Rio Uribe, the founder of New York-based brand Gypsy Sport, spent six years working for Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga. In Paris, he learned that: 1) the French hip-hop scene is "so wrong", 2) French girls and American girls dress very differently, and 3) nothing comes close to the detailing you find on a piece of prêt-a-porter created in a Paris atelier. The secret, he says, is that the fabrics are developed to fall perfectly both while worn and while hanging on a rack. This art of building 3-D garments - rather than simply extrapolating 2-D shapes - made a lasting impression on the young visual merchandiser.
At the time, Rio was flying to Balenciaga's headquarters twice a year to receive what the team referred to as the "General Rules of the Season." His role was to ensure that the New York showroom and all of the brand's North American stores scrupulously translated Ghesquière's vision. But secretly, he was studying "each sample like a piece of fine art." And finding out that Ghesquière was an autodidact "was like permission to go ahead with my own fashion dream."
Raised in LA's Koreatown in a large Mexican family, Uribe's early fashion education came from his mom. Though her advice about not mixing prints - "in my case, Pokemon and dinosaurs" - is a rule he's now become an expert at breaking. Rio ended up studying business and the arts at a community college, but all of his high school extracurriculars were fashion-related. At 16, he was already making outfits for friends under the brand name "Rio's Apparel" ("hustling runs in my family's genes").
In 2006, with $1,200 in savings, Uribe moved to Bushwick. Before landing his role at Balenciaga, he was juggling three crappy jobs at a time. But his New York tribe turned out to include some of the most exciting members of the city's nightlife and voguing scenes: Shayne Oliver (of Hood by Air), Telfar (Clemens), Raul Lopez (of Luar Zepol) and Jerome Williams (now Uribe's collaborator). "They would all dress up and raid the Chelsea store where I worked, pretending they were customers, trying on women's shoes. They were already making their clothes, and I was just giving styling advice when asked. I wasn't thinking of myself as a designer."
The streets have always been a source of inspiration for Rio, but no place more than Spanish Harlem, where he moved in 2010. The neighborhood is full of characters, like the lady in an electric wheelchair and multicolored African regalia whom he describes "as a floating superhero." One day, bored, he patched together a Yankees visor and an African kufi for his evening party look. That night, a buyer from Opening Ceremony asked if he could place an order for the store and Gypsy Sport was born. Headwear became Rio's first professional foray into design and remains his brand's signature, as symbolized by the Gypsy Sport logo: the "haturns," two baseball caps spinning like Saturn.
Since 2012, each of the three fashion shows Uribe has organized under the Gypsy Sport umbrella has put the spotlight on headwear. He's shown skullcaps with Valkyrie-style braids, denim caps with ruffled baby brims and do-rags covered with windmills of exotic feathers. After a DKNY runway collaboration in 2013, Donna herself bowed backstage to his buoyant creativity. Crafty, pan-gender, cross-ethnic, utopian, soulful, feisty: Gypsy Sport has continued to unfold its vision ever since.
The brand now offers a full range of clothing for anyone capable of pulling off its typically oversized, cropped and nonchalant silhouettes. The look is a multi-ethnic, multi-genre collage that shows no deference to gender. Every garment has a story of its own, and materials range from crochet, raw denim, and rafia to basketball net and puka shells. Of course, there are also more commercial, sportswear-inspired pieces (check out the Wild West Jacket on the brand's new e-commerce site, launching on August 25). But it's a savvy "where are you from?" brand of mix-and-match that Rio and his collective champion.
These days the team can be found from 11am to 7pm, weekdays, in a neon-lit basement studio in one of the Garment District's few surviving factories. No one in the GS family is more important than Rome (Jerome Williams), a lover of glamour and born entertainer. He's Harlem-raised, connected with the A$AP Mob, and calls himself the "brand ambassador" or M.C. (short for Mouth Carry: brush up on your RuPaul terminology). Estelle Mata is another pillar. She wears her hair in pink pigtails and provides quiet assurance, acting as something in between a managing and communications director. Lester Garcia is in charge of styling. He's worked with several high fashion powerhouses, including Marie-Amélie Sauvé. And Anthony Conti (Fashion Director at DKNY) oversees casting.
Then there's the brand's cohort of "nodels": skateboarders, poets, yogis and bone-breaking dancers, who are street-casted by Rio and Rome around the city. Last year, a full regiment was cast for Gypsy Sport's two NYFW shows. The spring/summer 15 show was improvised, guerrilla style, at the Washington Square arch and was an underground hit. It communicated "a pure love of fashion that was woefully absent from so many events of the past week," reported Vogue's Lynn Yaeger. The fall/winter 15 show was more legit, staged in a Lower East Side theater. Inspired by the circus, it involved a parade of contortionists, jesters, tattooed b-boys and beefy pole dancers.
Since then, the attention and pressure on the brand have been building. Tonight, Uribe will unveil his cruise collection during the new New York Fashion Week: Men's, at the invitation of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. For several days now, Rio has been followed by the cameras of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund team. And tonight, the board of the annual competition will also nominate its ten 2015 finalists (the first prize winner, to be announced in November, will receive $300K). Will Gypsy Sport be ready to polish its wild style to suit the institution? Rio says he's just going to keep it real: "I thrive in adversity and diversity."
Text Carole Sabas
Photography Jonathan Grassi, images courtesy Gypsy Sport