In the seventies, when he was growing up in the infamous Fort Apache section of the South Bronx, costume designer Emilio Sosa used to stare out the sixth-floor window of the small room he shared with his two brothers and grandmother. In the foreground was the street, Fox Street, a main marching ground for murderous street gangs like the Savage Skulls, the Mongols, and the Reapers back when the horizon was filled with smoke from the 12,000 or so arson fires a year. Past Fox Street and the mind-numbing whine of the Bruckner Expressway was Rikers Island, a mile out into the East River, next stop for many of the Fox Street boys. Beyond Rikers was La Guardia Airport, where great silver planes disappeared into the clouds, to parts unknown.
"It was right out there, freedom and incarceration, two ways it could go," says Emilio, now 36. "All I knew was I had to get out of the Bronx."
Arriving here from the Dominican Republic at age 3, growing up as one more Fox Street kid who took his first Communion from Father Louis Gigante, brother of Vincent the Chin, Emilio did get out of the Bronx, sort of. Riding an indefatigable font of immigrant zeal, an endearingly offhand self-presentation, and an acute sense of where street culture meets the high tone, Sosa has become one of the hottest and most eclectic costume designers in town. His work can be seen in such far-flung venues as MTV, Lincoln Center, Clearasil and State Farm commercials, Spike Lee movies (Bamboozled most recently), and the Broadway hit Topdog/Underdog. As Jeffrey Wright, the Tony-nominated star of Topdog, says, "Emilio, he's a natural. These drawers he picks fit like a glove."
It has been that way since Sosa snuck out of the neighborhood to the High School of Art and Design and then Pratt, winding up as personal dresser for Judith Jameson and apprentice costume-maker for the Alvin Ailey group, a gig that would take him to Taiwan, Malaysia, and Japan, places La Guardia planes do not fly to.
Still, Emilio comes back to Fox Street. His parents live in the same apartment house where his father worked as the super and handyman for more than two decades. Since his mom and dad have nineteen brothers and sisters between them and everyone's close, just walking down Fox Street can take hours, what with 50 different cousins hanging out their windows screaming hello. Besides, the neighborhood functions as a muse for Emilio, who used to walk up the hill on Prospect Avenue where the landscape of bombed-out, abandoned buildings stretched for miles. "The exteriors were gone on the buildings," Emilio recalls. You could see how people painted their apartments. "It taught me a lot about how to mix colors."
The old neighborhood was full of personal pain, too, Emilio says, looking at himself as an apprehensive 12-year-old in a picture of the Revista Temas Little League team, hung on a wall of the Sosa house. "Baseball is like religion with Dominicans, you know," Emilio says, "especially with my dad. He was the coach, and I, like, suck. Everyone knew I'd rather be in my room, drawing. That we were both called Emilio Sosa only compounded that shit."
It was his mother, a tiny, bright-eyed woman who has just retired after 30 years on the clock at a plastics factory, who saved him, Emilio says. "There'd be guys in the lobby with cans of gasoline telling her, 'Don't worry, honey, this is for the building around the corner, not this one,' and she's signing me up for the Cub Scouts so everything can seem normal. I was the youngest damn Cub Scout in the history of the South Bronx. Forget baseball, she said: 'You want to be an artist, be an artist.' "
However, it was Emilio's dad who became his fashion avatar, even if the old man didn't know it then. "He grew up hard, working in the sugar mills, but he loved his '68 Caprice Classic and was the sharpest dresser around," Emilio says.
"We were the same size, we still are," Emilio says. "I'd go into his closet, take the fabulous stuff. Then I'd sneak it back in. He'd never know. With Dad's shit on, I'd go downtown and nobody could touch me."
"Got to hustle," Emilio says, knifing his lithe body with sure-foot New Yorkboy panache through the crowd to the N train. Today has been tight, lots of clients, lots of calls. First stop was the dry cleaner, to pick up 50 shirts for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Emilio is the band's "image consultant," picking out the group's shirts, ties, and suits. "They were in these dull things, gray businessman suits. I've got them working with a bigger palette," Emilio says, noting that all choices are subject to band leader Wynton Marsalis's approval. This is cool, since Emilio and Wynton are tight sartorially and spiritually, except for Sosa's abhorrence of that "crazy quarter-inch of shirt" that Marsalis insists on allowing to protrude beyond the sleeve of his jacket.
This done, Emilio is on his way to the New York City Ballet, where he is an artist-in-residence. Peter Martins, the director, is working out a new dance, and the costuming gig is up for grabs. Emilio has done dozens of dance wardrobes, including his slinky nostalgia-cum-sci-fi ensemble for the Ballet Hispanico's Club Havana. But classical ballet is a whole other deal. Looking for an edge, he sits with Holly Hynes, head of the ballet's costume department and one of Emilio's many mentors, leafing through drawings of outfits once worn by Darci Kistler and Jock Soto to see what Martins has used before. "Just remember," Hynes says, "no yellow. Peter hates yellow."
