For Designer Donna Ricco, Milwaukee Is In Fashion Again

Jun 25, 2018

Donna Ricco, the noted fashion designer, is returning home.  More specifically, Ricco is coming back to Milwaukee - at least on a regular basis - to her alma mater, Mount Mary University, where she will serve as an Executive Fellow in the Fashion Department.  The new position will have her teaching and mentoring students interested in pursuing careers in fashion. 

Ricco's creativity and passion for art and fashion began at a young age. Throughout her childhood, Ricco recalls exploring her creativity - seeking out art classes in school. Enrolling in the fine arts program at UWM, Ricco says she loved learning about drawing, graphic design, and painting. She also loved to sew, though, and yearned to combine her burgeoning interests. "I realized that maybe I could combine my two loves," says Ricco. 

So, after two years at UWM, she transferred to the fashion design program at Mount Mary, a decision which shaped her professional career, although she didn't know it at the time. "I didn't realize what I wanted at that point. As a local girl, I thought, well, maybe I'll have a dress shop and make clothes for people here in Milwaukee. I didn't have any plans to leave."

The exposure she received at Mt. Mary to industry professionals in fashion hubs like New York encouraged her to expand her horizons, though. When she traveled to New York to receive an award for a national design competition, Ricco embraced the opportunity, scheduling interviews with designers; she returned to Milwaukee with her sights set on New York.   

Starting her dress company, though, came only through that familiar recipe of entrepreneurial spirit, talent, and a little bit of luck. Ricco's cousin owned an art gallery in New York, she says, and he would invite her to openings. She would wear her own dresses to the events, piquing the interest of the gallery's clients, who would then ask for her dresses. Ricco acknowledges "it was serendipitous that I could promote my talent by wearing it." 

There's no substitute for hard work, though. "It's more than just an idea. You can have a great idea," Ricco says, but entrepreneurship requires "the ability to put the time and the effort and the resilience to make it through the times of failure." 

"I think it's all about having that idea you believe in and that's different than what the next person is doing."

As interest grew in her dresses, she was able to move from sewing them herself to hiring workers and eventually expanding production into a factory. Her dresses gained popularity, even attracting fans the likes of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Fashion designer Donna Ricco.
Credit Mount Mary University

In an age without internet and social media, Ricco says breaking into the New York fashion scene from Milwaukee seemed daunting. Although her road to fashion success required resilience and a leap of faith, she believes opportunities for students from places like Milwaukee, or anywhere around the world, are much more open than they have ever been. "Provided they have the spirit and the talent and the idea," Ricco says, "I think it’s all about having that idea you believe in and that’s different than what the next person is doing."

When Mount Mary consulted her as an alumnae in their search for a chair position at the University, hoping to tap into her fashion network, Ricco realized she wanted to work with the University herself. When she handed over the reins of her dress company four years ago, Ricco says, "I realized that I still loved to follow fashion and I read about fashion everyday." Returning to her alma mater as the Executive Fellow in the Fashion Department affords Ricco the opportunity to offer her expertise to students while continuing to live in New York.