With her award-winning MFA collection and hand-illustrated prints, Sicily native Federica di Leo creates thought-provoking garments for which there’s more than meets the eye.
“Like most parents, my mother and father would have prefered that I become a doctor or a lawyer,” says Federica di Leo. Born in Palermo, di Leo moved to Rome to study literature and philosophy at La Sapienza, while satisfying her interest in fashion design with night classes.
She first encountered the word “designer” thanks to a friend’s mother who had had a design career in Spain. Realizing that what her mother had referred to as a “hobby” could actually be a job, she boldly applied to the prestigious MFA program at Antwerp’s Royal Academy, which counts Dries van Noten and Martin Margiela among its alumni and which has proved to be the perfect fit.
Of her work, di Leo says: “I read a lot and see what’s happening in the world and it’s not always positive. And it’s in those moments, when I feel a tinge of pain in my stomach over a particular event, that I feel compelled to channel that sentiment somewhere else.”
Ultimately, that “somewhere else” is di Leo’s clothing collections. The recent grad took home the Flanders Dc/Ua award for her final academic collection entitled “Rita.” “Rita” was di Leo’s tribute to Rita Atria, a young Sicilian girl who made it her mission in the early ‘90s to track down the mafiosi who killed her brother and father and became an asset to the judges overseeing the “Maxiprocesso,” the biggest mafia trial to ever take place in Italy.
In a tragic turn of events, Atria would learn that her late brother and father were also involved in Sicily’s organized crime syndicate. Prominently featured was a silk printed with the Carduus flower, which is native to Palermo and while beautiful, the bloom features thorny spikes and a shocking fuchsia-blue palette. Dramatic headcoverings and stylized sunglasses seemed to call to mind a woman in hiding.
That said, di Leo is careful not to overthink the design process. “At the end of the day a garment needs to be appealing and wearable. It needn’t be so obviously heavy and loaded with political or emotional messages.” Critics may beg to differ after seeing di Leo’s stirring “Lampedusa” printed, which boldly depicts the desperate arms of refugees grasping for safety from the tumultuous sea. “Some people make movies or write books, I choose to make clothes.”
Those prints, as well as the fabrics in di Leo’s masters collection, were manufactured by legendary Como silk mill Ratti, where di Leo completed an apprenticeship and obviously displayed a forte for textile design. Having recently landed a prime gig designing textiles for Prada, we’d say she’s off to quite the start. #watchthisspace