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Garo Sparo's workshop is a cluttered little wonderland. A costumer, couturier and corsetiere; every spare surface in sight is draped with his creations. At the front of the room, a carefully packed box containing every element from wig to wings of the Sparkle Paper Towel Fairy's costume is awaiting shipment to the client. On a nearby rack is a corset he made for Madonna and hanging from the ceiling pipe is a sparkling dinosaur-themed catsuit worn by a competitor in an upcoming episode of RuPaul's Drag Race. For Garo, whose motto with clients is "the answer is always yes," this is just another day at the office.
Raised on Long Island, the craft of tailoring was in his blood. "My mom sewed, my nonni sewed — I'm Sicilian — and it all rubbed off on me. I was the only child allowed in the sewing room, because my mom knew I was really into it," he recalls.
"I actually learned how to sew by sewing hair into my stuffed animals, so I could have male and female hairdos."
Used to an unusual clientele even at a precocious age, his first creations involved styling his teddy bears. "I actually learned how to sew by sewing hair into my stuffed animals, so I could have male and female hairdos." By the time he left for college at UNC, the course had been set. He skipped out a semester shy of graduation when Absolut Vodka offered to sponsor one of his lines.
Garo arrived back in the city in the early-nineties as the rave scene was going full force and every night was a "costume parade." Rather than take the usual route of looking for work at a design house, he set his sights on something more his speed — commercial costuming.
"I also didn't want to be put in ‘the jar' of the fashion industry."
"When I came to New York, it just seemed like a natural fit for me to start doing commercials, because I like to do one-of-a-kind things," he says, "I also didn't want to be put in ‘the jar' of the fashion industry." As it turns out, his club connections gave his career a boost. In particular, nightlife legend Amanda Lepore — who was his first client in Manhattan, and whose positively pneumatic figure is often clad in barely-there dresses and physics-defying lingerie — continues to be one of his most visible billboards. "We treat her like a star, because she is a star, (and) she's my good luck charm. She believed in me when no one even knew me."
Working with curves would come to be his signature. Creating his own corset patterns allows Garo to mold and flatter the bodies of his clients, from socialites to drag queens.
"My favorite body type is a size 10/12. I want to fill a corset."
"I to love manipulate silhouettes; for people to feel embraced by something, and to have an unlimited size range, because anybody can feel beautiful and look beautiful. It's just a matter of sculpting them." The results are creations (in everything from indigo denim to gold lame) that are equal parts fetish, fashion and engineering. It helps that Garo likes a fuller silhouette to begin with. "My favorite body type is a size 10/12. I want to fill a corset."
If you're not born with an hourglass shape, that's okay too—Garo can fit you for what he calls "step-in bodies," designed to make even the most boyish client look like a bombshell. Made from a Spanx-like stretch material, these drag staples give a more natural female form by cinching in the wider parts and adding sewn-in hips, derrieres and boobs. Admittedly the finished product looks a little Silence of the Lambs just swinging from its hanger in the studio, but on a live body the results are astonishing. Plus, the constant presence of body parts also makes for more fun workplace, he explains, "Even if you're stressed out there's always a moment of comic relief, you can be like ‘give me that ass over there, that ass needs a better crack in it.'"
You don't even have to be human to get something fabulous from Garo. If a client wants it, he'll gladly dress dogs, puppets, and strolling tables. "I just didn't ever want to be limited in what I was costuming, whether it was a man, a woman, a drag queen or an animal," he says of his early ambitions. And true to his word, part of a recent workweek had him climbing in and out of adult-sized bowling ball and pin costumes to fit and finish them for an upcoming commercial for the Bowlmor chain. This flexibility and sense of whimsy both fuels his designs and keeps his business going strong by allowing him to keep a wide client base.
"I always wanted to dress Amy Sedaris as Jeri Blank."
It's all a part of his "the answer is always yes" ethos. When asked about his dream customers, he doesn't veer toward supermodels or rock stars. "I love comedians, I love funny ladies," he muses. "I always wanted to dress Amy Sedaris as Jeri Blank (from her TV show Strangers with Candy.)"
As rents rise and other costumers and designers abandon New York for less expensive real estate, Garo remains, since the city itself acts as both business incubator and muse. "Surviving in NY, it's amazing," he says, adding that he actually expanded from a smaller studio down the block a few years ago. "You just have to keep diversifying. You see the trickle up effect so much in fashion and high fashion even. Stuff that was done 15 to 20 years ago is just bubbling up to the top [of the fashion world]." This worldview allows him to create works that are less driven by the whims of trend and give individual attention to clients.
Besides which, he's able to maintain both his bottom line and passion by keeping it lively. He does this by befriending his clients, and by keeping the attitude in his studio more playhouse than House of Chanel. "Our atelier is a clubhouse. In a day we'll see a bride (always a fun bride, if they're coming to me they want something crazy) to a drag queen to a crossdresser to a festishist to just a normal everyday person who wants to have something fabulous... It's just always fun here."
"Our atelier is a clubhouse."
Plus, when the answer is yes, you never know who or what will walk through the door, he says, before summing up his current workload. "Yes, we can make you a shark-slash-bear costume; yes, we're doing a giant glamorous jellyfish look for this photographer in Miami; [and] we do lots of things inspired by spider people." Which, while perhaps a bit odd for the average workplace (even in the fashion world), is just another day at the office for his house of "yes."