After a cell-phone conversation about a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, which Emilio admits he hasn't "exactly" read (he is relieved to hear Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters is a little like it), Emilio arrives for a rehearsal for Suzan-Lori Parks's soon-to-be-Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog. Before the show opened downtown at the Public Theater, Emilio, out of the blue, sent some drawings to director George Wolfe, including a note saying no designer understood Parks's ghetto sibling rivalry the way he did. Three weeks later, Wolfe offered Sosa the job.
Emilio is bringing Mos Def a new pair of two-tone shoes. More "clothing journalist" than fashionista, Emilio located most of the original Topdog costumes within walking distance of his 137th Street apartment, in Harlem thrift stores catering to "the stylishly down-and-out man of color." Utilizing skills picked up as a shoe clerk in both Thom McAnn's on East 149th Street and a $500-a-pair boutique on Rodeo Drive, Emilio conducts the fitting in Mos Def's dressing room, painted "millionaire's red" to distinguish it from the "millionaire's blue" of Mos Def's other dressing room. The shoes fit. "Right," Def says.
Later, Emilio banters with the playwright, the fabulous Ms. Parks. The two go back a while. When Parks got married during Topdog's downtown run, Emilio designed her dress. "Design a woman's wedding dress, she'll never forget you," Emilio notes, asking if Parks would like something new for Topdog's opening.
"Let me hook you up," Emilio cajoles.
Parks demurs, saying she's going with her "little black dress." Its been lucky for her, she says.
"Can't compete with luck," Emilio says.
A half-hour later, Emilio is sitting behind his desk at the Grace Costume shop on 54th Street. The shop, first opened in 1961 by the late Grace Miceli, is the oldest costume store on Broadway. Emilio has been here for fifteen years now, since his Pratt days. "For me, this was it," Emilio says, walking through the Grace office, past the thicket of mannequins and card-catalogue-like drawers containing swatches, buttons, and trim of every costume ever "built" here, for shows like Fiddler on the Roof and The Wiz.
Emilio figures he could have wound up "facedown in some stupid club" without the shop. His patron is Maria Brizzi, Grace's sister. Possessed of a deeply "philosophical" bearing, and a twinkling eye behind her really nifty Lina Wertmüllerstyle glasses, Maria, who grew up in Sicily, has been trying to get Emilio, whom she clearly loves, to be "more thick-skinned." The business is "full of deceit," Maria says; Emilio shouldn't be so nice to everyone.
A couple months ago, in a surprise, Maria made Emilio a partner in the business, which more or less puts him in charge, opening the doors every morning, closing at night. This is an honor, Emilio says, because Grace, built by another generation of immigrants, connects to when Broadway was really Broadway. But with responsibility comes terror, Emilio notes, because "business kind of sucks" right now.
"You have to do things fast to compete," Emilio says. "But how am I going to tell Sebastian, our tailor, who's been here for 38 years, to use a glue adhesive when he's always made beautiful things by hand?"
A young woman comes in. She's just been hired for Beauty and the Beast and needs a fitting. Grace did some of the show's original costumes, so they make the replacements, too. The woman, who looks to be in her early twenties, smiles uneasily as Emilio gets her measurements. Her role is not big, but she just got into town, so, yeah: Maybe she is a little nervous. It is a timeless tableau, the new kid's looking for a break, a scene no more or less sentimental now that the real Sweet Smell of Success sharpies are long gone and Broadway is for tourists at $100 a pop.
"Don't worry, you'll be cool," Emilio says, tapping the woman's shoulder.
A couple nights later, Topdog/Underdog opens. For his Broadway debut, Emilio has eschewed his usual wool skullcap, baggy jeans, and sneakers, breaking out a slim silver suit with matching metallic-toned tie. Instead of his former sidewalled semi-Mohawk, he's gone all skull after a visit to the Chinese guy on 38th Street, "the best $12 cutter of black people's hair in the city." Before the show, Emilio was worrying about Jeffrey Wright's Lincoln beard. The darts were messed up, and it looked like the actor was chewing on fake hair. But no problem, the beard is good, the play is a smash, and the boff Times review has a line touting Emilio Sosa's "astute" costumes.
After the show, shouting over the Times Square ruckus, Emilio calls Maria Brizzi on the cell phone. "Well, we're open on Broadway," Emilio tells Maria, assuring her he is, indeed, wearing "a coat and tie like a gentleman." Then, switching to Spanish, he calls his mom. The play was great, he tells her, the costumes are a success. "Tell Dad," he says, later noting that his father has "come around" over the years, that he likes to see the name Emilio Sosa in the newspapers. Then Emilio starts talking about opera. He's never dressed an opera, he says. That would really be something, doing an opera.