Garo Sparo is the celebrated and well-loved fashion and costume designer, creative collaborator, and tightener of corsets around the world.
We talked with Garo about new projects, new technologies, and the new world order.
You’ve been very busy over the past several months! Since the beginning of the pandemic and the shut down of live entertainment, we’ve seen your designs on screen on Lady Gaga, Lizzo, Cardi B, Aquaria…and the list goes on!
GS: It’s been crazy, really exciting. It’s funny, the world has changed so much recently in so many ways. Even before COVID, the fashion industry had been sort of waning, but people will always need to be entertained. So the fact that I work with entertainers, as opposed to strictly working in fashion, has actually made my business thrive during this crazy time. I have always done drag and burlesque; those are my roots, and now with so much inspiration being pulled from burlesque, it’s really bringing burlesque to the forefront and pulling all my worlds together.
How does designing for your music or entertainment clients differ from designing for burlesque?
GS: When I’m designing for my entertainment clients, their costumes are always very specific to that particular moment in their career and the particular vibe of the song and the vibe of the video. They start with a specific concept in mind and the costumes are born from that concept. Like with Lady Gaga for “Rain on Me;” she wanted retro-futurism, so we delivered!
Whereas with burlesque, each burlesque artist that I dress has their own defined style and I tap into that. It’s not just executing a concept, but also all of these beautiful mechanics and trickery to the eye and thinking about how the garments are going to come off. There is a whole procession of beautiful moments where they’re slowly taking something off and really enticing and entertaining the audience.
For a musician or other entertainer, there is usually just one solid look for each shoot or video, and they change their persona pretty quickly from one project to the next. Like Lizzo is all into these big giant collars now, whereas months ago she just wanted to be in little rompers or bikinis. With burlesque artists, it’s more about who they are as a performer overall and riffing in different directions but always staying true to who they are.
Do you have any recent collaborations with burlesque artists that you’re particularly excited about?
GS: (BurlesqueGalaxy.com founder) Angie Pontani, always of course! Eden Berlin came over from Germany a couple years ago and I did some great stuff with her recently. Bryona Ashly, is very sweet and very fun to work with because she has a very specific vision but she lets me put my stamp on it.
Some other recent standouts are Banbury Cross, Jolie Pappillion from London and Dolly Cakes from Australia. I’m definitely enjoying working with a wide variety of amazing artists around the world. And Raquel Reed, I’ve known her since she was 16 years old, but I’m doing my first full blown ensemble for her. I always love working with Gin Minksy and Minxie Mimieux, both incredible.
And of course, there’s invariably something for Amanda LePore, who always tries to incorporate burlesque into her look. She was my first client ever in New York.
How did that come about?
GS: I came to NYC when I was 22 years old, and I was staying at Hotel 17 where she was living at the time. The concierge told her that there was a new designer staying there and I was invited to her room. I made her this pretty iconic leopard bullet bra with panties that she’s been photographed in a million times and we’ve been working together ever since…20 plus years! I don’t even need to fit her any more, she’ll just call and say “I want a velvet middle, and pink mesh on the fingers.” She’s very specific and knows what she wants. She’s a perfect example of defining your persona and sticking to it.
It’s been interesting to see the drag scene grow exponentially over the past several years. What do you think would help elevate the burlesque scene in a similar way?
GS: Other than a really fun TV show like “Ru Paul’s Drag Race”?? I love all my Drag Race clients, and now we have hundreds of drag queens who are actual celebrities with fabulous costumes performing all over the world. That is just a new reality.
A lot of my drag performers like Miz Cracker and Aquaria are inspired by burlesque and moving way towards it, especially Aquaria. I’ve done some amazing looks for her where she is just stripping down piece by piece in a really fun burlesque style performance. It’s funny. I think drag is opening people’s eyes to burlesque.
We need something similar to Drag Race for burlesque. We need a centralized place that celebrates the artists, has great production values, and is accessible to the public. People want to explore the burlesque world, they want to know more about it, and they want to be entertained.
Burlesque has been around forever, but it still hasn’t had its peak. Burlesque hasn’t had its big moment for the world to see it and be dazzled by it. It’s time!
What does the lay person not understand about burlesque costuming?
GS: First, is the huge amount of thought the performer puts into developing their persona and each specific act before they even come to me. I need to take everything they’re about and really understand their persona and their point of view. Only then can we start the actual design process.
The collaboration with the performer is a longer process than you’d think. We sit down, and it’s like ok, what’s the full look? Let’s break it down…what’s coming off first? Second? Third? And how do you want to end up? Are you completely naked? Pasties and a merkin? Do you want to keep your g-string on? It’s all these little questions that help define the cadence of the take off.
