CGM interviews “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” designer Sondra Celli!

Boston clothing designer Sondra Celli is catching her breath between prepping 30-plus blinged-out bikinis and an army of matching accessories for an upcoming gypsy luau and waiting for the UPS guy to arrive. “Thursdays are a little suicidal,” she chuckles. But it’s now 4pm and most of her loyal contingent of Traveller customers is in church, so I’m the only person calling.

At least for the moment.

As the longtime couturier of choice for America’s widespread gypsy and Traveller communities — and the unflappable star of TLC’s new Sunday night hit, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding — Celli finds herself working 17-hour days, sometimes six or seven days a week, just to keep up with the demand from her faithful, rhinestone-happy clients. And where other clothing makers might blanch at the over-the-top creations and retina-searing stone work the gypsies love most, Celli revels in the artistic freedom it affords her.

So much the better, for it’s her jaw-dropping designs — along with the party-filled but morally stringent culture that is so curious to non-gypsy “gorgers” — that make the series addictively entertaining.

RELATED: Check out Channel Guide‘s weekly Gypsy Wedding previews!

With her loyal staff of workers bustling in the background, Celli shared with me her vast knowledge of gypsy design and culture:

Channel Guide Magazine: You’ve been working with these communities for decades … did it surprise you when they suddenly became the hottest thing on reality TV?

Sondra Celli: I think people are just intrigued in general of gypsy life. I don’t think people believe it’s here. People come into my office all the time and are intrigued by what they see. And when you say something is for a gypsy, they’re kind of shocked. They don’t think they’re here. Yeah, they’re here!

And just that lifestyle — the women don’t work and the men are always away. The only way I can describe it to people is to compare it to any other tightknit culture, like the Amish or Hasidic Jews, where people live in a tight circle to protect each other and take care of each other. It’s the same kind of nurturing thing. They protect each other tremendously.

The fun for me, honestly, is that they give me complete freedom, design wise. I know their style. I know what they like. I know the difference between the English and the Irish. There are different styles. But then I sell christening outfits, too, to gorgers [the gypsy term for those outside their culture] — and you have to know the difference between a Lebanese christening and a Greek christening and an Italian christening. So if you don’t know the ceremony and the culture and what is behind it, you can’t design for it.

So I’ve just learned the culture behind the clothes and I’ve used to design what they like and now they give me complete freedom because they trust me, they know me, and they know I know what they’re looking for. That’s been the fun part of working for them. It’s very creative. They’re willing to “jump off the bridge” and do something that anyone else wouldn’t do. We wear black and brown and navy blue, but gypsies don’t mind neon pink and lime green. It’s fun as a designer! It’s an outlet that’s unbelievable.

CGM: Did you do any sort of intensive research to gain that knowledge or have you learned as you go?

SC: When I first started selling to them, I didn’t know I was selling to gypsies! They kind of found me. And then they started calling me and telling me they were from baby stores. Of course they were telling me an absolute lie — and I couldn’t understand how there could be this many baby stores on the same street. So I happened to call a mentor of mine who has a big children’s store in Chicago and she said to me, “Sondi! You’re selling to gypsies!” And I said, “Well, why are they all on the same street?” And she said, “You’re shipping to a trailer park.”

So I had to come clean with these guys and say, “Listen, you can’t just call me up and say you’re stores. I can’t just sell to the public — I’m a wholesaler!” There are taxes involved and things like that. But these people just don’t care! They just want to buy clothes! They don’t care how they get them!

So then we decided to go retail on the side and sell to them direct and it became a great relationship. And you learn as you go. You make a dress and it’s not what they want and you realize that it has to be more revealing. Most of the time, I find the kids more revealing up to marriage and then they kind of shut down because they’re married. They’re not as sexy because they belong to somebody and that person doesn’t want them walking around all sexed up.

But then look at our kids. Look at our teenagers. Our kids walk around pretty hot too at 15 and 16 and 17. Maybe not as — but for our culture, too, this generation is a lot trendier and sexier than in years past. Certainly than when I was growing up! So it’s pretty much everyone.

CGM: For me, that’s one of the most compelling parts of the show. We monitor what our kids wear and watch and say, but we rarely know exactly what they’re doing when they walk out the door. The gypsies let their kids wear things that make us flinch, but they always know what their kids are up to.

