Earlier this week, I went to the launch of the poignant memoir Walking Papers: The Accident That Changed My Life, and the Business That Got Me Back on My Feet (Hyperion) by Francesco Clark. That's the author, above center, with the event's co-hosts (from left: Narciso Rodriguez, Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey, Mary Alice Stephenson, Maggie Rizer, and president of Hyperion Publishing Ellen Archer). I met Francesco back in 2001 when we were both working as assistants at Harper's Bazaar—he in the fashion department, I in beauty. Fran was this boisterous, animated kid with a crackerjack sense of humor. Everyone from the editor-in-chief to the receptionist adored him—his energy and positivity was contagious. Then, over Memorial Day weekend in 2002, Francesco accidentally dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and suffered a crippling spinal cord injury. At the hospital, doctors told him it was unlikely he'd survive the night, and if he did make it, he'd be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life, unable to breathe on his own without a ventilator.
Eight years later, Francesco not only breathes on his own, but has regained significant use of his upper body. That alone is a remarkable achievement, but when you consider he's done it while also founding a skincare line, Clark's Botanicals, serving as National Ambassador for The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and releasing his first book (a second one is already in the works), it's a testament to just how animated he still is today. I spoke with Francesco about how he rediscovered the beauty in life.
Where did you find the strength after your accident to start your own business? "The day Christopher Reeve passed away in 2004 was a turning point in my life. Up until then, I hadn't looked in a mirror in the three years since my accident. I was holed up at home, not seeing anyone. For a guy who'd worked in fashion, to suddenly no longer care about how I looked was a major change in my personality. But that began to turn around after Christopher died. He was an advocdate not just for the handicapped, but for anyone who wanted to take control of his or her life. When he passed away, I realized I was relying on his strength to keep me going—I wasn’t do anything to be part of the cure. So I decided to take control of my life again, become an advocate, and become part of the cure."How did starting a beauty company help you achieve that? "My spinal cord injury disrupted my skin's ability to sweat properly, so I developed acne, rosacea, dryness—basically anything that could go wrong with my skin went wrong. I tried a lot of different skincare products, but nothing worked. My father is a doctor trained in homeopathic remedies, so he and I started trying different essential oils on my skin. I discovered that jasmine absolute worked wonders, and that led to the creation of Clark's Botanicals. It wasn't meant to be a business venture—I just wanted to look good again!"How did working on your skincare line help you during your recovery? "When I first started developing the line, I was doing six hours of therapy a day and was in a hospital another three hours a day surrounded by other injured people. It wasn't emotionally connected to life outside my injury. Starting my own skincare line made me excited about life again—it not only gave me the creativity I yearned for, but also the drive to do more. A portion of the proceeds from all of our sales benefit The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, so the more the line grows, the more it gives back to the organization that's fighting for a cure. The line is one of the main reasons I became physically and emotionally stronger."And they say beauty is only skin deep! Do you feel as though you're helping change people's perception of beauty? "Many people think of the beauty and fashion industries as shallow. But for me, it was rehabilitative. It brought back a sense of life. And the people I've worked with along the way, such as Peter Som, Narciso Rodriguez, and Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra [of Costello Tagliapietra], have gone above and beyond in their support of my cause. The Costello boys are doing a QVC collection soon and all of the proceeds are going to The Christopher & Reeve Foundation. People in this industry are so much more curious and caring than they're often given credit for."Would you ever consider doing a line of cosmetics? "We are doing one! We’re working on a concealer that also a skin treatment. Our full cosmetics line should be out next year, along with an all-natural perfume. My philosophy is, 'If you're not going to do something now, then don’t bother doing it all.'"Walking Papers: The Accident That Changed My Life, and the Business That Got Me Back on My Feetis available in bookstores now.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLARK'S BOTANICALS