I looked at Marissa with bewilderment, as she confidently beamed at me. 

The Marissa Collections founder in her Third Street South store.

The associate returned. Marissa took the chord and threaded the stone through, wrapped it around my neck twice, and tied into a tiny bow on the side. ‘That’s it right there—there you go,’ she announced and then promptly left. I stood in front of the mirror, perplexed and laughing. She took a risk—as Marissa usually does—and it was perfection. More than a decade later, my ‘custom’ necklace is still one of my most cherished pieces. It’s her ingenuity and confidence that inspires clients’ trust. 

When she first opened the boutique, and for years, she was the only game in town. Now, we may have other incredible shops to pull from when dressing for special occasions, but her store remains at the top. Recently, when I sat down with Marissa to talk about her trajectory, I shared the story about the necklace. Not only did she recall the exact moment, she thanked me, teary-eyed, saying: ‘Those are the things I want people to remember … Forty five years later, I still feel the same way I did when I started.’ The many anecdotes like mine—and there are many—motivate her to keep working and innovating. As we talked, I learned that it’s not just her boundless creativity or even the beautiful clothes that drive the Marissa brand, but the heart of the woman behind it.”
—Jennifer Parisi

JP: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get to Naples?

MH: My friend from Saratoga Springs had a home here, and she invited me to come visit. We were young, reckless and drove almost two days straight. I’ll never forget driving up to Broad Avenue beach and totally falling in love. The perfect white sand, the beautiful blue sky. And I just said, “This is my place.” And that was the beginning. It all starts with a dream. Since I was a teenager, living in communist Poland, I dreamed of coming to the United States.

Inside the specialty store, elegantly stocked with limited-run pieces from coveted designers.

JP: Your husband, Burt, mentioned that you showed up here with only a pink suitcase…

MH: I came from Poland via Germany to Denver, and, yes, I arrived with a little pink suitcase. It wasn’t a matter of choice, it was the only suitcase available in Poland in 1972. But I happen to like the color pink. When I saw this building, I thought it was a very beautiful sun-kissed color, like the tropics. We adopted pink as the brand color with our pink van, which delivers to customers; the pink building; and the pink bus.

JP: What was happening in Naples’ shopping scene when you arrived?

MH: At the time, in 1974, the clothes were very traditional, and everything was polyester. My friend, who I moved here with, and I decided to open a boutique. We had very little money, and we chose a location on U.S. 41 North across from Seventh Avenue. Everything we carried was white or cream in tropical fabrics—white linen, white cotton. These were very different concepts  here at the time, and people loved it. The store became an instant success.

A Brunello Cucinelli jewelry display.

JP: I moved to Naples in 2007, and I remember my mother saying to me, “We’ve got to go in this store. Wait ’til you see everything that’s in there, you’re going to go nuts.” I walked in and saw the Oscar, Pucci, Cavalli, Michael Kors. Did you start out with big-name designers?

MH: Not at all. In the beginning, it was boutique-style clothing. The most expensive dress was $100—and I was a nervous wreck bringing in a dress at that price. The store evolved as American fashion evolved. The ’80s brought the birth of American sportswear. Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis emerged. Gradually, I introduced designers that hadn’t been here; I literally brought the fashion to Naples. In the ’90s, I brought my Europeans: Valentino, Gucci, Prada—all those brands. It was a slow progress, it didn’t happen overnight.

JP: I heard a story that Michael Kors crashed on your couch…   

MH: Yes, it’s true, he was about 23 years old. And he was this young, funny, vibrant and very talented guy. We used to do fashion shows at the store for him. I’d sit on a high stool. Michael would tell jokes—he is very funny. We’re still friends. Same with Oscar de la Renta, who came for several charity events for Naples Botanical Garden, David Lawrence Center and Seacrest.

JP: We have a ton of philanthropic events and most tend to be themed. I kind of see it like a Halloween of fashion. Has it been that way as long as you’ve been here?

MH: More so now, but there are so many wonderful events in this charitable town, and people use fashion as a creative outlet—it’s like living a fantasy for one evening.

JP: What’s the secret to getting noticed in a sea of elegant people at big galas and parties?

MH: Wear white—you will always stand out.

JP: I always appreciate how honest and direct you and your staff are. You don’t placate people or tell them what they want to hear. The worst thing is when someone says, “Oh, that looks great on you” when we all know it doesn’t.

MH: You don’t build trust with people if you’re not honest with them. You have to tell them the truth. That’s the only way.

Azeeza dresses at Marissa Collections.

JP: I also love to see your son, Jay, is involved now. I worked with my dad for many years. Did Jay fall into the business naturally?

MH: I was surprised because Jay graduated with honors in business and worked at Bank of America in New York. But he has natural instincts for this. It’s not the same store since he got involved. He took risks I was never willing to take, like starting this jewelry business, which is fantastic. It’s not easy to change your way of thinking or to give things over to the younger generation, but I keep repeating to myself and to my husband, “We need to let Jay fly.”

JP: He’s taken the lead, but you’re still very involved, right?

MH: I don’t work any different than when I started. I’m still here every day unless I’m traveling. I want to meet my clients and understand their needs. That takes time and dedication. Some people reach the top of the mountain and want to pull back. To me, this is my life.

JP: Do you feel Naples fashion has evolved in the past five decades?

MH: For sure. In the ’70s and ’80s, the only upscale neighborhoods were Port Royal and Park Shore. Country club ladies dressed elegantly—even for lunch. Picture  Slim Aarons’ photographs. Fashion has gotten more casual, overall, but women here still know how to take care of themselves. There’s  a casual element because of where we live, but Naples is super current. There’s a charm to how women dress here.

JP: What’s makes you happiest as you reflect on 45 years of the store?

MH: I saw this town go from being practically a village on the sea to this blossoming community, and we grew together. I’m so grateful for how it all developed—our business, but also the community and the people who put so much love into it—from the philharmonic to the botanical gardens, the zoo, the children’s museum. The new Baker Park is fantastic. I love Naples. This is my home.

Photography by Anna Gunselman

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