It's all a merry mix-up. Fashion designer Gary "Garo Sparo" Spampinato was raised in Bay Shore. But his bio at Bravo's website for "Project Runway," on which he competes when season 17 begins Thursday at 8 p.m., says he's from Bayshore — one word — and came to New York City from North Carolina — where there's a town called Bayshore, whose residents include one Catherine Spampinato. So …?
"That's my Aunt Cathy!" says a delighted Gary Spampinato, who turns 46 later this month. "She's from Long Island and moved down there," as his own family did when he was 16. And despite the similarity in place names, he assures that he was "born in West Islip, brought up on Brookdale Avenue in Bay Shore and spent lots of time at Robert Moses [State Park] growing up." He attended school in Brentwood and Bay Shore until his father, pro bowler turned electronics designer Thomas Spampinato, was transferred by his company to Cary, North Carolina.
By that time Gary already was well-versed in sewing, taught by his immigrant mother and grandmother. The family had had a coverlet and lacemaking business in Sicily, and upon moving to America his father found work in Manhattan's Garment District. Mother Maria "took custom orders for anything she could sew," from dresses to drapes.
"There was always a sewing room in our house," Spampinato says. "I was the only kid in the family allowed in there." That family was one of five brothers, including Tom, Joe, Steven and Paul, the second to oldest, who died in the crash of a small plane he was piloting in May 2000. "Paul was my hero," says Spampinato, "a huge part of my life and who I am as a person. He cheered me on as a young designer."
After finishing high school in North Carolina, Spampinato attended the state university there but left short of graduating. "I was in my final year, one semester left, and I’d taken a trip to New York and ran into someone involved with Absolut Vodka. They had an alt fashion week at the time" and offered to sponsor a collection of his work for a runway show.
It was a heady experience for a 21-year-old, he says, but, "You learn the hard way you're not a star instantaneously. You get this opportunity, but you have to parlay it to the next thing and the next thing."
That helps explain why a successful designer — whose retro-futuristic and burlesque-inspired clothing has appeared in music videos and stage shows for the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Gwen Stefani, and who was heiress Daphne Guinness' exclusive designer for three years, he says — is competing on "Project Runway."
"I need press as much as anyone else," Spampinato says. "Everyone needs something, no matter where you are in life. I thought it was the perfect time, so why not? I went for it. It was an amazing experience." His competitors "are serious designers, no ifs, ands or buts. Everyone on there is very talented. It was a true competition and I love to compete."
As for his nickname and company name, Garo Sparo: The first part was what friends always called him. The second came from someone who told him his clothing designs "are so powerful you should be 'Garo Sparo' " — sparo being the Italian word for "shot," as in "gun shot." "I thought it would be perfect," he says.
And no matter what might happen on "Project Runway," he'll have given it his best sparo.