Designer Sondra Celli creates rhinestone-studded, accessory-shellacked, and all out electrifying - in some cases literally - dresses for American gypsies on the megamonster hit TV show, "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding" (Sundays at 10 PM on TLC). The oh so wildly imaginative dressmaker took a time out to talk about everything from her start in the gypsy dressmaking world...to the hottest gypsy looks right this moment (here's a hint: rock that fringe!).
MM: What's your design background? And follow up question absolutely has to be: How in the world did you come to dominate the American gypsy dress market?
Sondra Celli: My mother owned a bridal store. She's 77 and just closed it. So I grew up around high-end, $20,000 dresses. Then when I was 15, I did a “teen tour” in Europe. We spent the summer traveling to different countries and going to school. I went to Pucci in Italy…Dior in France. It got me so intrigued and crazy about fashion.
I went to FIT, graduated and started my own business making pieces and selling them to Saks and Nordstrom's. A couple of gypsies saw my pieces and wanted to work with me directly. This was before cellphones and email. So, they distracted the salesman and stole my number from the Yellow Pages. By the end of the week, all of these people were calling me...And I started shipping things to what I thought were these little “boutiques." I told a friend it was funny that all of the boutiques were on the same street and she said, “It’s a trailer park, they’re gypsies!” She was right! 33 years later and I still have a great relationship with the gypsies.
MM: Is there one popular gypsy look - or do American and UK girls have different styles?
SC: American girls want a twist, they tend to like a lot of colors. Hot pink is big now...and we're doing a lot of fringe in silk, crystal and liquid. British girls wear white mostly. Sometimes on the show ["My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding"] you'll see a pink wedding dress - but for the most part British girls stick with white.
MM: Regardless of background, it seems like no gypsy outfit would be complete without a few thousand rhinestones...
SC: I made a pair of boots that had 43,000 stones on them. You’ll see them on an upcoming episode of “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.” I was keeping track of how many stones we were using and getting sick counting because it was so much money. Gypsies only want Swarovski. They may only go to school until the 6th grade, but they can tell if it’s a fake a mile away. They’ve very savvy and know everything about fashion.
MM: You create crazy on a regular basis. What's the all out, #1 craziest dress you’ve ever made?
SC: We did child/mother matching dresses for a wedding completely made out of mirrors.
MM: Hold on...mirrors?
SC: Mirrors! If you hung up the child’s dress from the ceiling, it looked like a disco ball.
MM: Thousands of hours of work (and money) go into a gypsy dress. What happens after it's worn? Is there a gypsy dress heaven?
SC: The Irish Travellers in Memphis will buy a $5,000 dress from me, wear it, and sell it for $500 to Romnichals - they're different from Travellers.
Travellers never wear anything twice, they call it “rerunning.” And if the Irish can’t sell the dress, they’ll rip it apart and save the stones for the next dress.
MM: Do you think the gypsy style will ever catch on in your adopted city of Boston? Perhaps a Big, Fat, Boston Celtics Gypsy dress?
SC: I don’t think Boston people would wear this stuff. They’re conservative [laughs]. Ever since we’ve done the show, local gypsies have shown up at my front door though. It’s unheard of that some are in Waltham – they didn’t know I was here and I didn’t know they were here! It’s been great. We’ve been so busy turning out 50 to 60 pieces a week.
MM: 60 pieces a week?! How do you churn out that many one in a billion designs?
SC: After 33 years of doing this, your head becomes a library [laughs]. I also have a young team. The sewers are older, but I have a lot of girls in their 20s, I call them the “Bling Girls” or the “Bling-ettes.” If I make something and they don’t like it, they don’t hold back [laughs]. Luckily that doesn’t happen too often.
MM: What's the biggest misconception about gypsies?
SC: People say they’re materialistic. We are, too it’s just in a different way. Their attitude is to wear their money all over their body. We use money to buy a bigger car or house or brag about where our go to school. .
MM: Gypsies notoriously stick with their own...So, why do you think they entrust you with creating dresses that they'll wear for some of the most special moments of their life?
SC: There's a mutual respect. They're the most hospitable people. When I’m with them, they fight to give me their car, or take me out to dinner. I've never been burnt by them. It's been a great relationship.