Francesco Clark is really more Italian than American. Although he grew up splitting time between New York and Bologna, where his mother is from, he spent summers visiting his great uncle’s apartment facing Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain, and his partner is from Trento. “It was my first language and first food,” he says. “It’s my second nature now.”
In his 20s, Francesco suffered a terrible accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In the years following, he came to terms with his changed reality and became an entrepreneur who now travels widely for work and leisure. At PRIOR, we wanted to learn about the challenges that face the disabled when traveling and how the travel industry may strive to accommodate all. Now based in Bronxville, a village outside New York City, Clark still travels back to Italy every year—and he knows how to keep his skin looking dewy amidst all the flights and time zones. As the founder of Clark’s Botanicals, a clinically clean skincare line powered by botanicals, he’s got a lifetime supply of jasmine-infused moisturizer.
PRIOR speaks with Clark about why he pivoted from fashion to skincare, what Italy means to him, and what his showoff spots are in his hometown—well, hometowns…both of them.
Why did you start Clark’s Botanicals?
One of the side effects of a spinal cord injury I sustained in my 20s was that my skin stopped sweating. I had a patchy mix of rosacea, acne, and dry, flaky skin, and nothing had been working for me. I turned to my father, who’s a homeopathic doctor as well as a traditional medical doctor, and said, “You have to help me look like myself again.” So, we started to make things at home. I never intended to sell it as a brand, and I came into the process not knowing anything about ingredients or formulating a product, but I love the science behind skincare, and I approached it by reading everything I could find.
It took us three years and 78 different formulations to settle on the right formula. We went through all of these different natural oils and essential extracts that would just make my skin worse. (My father was always clear: Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for your skin.) By chance, I read an article in a nature magazine on the positive effects of jasmine, so we started to look into it. We then went through another round of formulations until we got to what is now the Jasmine Catalyst Complex, which is in all of our products. It made my skin look good again, it made me feel good again, and then I noticed that the 12 glass vials on my desk became 9. Then there were 5 left. My sister was taking them! And then my mom started using it.
Let’s step back a moment. Do you mind sharing the story of your spinal cord injury?
The weekend after I was promoted at Harper’s Bazaar, at 24 years old, I went to Long Island, where I was sharing a summer house with a group of friends. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, and I dove into the pool. I dove because I saw the metal ring ladder that is normally at the deep end of the pool—but as soon as I dove in, I realized that it was the shallow end. My chin slammed into the bottom with such force, it snapped my head back and shattered my C3 and C4 vertebrae.
I had never experienced paralysis, but I had this instinctive understanding of what happened. I knew immediately: “I just broke my neck.” I was face down in the pool, but I never lost consciousness—I could see the little bubbles floating up from my lips—and I had this eerie sense of calm. In the blink of an eye, I saw my entire life, which made me appreciate my life—and how much more I had to live and wanted to live. The thought of my existence becoming a memory of somebody drowning in a pool was just not something that was in my cards. So, when we talk about fight or flight? Fight took over.
Somebody luckily walked out and lifted my head above water and I said, “Call 911. You just saved my life.” Once I got to SUNY Stonybrook in Long Island, the surgeon told me that my left lung collapsed from breathing pool water, I didn’t have the central nervous system functionality to move my arms, I would be intubated for the rest of life, my vocal cords would become paralyzed and I wouldn’t be able to speak. In fact, if I wanted to live, I had to get to surgery immediately.
I was reluctant to call my family, because I felt like I had the word “idiot” stamped on my forehead. I was a Boy Scout growing up; diving into a pool wasn’t a big deal. Now, I couldn’t reach for a glass of water and I was told I wasn’t going to breathe? But, eventually, I called them in Florida, where they were on vacation, and they took the next flight up to New York.
When I woke up from surgery 18 hours later, my mother and father were standing right next to me. The surgeon was telling them the same things he told me, not realizing my father was a medical doctor. When he was finished, my dad said, “I hope you don’t speak to your other patients like this.” Mom turned to me and, in Italian, said “sposta qualcosa,” “move something.” I moved my shoulder. She shot a look back to the surgeon and said, “You don’t know Francesco. You don’t know our son.” That was the first time since being in the pool that I didn’t feel alone, and that’s when my road to recovery started.
Over the next three years, I dealt with the trauma. I felt like the accident created this sense of stress and worry to my family and closest friends and I wanted to be the opposite of a worry, so I focused on physical and occupational therapy. I become robotic: I would shave my head bald every week, I wore the same kind of T-shirt and pants every day. I didn’t care what I looked like, I was just trying to wiggle my toes and move my legs. After a while, I lost my sense of self and my voice, and dealt with a deep and dark depression.
One day, on my way to physical therapy, I heard Barbara Walters announce that Christopher Reeve had passed away. I felt like my superman had just left. He did so much for people with spinal cord injuries—he would testify against Congress, he flew around to meet with doctors, he supported the latest innovative research and engaged in different trials—and, suddenly, he wasn’t there to do that anymore. I would have to do it for myself. Clark’s Botanicals is now a committed donor to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and I’m one of its national ambassadors.
Wow. So, back to the Clark’s. How did you go from homemade products to a full-on brand?
My former boss, Glenda Bailey, then the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, wanted to catch up and have tea. I didn’t have an aid or an assistant at that point, so my sister drove me in. Glenda said, “You look the same, just sitting.” My sister said, “Well, he’s not just sitting. He’s making this with our father,” and handed her the cream.
