For corset designer, ties to neighborhood run deep
BY BOB KRASNER | By his own admission, clothing designer Garo Sparo doesn’t leave the East Village for weeks at a time. He and his partner live a block away from his studio. They have a cat, two whippets and a Maltese named Monty, who comes to work with Sparo on the block where he’s had his headquarters for the last 10 years.
Sparo considers his staff his friends. His customers are a revolving door of inspiration. In fact, the whole neighborhood is inspirational.
“This is one of the last real neighborhoods,” he said. “I try to do a 360-degree spin every day and take in everything. This is the only place that I want to live in New York.”
He finds that the customers who visit his appointment-only atelier, at 367 E. 10th St., spur his creativity almost immediately. One of his most frequent customers is the transgendered darling Amanda Lepore, who was the first person to ever buy anything from Sparo, back when he was “a kid.”
“She is our favorite — a ray of sunshine,” Garo said.
The designer, recently the focus of the Sundance Channel’s reality series “Unleashed by Garo,” shines a bit himself. He’s a guy who believes that “it takes less energy to be nice than to be mean,” and has a refreshing attitude toward the fashion industry. He’s had investors and collections and retail stores. But the politics and “pay to play” attitude of the business turned him off and landed the 38-year-old designer in a place that suits him well.
He began sketching ideas when he was 6 years old with a slightly different name in Bay Shore, Long Island. He designed his first dress at 16. A brief detour saw him studying meteorology in college. But after a year, he switched to textile design and started putting on fashion shows in local clubs in Greensboro, North Carolina. Now, in the words of devoted client Tanya Gagné of The Wau Wau Sisters, Sparo “creates a decadent, gorgeous and playful world that we can all look, and be, fabulous in.”
And he doesn’t just want to make skinny models look fantastic.
“What I find appalling is that 8 is considered a plus size,” he stated. “We embrace every size — everyone should look fabulous.” And one will find all sorts of things to look wonderful in.
Sparo frequently creates day- and eveningwear for style icon Daphne Guinness. He fashions risqué costumes for many of the city’s burlesque performers, such as Angie Pontani and The World Famous *BOB*. He makes everything from corsets to formalwear to bridal gowns, with prices ranging from $250 (ready-made corset) to $30,000 (a custom wedding dress worn at a Vatican City ceremony).
Sparo admits to an obsession with corsetry, because he likes to manipulate people’s forms, but in a way that embraces and empowers the wearer. When a client comes in to discuss a custom-made design, Sparo begins to find out who that person is, chatting in the warm environment of the showroom and becoming a bit of a therapist along the way. He begins sketching almost immediately, starting a process that has resulted in fabrications that have been worn by Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Chaka Khan and half the drag queens in New York, among others. Of the early days of working with the drag queens, Sparo noted, “It was like boot camp. If you can make a drag queen happy, you can make anyone happy.”
Part of the approach toward satisfaction is a particularly non-diva attitude that results in a collaboration between the artist and client. Sparo claims never to have designed anything that was rejected by a client, and he loves to see people “beaming” when they wear his clothes.
Currently in progress in the back room — “where all the action is,” he noted — are the costumes for the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Tempest.” His studio, which employs between 10 to 15 workers, is “bringing to life” the designs of Kym Barrett, a prospect that may actually entice us to go to the opera.
Sparo is very happy with his current clientele, many of whom come from all over the country. But when pressed, he will admit to hoping for one person in particular to visit him at his location off Avenue B.
“Grace Jones,” he said. “I’ve loved her since I was a kid. She is an inspiration to everyone who wants to push the envelope. I would kill to design for her.”
When Sparo does actually leave the community, he heads for his house in the Catskills, his “Shangri-La,” as he puts it, where he goes to unwind after weeks of working “insane hours.” But there’s no question that he’ll be back.
“What the East Village is about is doing your own thing,” he said. “And here I am, doing what I always dreamt of.”