Suz Pisano takes the wheel
How the award-winning Northside designer went from making hair accessories in a spare bedroom of her home to hand picking her clientele.
By Hallie Lauer
Photo: A young model sports the Bob the Drag Queen outfit for the POSE PGH collection titled “Our Legendary Children” as Pisano makes adjustments. By POSE PGH/Lexi Shapiro
Nearly 30 years ago, Suz Pisano began making barrettes and scrunchies in a spare bedroom in her home. Despite earning a master’s degree in education and working in the field of criminal justice, she knew that fashion design was what she was meant to do, even if it took a bit of hard work to get there.
“I knew that I didn’t want to be a dentist,” Pisano said. “Not that I couldn’t have done it, but I didn’t want to do it.”
When she was growing up, it was her father who desperately wanted her to go into dentistry, and her family who stressed how important it was for her to go to college. Pisano knew it wasn’t the path for her, though, and in time, developed her artistic talents and products enough to start selling at craft shows, and eventually, at what she referred to as “more high end” arts festivals.
“My mom always said to me, ‘There’s a big difference between can and want: If you want to do it, you’ll do anything,’” Pisano said. “That’s pretty much the story of any artist: If you wanna do it bad enough, you’re gonna do it.”
Her first arts festival was the Shadyside Arts Festival, and it was her now-husband who paid her entrance fee, despite the fact that they had only recently begun to date.
“My mom always told me that people who are successful will always help you,” Pisano said. “Through the arts festivals, I got a lot of education.”
Now, tucked away in her own studio above Gasoline Street Coffee Company in downtown Pittsburgh, Pisano transforms simple fabric into wearable art for a living. Inside Sparkle Studio, she’s created everything from dresses and pageant gowns to wrestling gear. She’s won multiple “Best Costume” awards from both regional and national dance competitions and is an alumna of Pittsburgh Fashion Week. Her range of design can’t be nailed down to one specific style: There’s variety in her work because she hand picks each of her clients.
“We have to click,” she said. “If someone comes to me with a very specific drawing, nine times out of 10 I’ll say no. If the person is not a designer, they don’t understand how clothing works. I see where the seams have to go, how the zipper has to work. If it feels right, or I feel like someone is going to trust me, then I say ‘yes.’”
Pisano once had a client approach her to make him a onesie—complete with a butt flap—made up entirely of Crown Royal bags he had collected at the bar he owned.
“It was so fun. I was like, ‘Please don’t tell me what you want,’” Pisano said. The bar owner agreed and let Pisano take the wheel.
“Those are the best jobs: when people say, ‘Make it whatever, add what you think it needs,’” she said.
Most of her referrals come via text message, because other than a personal Facebook account and one for her studio, Pisano doesn’t use social media.
“To me, a lot of that is made up. People spend so much time on their social media that they’re not really doing any work,” she said.
During the spring, which is typically Pisano’s busy season, Sparkle Studio consists of a team of five people, but for the most part, Pisano does all the work herself.
“I’ve never had aspirations to be a big giant brand,” she said. “I want to design; I want to be on my sewing machine. I don’t want to manage people.”
One of the more memorable projects Pisano worked on was a collection titled “Our Legendary Children” for POSE PGH.
Run by owner and photographer Lexi Shapiro, POSE PGH has the tagline: “Children’s portraiture with a fashionable twist.” All of the children featured in the project were modeled based on personalities from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Pisano, who was recommended to Shapiro for the job by a mutual friend, designed the outfits while Shapiro captured the photos.
“From the moment I met Suz, I knew that we’d get along swimmingly.” Shapiro said. “She is the designer in Pittsburgh [who,] if you’re in need of clothing or costumes for kids, [is] excellent at both working with them and creating garments that look great on them.”
Shapiro continued: “Each day, Suz would show up at the studio and pull the completed looks out of the garment bags, and my jaw would hit the floor.”
According to Shapiro, Pisano even created the look for a miniature Alaska Thunder—- on the spot. Thunder—- was the runner-up from the fifth season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, Thunder—- studied theater at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.
Pisano built the Alaska costume “… on top of our little model’s body to be sure that the volume and fit was perfect,” Shapiro said.
“Suz is so insanely talented, and I feel very lucky to have met her,” she continued. “Since working together, she has become a friend and mentor and someone very special to me.”