I really need to understand the mechanics of the act, so we can use the best and latest and most appropriate materials and techniques. I do use tried and true techniques, but I’m always looking to the future. These costumes are literally built to last decades.
It takes a lot more work than people realize, but I love problem solving. I really work hard with each performer to put our heads together to come up with designs that are both gorgeous and functional!
Have there been new technologies or new fabrics or new processes that have changed your design process with respect to how burlesque costumes come off or what they’re capable of doing?
GS: Absolutely. We’re moving into a realm where there are so many new developments to incorporate into our designs or build on proven techniques. I remember how thrilled I was to discover magician magnets years and years ago! That totally changed my design capabilities. Also, as people in general have gotten more and more into intimates, there are new findings being developed, like new types of closures that can be hidden easily. And embellishments are always evolving, like being light reactive or coming in a finish we’ve never seen before.
There are so many things at our fingertips now in the special effects arena thanks in part to the rise in popularity of CosPlay and “regular” people embracing costumes—it’s really changed the design world. We’re incorporating robotics—like you want your boobs to grow or have glitter shooting out of them? No problem. Or all the new thermalplastics products—if a burlesque artist wants to look like she’s in full armor, you can use thermalplastics and make a full costume that is light as a feather, but looks as heavy as steel. There are things that light up, new wiring and quick release techniques, even pyrotechnics. Definitely a lot more in that department.
As far as fabrics are concerned, they have just exploded. There is a huge selection of new fabrics that can change color in front of your eyes or respond to body heat, and, of course, sparkle. People love sparkle and we need sparkle right now. So, I’m in to bring it!
Is there any problem that you’ve found to be a universal problem for all performers—like something everyone kind of stumbles over?
GS: The universal problem, which isn’t really a problem per se, is that no one wants to be like anyone else. Everyone wants to be original unless they’re emulating and acknowledging a wonderful burlesque performer from the past, and I’m all about that.
So, a common stumbling block is when a performer says, “I want something like hers.” I always have to tell them, “No…that’s hers. You have to figure out your own thing.” I try to steer them in the right direction to come up with their own idea and help them look into their own DNA to find something that is unique to them.
Do you have any tips for new performers with respect to their costuming?
GS: Newbies have so many resources they didn’t have in the early days of the neo-burlesque movement. You have online tutorials on making pasties, tutorials for making a g-string…they should start practicing their embellishments. There are so many ways to create something super embellished— take some beaded lace, cut it into little appliques and place those over existing garments. Get a beautifully cut bra and enhance it. Rig clothes that already exist. There are so many different techniques where you can just take basic clothes and turn them into something dazzling and sparkly. You have to start somewhere;, it doesn’t make sense to come to me out of the gate.
Most importantly, start with a beautiful gown and work really hard on your performance. That’s where it has to start. Work on capturing people with your performance and then go from there. Hopefully your performance will snowball and your costumes can get more and more fabulous as you progress. And I’ll see you when you’re ready!
What else is in the works for you? Burlesque or otherwise?
GS: Keep your eyes peeled for some amazing new looks for Mosh, Raquel Reed, and Lil Miss Lixx. We have some things in the works!
We’re excited about the looks that will be premiering for Lizzo and Daphne Guinness…and a new collaboration with the Haus of Gaga which we should see sometime in the near future! We can’t talk about this too much as it’s top secret.
There is a movement in the entertainment world where it’s definitely being affected by burlesque. I try not to let them in too much because I want my burlesque performers to shine in their unique way. I really try to keep some distinction between the two worlds and just let them influence and inspire each other.
We are working on a children’s show inspired by outrageous insane fashion. Not a sexy corset or bustier or anything, but the kids just love the glitter and the glamour! They’re being brought up with so much amazing stuff around them, drag queens on television, burlesque happening…a feast for the eyes.
I’m really excited about my ready-to-wear collection. We’re doing an amazing fashion film with Slay modeling agency, the world’s first fully trans modeling agency. It’s going to be a capsule collection released around the holidays. It’s called “Mother” and it’s about the beauty of our planet, but it also shows that it’s time to get the point across about what we are doing to our planet in a beautiful way that is not too cliché. We’ll be exploring all of the elements from forest fires to pollution. We’ve all done collections inspired by natured, but I needed to do a collection about how we’re impacting nature.
Keep up to date with how Garo is impacting nature and beyond at:
Garo Sparo (@garosparo) • Instagram photos and videos and About Garo Sparo, and shop his ready-to-wear collection here: https://garosparo.com/wp/