Skip to main content

Bonita & Estero Magazine

Fit for Fashion, Ready for Life: Five Designers Leave Their Mark on SW Florida

Aug 28, 2017 02:32PM ● By Kevin


True artists know if something is within the realm of possibility, it can be accomplished. That said, Mariapia Malerba is an artist’s artist. She’s a petite powerhouse of visual brilliance.
Malerba grew up along the Salento peninsula in Italy, an idyllic landscape for one born to create. She graduated from a fine art institute and worked near Milan for a decade, then returned to Salento to continue working in textile design. After marrying and having her son, Giulio, she and her family moved to the United States in 2009.

 “I came here not speaking the language,” she explains. “I was 43, and it took me a couple of years to start communicating decently. But my son was 9, and three months later he was fluent in English.” The marriage didn’t last the transcontinental strain, and her husband went back to Italy. Cape Coral-based Malerba says she did everything she could to support her son and herself, including designing ballroom dance costumes. In that shop, she met her future husband.

The language barrier could have cost her a design opportunity with Chico’s White House Black Market division, but her work spoke volumes. Malerba says she told her future employer: “I have something to show, not to say. Let me show you my portfolio.” Her designs graced the corporate brand for three years, until January 2017. Not one to close doors, she says, “There may be something there in the future.”

Now she’s thrown herself into fiber art, creating couture that, if not practical for everyday use, makes daring presentations on stage. Malerba is also working on commissioned projects and a major fashion event at the Naples Art Association set for late November. “Life of an artist can be very tough,” she adds. “You must concentrate 100 percent. Even for a person who has painted all her life, techniques can be difficult to achieve. The creative mind never sleeps.”


With a background in engineering and quality assurance, Lissa Schuessler of Naples isn’t your average couture designer. But her passion for fashion drove her to develop the 724 line of resort wear that “marries the highest levels of quality with meticulous design.”

It was launched in 2015 when a friend’s daughter passed away and Schuessler started 724 to help the family pay medical bills. She had a dedicated following and kept the line going. The fabric, 97 percent viscose and 3 percent spandex, renders a soft, lightweight jersey feel. It doesn’t pill, even following Schuessler’s harsh test-treatments in high heat (which 724 doesn’t recommend) and hundreds of days of use. Not only is the 724 line easy to wear and wash, it’s ideal for travel and layering for every season of the year.

Skirts, tops and dresses can be dressed up or down. “You can wear it on the beach and then out to dinner with crystal heels,” Schuessler says. Versatility and durability is the name of 724’s game. Donned by 19-to-22-year-old models in Miami fashion shows, the garments’ most ardent followers are women ages 55 to 60.

The pieces are lined so they are form-fitting “like a bodysuit on the inside and ruched on the outside,” Schuessler explains. “Ruching allows for the fabric to glide over areas and camouflage the belly area, if needed. It is a look that is sophisticated and flattering on any body type. The high-waist design of my skirt allows the hourglass shape to be emphasized while smoothing out the curves.”


She taught herself to sew at age 7 and knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. She studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, and in her last semester, Gwendolyn Gleason earned the opportunity to design and create a dress and a three-piece suit for the critical eye of Giorgio Sant’Angelo.

Gleason designed tennis and golf attire for Ultrasport in Westchester, New York. Using her couture heritage as inspiration, her sporty designs were beyond ordinary. A best-selling warm-up suit featured tuxedo-shirt pleating. “They sold a million of that design,” she says.
She designed for the Pierre Cardin label, opened an Australian couture shop in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, and worked as a consultant in Italy, England and Berlin. But when her father became ill in the late 1990s, she moved to Southwest Florida to care for him. Here, she launched her own line, from small jackets to evening gowns, hats and custom couture for individual clients and the luxury boutique Marissa.