SC: They’re hawks! And you have to take it from their point of view. Their point of view is that our kids grow up, run wild, meet men someplace that we don’t even know, get married and settle down. And then they leave their mothers and their parents don’t know half of what they do.

So, in their head, they’re protecting the children. They marry them off to someone they know. They marry them off to a cousin. They marry them off in a circle — and that child is staying safe because the circle doesn’t get broken. Because everyone is related and everyone takes care of each other.

And the women have to take care of each other because the men are always on the road. So I think for them, they look at us at the promiscuous ones, in a way. And we’re looking at them that way — but we’re completely wrong, in the fact that they happen to be very protective and have high morals.

I happen to know that the Irish, the kids — even when they’re married, because the men aren’t home — the kids that are 14, 15, 16, on the weekends do what is called “looping.” Which is basically to drive around the trailer park and play music. That’s their entertainment. They’re not allowed to leave. They’re not allowed to go out. Even if they’re already married, they cannot leave the compound. Whereas our kids at that age, we’re dropping them off at a concert and picking them up later. And even if we tell our kids not to drink and not to smoke and not to do this or do that, do we really know what they are doing? They know what their kids are doing. They know where their kids are at all times.

So there is a lot to be said for the protectiveness of that way they live.

CGM: Distinctive clothing just seems to be such an integral part of their culture and their lifestyle — not just in an individual-expression sort of way but as an overall cultural marker.

SC: If you go to a gorger and you say, “What does your child do,” the average Gorger mother or grandmother will say, “Oh my son went to Harvard!” or “My daughter is a reporter at this newspaper.” We brag in a different form. We want better cars. We want better houses. They just happen to wear their bragging all over their bodies. They spend their money on clothes.

They want their children to be the best. They eat, sleep and breathe for their children — they want them at the top of the top. We love for our kids to get to the top — we just let them do it on their own and figure it out. If you have a child and you are 16 and your husband is away and you’re a gypsy, you’re pretty much living with your mother and your mother is helping you raise that child. It’s a very tightknit thing. I mean, most of the time when they’re ordering from me it’s the grandmother or the mother and they’re teaching this young girl how to order, how to get what they want. I don’t usually talk to the actual mother of the baby — most of the time I talk to the grandmother or the great-grandmother.

CGM: I’m just thinking of this week’s episode, where Pat Baby was so proud of his daughter and the dress you created for her that he paraded her through the streets of Boston in it before they even took it home.

SC: That’s his movie star! That’s Pat Baby’s girl! He has a pretty girl. She’s young. She’s single. He wants her to have the right guy and someone’s who going to take care of his daughter.

Is there divorce? Sure! The thing is now, this generation of gypsies, I find, the kids are talking back. But so are our kids. I mean, when we were kids, you did what your parents told you to do. This generation of children — their children, our children — they have their big opinions. So I think what is happening in the gypsy community with their divorce rate is that you have kids who are being set up to be married and they’re not so thrilled six months later. And they’ll actually say, “That’s it, I’m walking.” Where as year ago they just learned to love ‘em and stayed with them. But that’s American culture, period. That’s just what is going on in American culture, period. That’s their kids. That’s our kids. That’s everybody.

I think we totally trust our kids to go out in the world and hold on to the morals that we gave them. Their kids — it’s the same thing — but the mothers are watching them. They have people down their necks all the time. But there is nothing wrong with it. I mean, look at the Amish. They raise their kids in that tight circle, they live in that circle and then they give them that break at age 16 or so [Rumspringa] to go out and see if they don’t want to stay there. But most of them stay. Because that is what that they were raised to do and they know it.

CGM: So if the kids are evolving has their style changed much throughout your career, as well?

SC: Oh tremendously! Tremendously! Thirty years ago, they bought bling from me — but they always bought bling from me because that’s what I do.

But now it is so much bling. Bling is what makes the dress; it’s what gives the power, it’s just the be-all end all for a gypsy girl to win — who ever has the most bling wins. We bling everything, but there are still times when I cannot believe how much they want. I mean we send a dress and it’s covered and then in the design we might have left a little area free to be pretty and they’ll call and go, “You left it empty in this spot!” And I’ll go, “That’s the design!” But they don’t want anything empty!