Pisano’s work isn’t always red-carpet material, though. She was once commissioned to make a 10-foot-tall pretzel suit in the style of Elvis Presley for a fitness game for children: The goal was to animate healthy snacks. Pisano’s creation was dubbed “Elvis Pretzeley.”
“My clientele is very vast,” Pisano said. “I have clients that are from the LGBT community; I have trans clients. I have Black, Chinese, Indian clients. That, to me, is the definition of success: when I can look around and say, ‘I am here for everybody.’”
Functionality of design
While many of Pisano’s clients dance on a stage, some of them perform in a ring.
Ganon Jones Jr. and Duke Davis make up the wrestling duo The Mane Event. They first wrestled against each other as individuals, then came together in 2016. A year later, they were wrestling in the International Wrestling Cartel (IWC) Cage Fury Event.
Pisano helped them design and alter their gear, including their logos, for the event—it was the first custom gear they had as a duo.
“We need it to be very functional and easy to move around in,” The Mane Event said in an email. “Suz is very detailed and worked very hard making sure our gear was exactly what we wanted.”
Wrestling, both the performance art kind and the sport, requires gear that can fit very specific criteria.
In an article written for Team USA Wrestling, who governs the sport of wrestling nationwide, it’s noted that proper wrestling gear is for looks just as much as it is for physical protection. The clothing a wrestler wears has to fit properly on their body so that it can’t be grabbed by an opponent during the match. Plus, the fabric has to be tough.
“‘Know your fabrics’ is what I tell everyone,” said Pisano. “Wrestling is a hard sport: that ring floor is very hard on certain fabrics. I’m really proud of my knowledge of fabrics and how durable or fragile they are.”
Costume design, according to Pisano, has to “cover all the bases.”
“How… a skirt flow[s] in a ballet affects what you’re seeing about the movement,” she said. “I never knew that as a professional dancer, sometimes 20 minutes before a show, someone hands you a costume—no consideration in how it fits or even if it works. Imagine dancing in a dress that’s too short or tights that are too tight. How well something fits determines performance.”
Though Jones Jr. and Davis have only been wrestling together for a few years, according to their website, they’ve already won four titles from various wrestling matches in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Living in love
Despite designing a wide range of art, Pisano said that her favorite event to style is weddings.
“It’s a really important day in somebody’s life,” she said. “I always say maybe if I wasn’t happily married for almost 22 years, I wouldn’t feel the same, but [my husband and I] live in love, and I just get so excited about somebody starting their life in that way.”
Pisano’s excitement for and inclination toward working with brides didn’t come out of nowhere. Growing up, Pisano’s mother and aunt ran a bridal shop together. Pisano learned to sew from her mother, who had learned from Pisano’s grandmother: Theirs is a family full of seamstresses.
“My mom says she remembers going shopping as a little kid, and they never bought anything, but the next day she would have the dress she saw or the coat they saw, because my grandmother could make it,” Pisano said.
During the first two years of her family’s bridal shop business, every dime they made went back into the venture—a lesson Pisano carries with her into her own work.
“Every year I try and invest in something,” she said. “Invest in your process and you just get better and better and can do more and more.”
These investments have allowed her to expand her business—and keep dreaming.
A Pittsburgh girl through and through, Pisano’s dream job is to redesign the costumes for the Pirates Pierogies, the baseball team’s mascots known for their “Great Pittsburgh Pierogi Race” during the fifth inning of every game.
“I think they’re terrible. They’re the wrong color, and I just think I could animate them so much better,” Pisano said with a laugh. “You don’t even know how many times I’ve been like, ‘Should I just call Mrs. T’s and be like, ‘Where’s the marketing department? Who made those?’”
Due to the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, Pisano’s business is currently closed, though she is making face masks for her friends.
“[It’s] just something to do: A little fun, but nothing earth shattering” she said. “They’ll be more fashion-centric, with trims or embellishments. If my studio was in my house, it would be different.”
She is also sewing masks for the Pittsburgh MasQUe ProjecT. The project, a Northside joint initiative of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents and TransPride Pittsburgh, is connecting Pittsburgh’s trans and queer community with face mask resources.
Pisano grew up in Beaver Falls, about 45 minutes outside of the city, though she currently resides in Brighton Heights and plans to keep it that way.
“Pittsburgh affords us the opportunity to do what we want to do,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here for artists. I see myself, in the future, in the exact same place. I work with who I want, and I don’t work with who I don’t.”