Bronx Native Has His Designs on Broadway

By Robinson, Lori S. | The New Crisis, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Bronx Native Has His Designs on Broadway

Robinson, Lori S., The New Crisis




Emilio Sosa rushes around New York looking like a college student in fatigues or sweats and a worn backpack. One ordinarily busy day, yellow caution tape attached diagonally across his left pants leg is the only visual clue that his constant hustling has to do with his artistic soul.

In fact, Sosa, a costume designer, is a darling of the New York performing arts scene, winning accolades from critics and some of the most important arts innovators and icons of today.

"This is just what God put me on this Earth to do," says the 36-year-old Sosa. "I found my thing."

Sosa has worked as a stylist for television commercials produced by Spike Lee's advertising agency Spike/DDB and as an assistant to costume designer Ruth Carter on Lee's film Bamboozled. He is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's image consultant. He also serves as the vice president and creative director of Grace Costumes, the oldest continuously operated costume shop in New York. And yes, he designs costumes for pre-eminent dance companies and stage productions, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog.

Sosa has a great love for costume design, a craft that entails much more than just sewing an outfit. "A costume designer is the person who visualizes the character through the use of clothing. Whether it's things bought in a store or things that are custom made, (he's) the person who puts it together, who brings the character to life through the clothing," Sosa explains.

The Dominican-born, Bronx-bred Sosa can trace his focus on art back to elementary school. He often tells the story of his last day in third grade, when his teacher, Ms. Torres, gave him a set of artist's pastels. For Sosa, it was a profound affirmation that all of his beloved drawing and scribbling was okay, maybe even cool.

Despite his passion for art, it took a while for him to recognize his true calling. Sosa briefly attended Pratt Institute, studying at the Brooklyn art college in 1989. For the next decade, he worked toward becoming a fashion designer, even though he had already embarked on the career he now finds so fulfilling. As a college sophomore, Sosa took a part-time job at Grace Costumes, legendary for its high-quality work for stage and film. At the time, he thought it would be a temporary income supplement. He never left.

It wasn't long before more doors of opportunity flew open. In 1990, Sosa became a wardrobe assistant for the Alvin Ailey dance company. Soon, artistic director Judith Jamison selected him to design gowns for her to wear to opening night galas.

It was also during the '90s that Sosa began working with Spike Lee. Throughout the decade, he thought of himself as a fashion designer taking on other kinds of projects so he could continue to pursue that goal.

"My theory is God gives all of us a gift. Whether or not you acknowledge it, find it, it's on you," he says. "I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who noticed it and nurtured it and pushed at the right time when I was ready for it."

He's not just referring to Ms. Torres. For 15 years, Sosa's mentor has been Renaissance man Geoffrey Holder. The two met the year Sosa started at Grace Costumes and, according to Holder, "hit it off like gangbusters." A professional dancer and painter for half a century, and winner of two Tony awards in 1975 best director and best costume designer for The Wiz - Holder says they are "buddies" and calls Sosa "brilliant." He would later inspire Sosa's professional epiphany.

In 2000, Sosa came to the conclusion that his fashion career was not unfolding as planned. "I don't like the atmosphere of the business of fashion. It doesn't allow a lot of creativity. It doesn't include a lot of people of color. I told myself, `Why beat myself over the head? Why push to be in an industry that really is not welcoming of me and my talent? …

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