And the rule here is that whatever goes on the front, goes on the back. Because gypsies and Travellers want to be seen coming and going. We do not leave backs empty — that’s a huge thing here. The barrettes are blinged. The headbands are blinged. The shoes are blinged. We make wristbands. We make armbands. We make body jewelry that they actually cement onto their bodies, so that whatever is naked can still be covered in covered in jewelry. It’s mind-blowing how much bling. I mean, years ago they bought pretty things, but they were just accented. Now they’re just loaded with stones. We make jokes about sometimes: let’s just put glue all over the dress and just roll it around in stones. Maybe they’ll be happy!

CGM: Again, going back to this week’s episode — the boots you made for Priscilla. Like electrified disco balls for the amount of light they threw off. I was a little worried for the party guests’ retinas!

SC: Those boots had 43,000 stones. They took a really long time to do. The girls had to work in shifts because they were going crazy from all the bling.

CGM: Tell me more about your staff — do they thrive on the challenge as much as you do? And has having TV cameras around added to that pressure?

SC: It’s always tense because we work with gypsies! [laughs] So every day there is always some rush or something that needs more or something that comes back because we didn’t put enough on the shoes or something. There’s always pressure. So I think at the beginning the TV cameras were more in the way because the girls weren’t used to it. But now they’ve gotten so used to it that it’s just other people in the room. You do become immune to it.

We’re even immune to what we make now because we’re so used to it. When the girls start work here for the first week they’re amazed and they have their parents come over and everything. And then two weeks later, it’s like, “Yeah, another pair of rhinestone baby shoes.” I mean, we see rhinestone pacifiers all day.

But I have a beautiful staff. Young girls, I have nine students that are interns from the schools. And I pay all of my interns — I do not believe in free interns. And most of them end up in a full-time job — unless they decide to go elsewhere like LA or New York. But around here, there’s not a lot of design jobs. So we have people knocking on the door all the time.

They are trained by us. Design school doesn’t teach you how to put bling onto dresses. It’s a whole different thing. There are different cements and different techniques and different ways to iron them on.  And all the ways on different fabrics and different leathers. So its something that has to be trained.

My three women on the machines — one of them is 87 years old and she has been sewing for me for 18 years. And she’s little, so some of these big dresses she has a hard time lifting onto the machine, so we have some of the other girls do that now. But she’s been selling to the gypsies for 18 years for me. And she loves it. Because it’s different every day — and you can create while you’re sewing. I mean, they’ll call me over and say, “San, we think the feathers would look better on an angle better than straight across,” and I’ll say. “Go for it!”

Because the gypsies love different and everyone has ideas. So we meet on designs and we pow wow all the time. I love having a young staff because, they’ll tell me the truth — “No one who’s 17 is going to wear this!” And I rather hear it before I ship it! And my daughter is 23 and she lives in New York City but she pops in here every once in a while and gives her big opinion. But I think it’s great, because they’re all young and they’re around what young girls wear. So we stay on top of all the fashion,

But with gypsies, it’s fashion with a twist.

CGM: I’ll say it is — the fall leaf gown and headdress on your website is a particular standout!

SC: That was actually for a fashion show! We had made that dress for a fashion show and it was 2 o’clock in the morning and we were still sewing. And Jeanette, who was 77 at the time — that dress is about 10 years old — and we’re sewing and sewing and sewing and we ran out of leaves. Well, we were in a retail store in those days and they used to have props in the back room and so we went in the back room and we took the whole box of prop leaves. I said, “I can’t go shopping at 2 am, so guess what? We’re taking the prop leaves out of the back room and we’re going to take all these leaves and we’re going to rip them apart and we’re going to sew them all over the bottom of this dress because I need it tonight.”

So later the poor prop woman was looking for the leaves and she was looking and looking and I said, “I’m so sorry but we took your leaves and sewed them all over the train of this dress.” She just wanted to kill us!

We’ve done everything! We actually one night didn’t have a zipper for something, so we took a garment bag and cut it up and used the zipper from the garment bag. We’re resourceful.

CGM: I believe I read somewhere that you also crafted a dress out of wigs?

SC: Yeah we did. It was so cool! She kept saying to me, “I want it to look like a pony’s tail!” So I’m thinking, “How am I going to make a skirt like a pony’s tail?! And then I think — wigs! This is it!” The dress was black and white, so we did black and white wigs in, like, strips over the whole thing — so it was like this fringe coming down. It looked so cool! It was really an awesome dress. But of course, she was funky enough to wear it, too!

There’s honestly been nothing we couldn’t do — we’ve done basketballs, we’ve done bathroom plungers, there really is not much that we haven’t rhinestoned.

