The gowns, dresses and a harem outfit designed by the late FIT instructor Rosario Rizzo are now on display in the Pomerantz (D) lobby. Professors Anne Kong and Glenn Sokoli of the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design Department helped create a narrative for “The Master and His Muse” through the use of color and style representative of each era.
“The most interesting part of doing the exhibit was hearing about the history and life of Rosario Rizzo and how his wife Rose told the story, and then bringing to life the collection. Each garment represents a milestone in their lives,” said Professor Sokoli.
Rosario Rizzo was praised in American fashion for his fine hand-sewing, tailoring and embellishment techniques. He was also an opera singer and dedicated husband to Rose, who shared his passions and livelihood.
“Glenn and I strove to capture the time period of the garments through the styling, the hair and accessories to best illustrate for the viewer the era. The first garment we documented is 1965 and the latest was 1987.”
- Anne Kong
Rizzo designed ensembles from silks, laces, rich wool and opulent brocades, with the finest surface detailing. He considered every aspect of his client, her body type, coloring and the event she was attending. He draped the garment lining directly on his customer.
“The interiors of the garments were so finished off, the stitch work was so fine. We were amazed by the detail. That’s really where you get to appreciate the art of what he did.”
- Anne Kong
Most full-coverage beading was done on blocks, before the final garment was sewn, worked from under the frame unseen, much of which Rizzo did himself. All the finishing was hand sewn in tiny, evenly spaced stitches. Seam allowances never showed, and unlined garments were all hand-bound.
At the exhibit opening, Professor Sokoli had Rose stand on the red carpet with replicas of herself throughout the decades. “She still wears the clothes. Her husband designed the suit she’s wearing in the photo with hand-beaded pockets,” says Sokoli
Rizzo was born to Italian immigrant parents in the Bronx. The family was rich with culture and hand craftsmanship. Rosario learned sewing from his mother and made wedding dresses for relatives and outfits for a girlfriend before attending Needle Trades High School on West 25 Street.
“You know it was so much about the detail. He was like a sculptor the way he draped on the body.”
– Anne Kong
Rizzo showed singing ability at a young age. He sang on Italian radio, with the Metropolitan Opera school’s theater group, and at Carnegie Hall. It was his singing teacher, Maestro Fernando Maero, who introduced Rizzo to Rose Colaianni. The two shared many interests. Colaianni had studied mandolin, piano, singing and acting, and was also a graduate of Needle Trades High School.
“We learned from Rose that Rosario initially took jobs in fashion to pay for opera lessons. When he opened his own atelier she came to work for him. She was there, side-by-side Rosario as he custom designed his couture fashions.” – Glenn Sokoli
“Rose wore the red dress with the rhinestone belt [above] to President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball. Rosairo and Rose hobnobbed with many politicians like Tip O’Neil and Mayor Koch. I referenced from photos of Rose wearing these gowns to create her actual hairstyles. Rose told us that Rosario did her hair and makeup for the major events they attended.” – Glenn Sokoli
In 1958 Rizzo proposed to Colaianni. He gave up his singing career and opened his atelier in Queens, where he and Rose began married life.
In 1993 Rizzo began teaching at FIT’s Fashion Design Department. He and Rose created and taught the wedding gown and beading courses in the School for Continuing and Professional Studies, as well as a range of fashion design courses. In 2000 he created the couture techniques certificate program designed to immerse students in couture hand sewing techniques through to the finished garment.
“Rose wore this saffron and white beaded coat and dress ensemble [above] at a New Year’s gala, where she descended down a two-story marble staircase. The whole room turned and looked…What you don’t get from looking at this is that the gown weighs approximately 60 pounds.”
- Glenn Sokoli
Rosario and Rose said their life together was like a fairy tale. They were nearly inseparable for over 50 years. They traveled extensively, attended red carpet events, political parties and inaugural balls of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“We wanted to create the atmosphere of his atelier by creating two large-scale doors, and then detailing them with two ‘Rs’ representing the unity between Rosairo and Rose, which are also the designer’s initials.”
- Anne Kong
Known throughout the world for his couture technique classes, Rizzo and his wife and muse Rose, inspired a generation of students with exquisite workmanship and skill.
photos: Alessandro Casagli & Rachel Ellner
The exhibit “The Master and His Muse” is open to the public until March 10. The Pomerantz building is located on the corner of 27th and 7th Avenue.