Most of her commissions these days are by referral, but there’s an emerging aspect to her work. Gleason’s creations employ organic, sustainable fabrics that breathe in the Florida heat. She’s expanding her brand by making more casual attire, such as “beach cover-ups, wraps and tunics made from beautiful cottons and linens from India.”

Gleason hopes to host retreats to India, where she’ll share her experiences of the land and her work with design techniques that go back thousands of years. “When you’re on a journey of creativity, you expand your level of consciousness,” she says of putting her own stamp on those timeless Indian designs.


Who would guess that a girl who grew up on an Iowa farm and now lives in a vintage Fort Myers home would have led a life of glitz and glamor in between? Lia Martino spent her formative years traveling the world modeling for and designing with the likes of Chanel, Armani, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. Today, she defines herself as an artist, designer, model and mom of college freshman Dillon—but not in that order. “My son is my greatest work of art,” she says.

At 16, Martino was a Chanel model, launched into the international world of fashion. Recognizing her seemingly limitless creativity, Chanel and other illustrious designers commissioned her to create paintings, paint on fabric, serve as a fit model and walk the most celebrated runways. “They’d take me on buying trips. At a very young age, I was helping design major fashions.”

Martino fell in love with a designer in Italy. The couple moved to Beverly Hills, California, produced Dillon—and a clothing line named after the baby. A decade later, she and Dillon moved to Southwest Florida to be near her parents. They are “perfect people,” she says. “I wanted Dillon to be around that.” Martino started designing for Chico’s and caught the attention of then-CEO Cinny Murray, who championed her art and continues to be a best friend and mentor.

Now she’s ready to partner in launching her own line, tentatively called Lia. “We did a little test and it exploded,” she says. Martino was immediately approached by three “big names” for a buyout. But, she explains, “I’ve been getting ready for this my whole life. I want to focus on my own thing.” To take the new venture to an international level “it has to be done right,” she adds. “I can’t do everything. It’s going to take a village. I’m getting all the right people involved. … As long as it’s artistic and I’m dealing with good people, I know it’s going to be good.”


She began sewing and creating clothing at age 9, which led to sketching and painting, and transferring those works onto her textile creations. Life in New York’s fashion district inspired Helen Gerro to develop her own line and take it to market from beginning to end.
“It’s a celebration of women,” she explains. “I’m inspired by being a woman and project that into my artwork. There are so many ways to capture a woman: face, body, clothing—I like taking the variations to an extreme. It has become my signature look. People can recognize a piece of Gerro artwork.”

The one-of-a-kind pieces “are an extension of me,” she says. She occupies space in the Artisan’s Atelier in Punta Gorda, where visitors can watch the artist create, and perhaps select a custom design that’s ready to wear. Gerro has a collection of 150 of her own dresses, all one-of-a-kind and hand-painted. “I would love to find a gallery or a museum for a showcase, exhibiting them on fit forms.”

Gerro’s wearable fashion art has been sold in department stores such as Nordstrom’s, Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field’s, and also in elite boutiques. “My paintings evolved from my fashion sketches, and those paintings are expressed on fabric,” she adds.
Her commissioned work led to Kelsey Craft wearing a Gerro bustier dress accented with Swarovski crystals and a skirt of fabric flames. In it, Craft competed for the title of 2017 Miss Florida International. And she won.

This year, Gerro had select art digitally imaged onto fabrics for headbands, sundresses, T-shirts, bandanas and other items. In May, she attended the International Licensing Expo in Las Vegas. Expo officials “were pretty excited about my work on textiles,” she says. “Not just apparel, but wine bottles, books—anything!”

Written by freelance writer Kathy Grey, a frequent contributor to TOTI Media.



Home base: Cape Coral, Florida


Home base: Naples, Florida
Instagram: @724official
Twitter: @724_llc


Home base: Naples, Florida
Telephone: 413-374-1787


Home base: Fort Myers, Florida


Home base: Artisan’s Atelier
117 Herald Court Centre
Punta Gorda, Florida  33950