The plunger here is rhinestoned, too, and that’s because we were in a big building where everyone used to steal it out of the bathroom and I said, let’s just rhinestone it and then everyone will know it’s ours!

We’ve completely covered baby carriages in crystals. We’ve taken fur coats and cut crystal into the fur. I actually sit home at night thinking, “What else can we bling?” We’ll do anything anybody wants! Bathtubs, wallpaper, we don’t care!

CGM: I also read that you have to employ some engineering techniques with the larger dresses so people can handle the weight of the gowns.

SC: The weight has to be equally distributed on the body; we put certain weights in certain areas of the hem. There is a tube on the bottom of the dress where we can fill an area with weights so it sits level. But I do put Band-Aids on most of the brides — we’ve got those big Band-Aids. And they don’t seem to mind.

CGM: It’s prom season here in Wisconsin, and I was shocked to see that many of the gowns are tiptoeing into gypsy territory — with neon colors and enormously wide hoop skirts. Has gypsy couture come into vogue? And will the gypsies mind that — or will they just take it to another level?

SC: They’ll take it to another level — trust me! Neon happens to be huge this spring, and the gypsies love that anyway. But if everyone is wearing that, the gypsies will wear something else, something more, something newer.

Now, because they have computers, which they didn’t have years ago, this generation will send me photos from designers from Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait. They pull off these wild things from Paris runways — and they want them for a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old. They never used to do that. But they have computers now, so they sit at home in bed with an iPad and they pull up ideas and send them. And we encourage that, too, so we get an idea of what they want — and then we take it and run with it our own way and we come up with a whole new dress. They’re very savvy now as far as design goes.

They’ll buy the most odd thing on the Paris runway and wear it. It’s so competitive!

I have a luau this weekend — we’ve been shipping all day — and we must have made 33-34 bikinis for kids, with wraps and little ankle bracelets and little arm bands and cute little hair things and beach bags with their names in crystals. We’ve done 33 crystal bathing suits in the last week — and everyone calls up and says, “I’ll pay more if you put more crystals on mine.” Or, “Is her’s better than mine? Does mine have enough flowers on it?” They’re so competitive.

I’ve also been told that they go to Mass dressed completely in crystal most of the time and they always go up to get communion so that everyone can see their dress. Everything is a fashion statement with them. Everything — including Mass.

Halloween is huge for us. They buy rhinestone costumes like you can’t believe for kids. They’ll even have the candy custom-made with kids’ names and crystal wrappers. I’ve seen a box of Godiva chocolates with the kid’s name on it in rhinestones. They’ll give out chocolate-dipped strawberries. Even that is a competition — whoever has the best candy wins. They live for competition.

CGM: So do you ever have someone come in and say, “This is how much I have to spend?” — or is money no object as long as you have the best outfit in the place?

SC: Yes. Yes. Yes. If you don’t eat and you don’t pay the electric bill, as long as you have good clothes on, that’s the best thing.

In summer, the Irish — not the English — do car parties where they show off all their new cars and they will buy rhinestone jackets, rhinestone clothing, rhinestone everything to match the car so they can stand next to the car in the driveway and then the other gypsies who don’t have new cars are the viewers and they go from house to house to house to look at the car. So if you have a silver car, you have a silver rhinestone jacket. If you have a blue car, you stand next to it in a blue rhinestone dress. The family will all match and coordinate to stand next to the car. And they’re very all high-end cars. It’s all just show, show, show, show.

That’s just the way they live. They celebrate life constantly. There’s a party for everything.

CGM: So how often do you see repeat customers in the course of a year?

SC: A lot. We do most of it over the phone, because most of them are in the South and I’m on the East Coast. I sell mostly to South Carolina and Memphis, which is the Irish. The Romanichals are Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas. But everything is over the phone, so they totally have to trust me because they’re giving me a deposit on something they’ve never seen. So sometimes we sketch it and email or fax it or something. And sometimes it’s just on the phone — we design over the phone. The ones who really know me don’t care.

So how often do I see them? Well, I have that luau this week and then if there is something going on for Memorial Day, that same customer is going to come back to me for Memorial Day. Right now for Memorial, we have [things for] about 86 people that all have to be out in the next 20 days. All those people just ordered in February for a load of parties that they just had. Then they ordered again for Easter and now the same whole crowd is ordering again for Memorial. Then they travel.