I was mortified. This was not a brand, not a product that was meant to be sold anywhere. Glenda put it on her face right in front of me, which was very gracious, but I was still embarrassed. A couple weeks later, her assistant called and said they were going to be shooting it in the September issue. I essentially said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then, beauty director Alexandra Parnass got on the phone and said, “Whether or not you make this into a thing, it’s happening. So, we’re going to photograph an ugly glass vial unless you do something.”
That was the genesis for the brand. I had six months to find a factory, make some jars, brand it, trademark it, find another factory to mix the formulations and then, no big deal, find some stores to sell it in. It was incredibly exciting.
How lucky to have that support from the fashion world.
That was a surprise. I was a guy in a wheelchair talking about skincare, and the fashion and industry was incredibly supportive. This seemingly frivolous industry actually has a lot of energy and depth to it—and a lot of inclusivity to the images that they show. It was an eye-opening experience.
From what I understand, you’re an avid traveler, and you often travel to Italy. What does that country mean to you?
Italy means history, culture, and respect. Walking around Bologna, you could see a library that’s hundreds of years older than the United States—and it’s still being used. That commands a sense of respect for culture and for what it means to be a society that is that old. “Why is this chunk of the building missing? Oh, that was a bombing from the World War.” You have this sense of enormity, and you feel so small when you’re thinking of all those people who stood in that exact spot at different points in history. And Italy is deeply rooted in this history while also maintaining a sense of joy and openness and enthusiasm.
I had such a sense of joy of being with my grandmother and my great aunts, going to Dolomites and walking close to Austria. That’s when I started understanding what it meant to be on the border of a number of countries, and to have respect for other cultures, as well. There are nuances to that area of Europe.
Talk to me about your approach to travel today: How do you plan? What questions are you thinking about ahead of time? What would you want others to know?
First and foremost: A direct flight makes things so much easier. I tend to shy away from remote locations that require connections.
When hotels say that they’re accessible. It’s like oh yeah but only three steps, after you’re there.
Accessibility means different things in different places—for some hotels, it’s once you’re inside the building, past the front steps—so you have to do a bit of research. I would just call the hotel directly and ask. They’re usually very respectful and amenable.
Then, I like to put the people I travel with at ease by not only, say, setting up my own taxi service with a ramp, but giving them a list of accessible taxis and other information. Whenever my mother or sister feel nervous about something, they can look at that sheet of paper. England is a wonderful experience because all of their cabs are accessible. Whenever you want a ride, you have a ride.
Did COVID-19 affect any travel plans?
I planned to go to Europe in January or February, so that will have to wait a little longer, but I think because I’ve adapted myself so much since navigating life through a different lens, it’s not such a disaster for me. I’ll be able to go on a trip soon enough, and when I do, it won’t be the same—but for me, it’s never really been the same.
We’ll still experience life, and we’ll still get to do the things we wanted to do before, just in a different way. I’m okay with that.
What skincare product should any smart traveler pack?
A multi-use moisturizer like our Jasmine Vital Cream. Sometimes you have no more than five minutes to get ready, and you need something versatile. This takes redness away, fights wrinkles but is clean and natural, and smells like vacation.
Where will your next vacation be?
The thing you can’t travel without?
The Mophie external battery and my iPad.
When were you happiest while traveling?
On the flight, thinking about what I’m about to do. In the taxi on the way to wherever we’re staying, looking at different parts of a city. In the Dolomites, driving between two mountain ridges and seeing how magnificent nature is.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be?
The Baglioni in Venice.
The place/trip that challenged you most?
Getting experimental stem cell surgery in Beijing. It was a different experience than I ever would have had there because I wasn’t staying in a nice hotel; I was in a hospital trying to communicate with nurses and doctors. Even though I don’t speak Mandarin, it was incredible to see how welcoming they were there. And it was interesting to engage with other patients who had come there from around the world, all with the intention of wanting to improve and get better.
What is your room service indulgence?
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
Outside of Philadelphia in a random hotel because I was going on air with QVC the next day. Oh wait! No, I think it was when we were on a camping trip near Baltimore. We spent the night right next to a cemetery.
What is your favorite market in the world?
I like all the outdoor markets in Bologna. Everything is so fresh and artisanal. My favorite things there aren’t fancy: A cream-filled bomboloni. All fresh.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
In New York, the Met, which feels otherworldly.
In Bologna, the covered walkways. They’re from the Middle Ages—everything is so incredibly historical—and there are frescoes painted everywhere. It could be raining or snowing and you could still walk the entire city.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
The Renaissance in Florence.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year and why?
Weekend: London. I’ve already been there; it’s become very second nature and I love it.
Week: Japan. I’ve never been, and I think I’d need more than a weekend to understand it.
Month: Northern Europe, around Hungary, Germany, and Croatia. They’re so different and so close to each other.
Year: I think I would split my time between Puglia, in the south of Italy, and Florence.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Florence! Bologna is 45 minutes away; it’s silly that I haven’t been yet.
Julia Bainbridge is an editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit, and a James Beard Award-nominated writer whose stories have been published in Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others. After building a career around why and how people gather, Bainbridge pivoted into why people don’t, launching The Lonely Hour podcast to explore social disconnection and other forms of loneliness. In the years since, the show has been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Women’s Health, Bloomberg, the BBC, NPR, Calm, and more.