They’re gone in June and July. They go with the men because the kids don’t have school. And then, come August, they’ll start the car parties. So it’s a little calmer June and part of July. Because there’s no reason to buy clothes if there’s not someone to show it off to. If you’re away with your husband, there’s no reason to buy anything.

CGM: I’m guessing that wearing an outfit more than once is seriously frowned upon?

SC: You cannot re-wear — they call it “rerunning.” If you rerun, it’s only OK if everyone in the neighborhood is going to rerun. If everyone decided to call Sondra Celli and buy a new dress, you have to buy a new dress. It’s like death to actually wear the same dress twice. If there’s a party in February, they’ll sometimes wear it again in May. They’ll split things up.

But then what they’ll do is they’ll sell their stuff to gypsies in other states. Or I’ve had them pick off the rhinestones and mail them to me in a baggie and say can you do something with these? And I think to myself, just the effort to sit there and take these off! Or they’ll cut off parts and send them to me and say can you attach these cuffs to the next thing? That kind of thing.

I’ve opened up boxes and had two sleeves fall out — they wanted to reuse the fur cuffs. It’s a trip.

CGM: So what percentage of your time do you spend on your Classic Couture line and what percentage do you spend on the Bling?

SC: Well, the bling is 70-80 percent at this point. I have to tell you, though, that the classic couture is funny because now the regular customer comes in here and sees bling and little by little the classic dresses are getting blinged. We do put bling on classic couture too, but not the amount that goes on the other line. But I do find that everyone likes bling now.

The Bling line is probably 80 percent of our business, now. But I think that’s partly me — because I like it better. There’s more freedom. There’s more creativity. You can really have fun.

They’ll buy shoes from [little person] companies so they can get a high heel for a kid who’s eight. Then they’ll send me the high heel to be covered in crystal. They’re resourceful! They go on the Internet and find what they want. Shoes come here from China. Shoes come here from Spain. Shoes come here from London.

There are a couple English web sites that have gorgeous clothes from all over Europe and they’ll buy an outfit and send it here and have it completely blinged. They’ll buy Burberry and have me completely bling the plaid. They’ll even buy a shoe and go to a shoemaker and have the whole front cut so that a kid who is eight can fit in a woman’s size 5.

There’s a company in Spain that makes dance shoes — you know those salsa dancing shoes with the soft suede bottom — and they’re making baby shoes for them now. So they’ll send me heels for a one-year-old. They’re hysterical — you just die! We rhinestone them and they’re delicious. They’re the cutest things.

And they’ll buy jeans — you have kids so you remember when you had to fit a diaper in the jean, the rise is higher. They’ll send me the jeans, tell me to cut the waistband off, lower the rise and then they’ll cut the diaper and shove it in so they can have low rise. And then we bling the jeans.

We’ve had hundreds of emails. I have family in this business — I was raised in the business and my mom is retired. She’s 77 and she and my aunt are both in fashion, so they come in just to return calls. I’m going to be here all weekend answering emails that people send back. I have people that want a job here; people that want internships. I have people that just have written beautiful notes and I want to answer. We try to answer every single one — right now we’re a little backed up, but by Saturday, we’ll have answered everybody.

CGM: Um, Sondra, when do you sleep? Do you sleep?

SC: Well, that’s funny. I come to work at 5 in the morning and I go for a walk. I go for an hour walk. And then from 6 until 8:30 or 9, I’m at the cutter. I cut every single dress that goes out of here. And then from nine until or 6 or 7, the girls will get all the work sewed up and then the truck comes at 7-7:30 to get everything out. And then sometimes I’m here until 9 or 10 at night. And then honestly, when I go home at 10, I am asleep in 30 seconds.

CGM: Do you dream about rhinestones?

SC: Honestly? I have a pad and paper beside my bed and mostly it’s, “Oh dear, I forgot the barrettes!” “Oh dear! I forgot the rhinestones on the tongue of a shoe!” So I have a pad and paper to remember.

CGM: But you’d be game for a second season …

SC: I hope we get a second season! Our ratings have been good and the mail has been phenomenal! And you haven’t seen anything yet! You haven’t seen anything yet! The shows get increasingly better, the dresses get increasingly better. It gets a little crazier every week and the dresses get bigger and bigger and bigger and more rhinestones and it should be fun. It was fun! I had a good time doing it!

New episodes of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding air Sundays nights at 10pm ET on TLC.

Photos and video: TLC

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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