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How Gypsy Sport's Rio Uribe Went From the Stockroom at Balenciaga to CFDA/'Vogue' Fashion Fund Winner

It's a true fashion fairy tale.
Gypsy Sport at New York Fashion Week: Men's. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

Gypsy Sport at New York Fashion Week: Men's. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

In a partitioned corner of the basement of one of the Garment District's last remaining factories, Rio Uribe, the 30-year-old founder of Gypsy Sport and recent winner of the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, is busy reworking his fall 2016 collection. A few days earlier, he had shown a selection of looks on male models at New York Fashion Week: Men's, and would be re-showing them, alongside 10 new looks, at the women's collections — a way of demonstrating that Gypsy Sport's clothes can work for both sexes.

Uribe, who grew up in Los Angeles's Koreatown neighborhood, is not your typical up-and-coming designer. He does not come from a wealthy background, nor is he the graduate of a prestigious design school. Which may help explain why his designs don't look like anyone else's. Though officially dubbed unisex, his clothes — even the skirts and the dresses — have a distinct masculine tone, fusing streetwear silhouettes and motifs with unexpected and luxurious elements: a flat patchwork coat with 3-D shearling squares and striped trim, an oversized cargo jacket rendered in velvet stripes, a shrunken navy ribbed cardigan with extra-long sleeves worn over a long, denim, zip-front skirt. Color, print, texture proportion — it's all there. Jaden Smith and A$AP Ferg are fans.

We spoke to the designer about his design journey ahead of his NYFW show at Milk Studios, scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Rio Uribe. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

Rio Uribe. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

Why did you move to New York City in 2006?

After working in janitorial and then in retail jobs all through high school, I realized I wasn't going to get in the fashion industry [there]. Also had a really bad breakup with my boyfriend, who was my first love. The day I landed, I had printed like 30 resumes, and went out to a bunch of showrooms and boutiques and handed them out.

How did you land a job at Balenciaga?

After about six months of living here, I was still looking for work, and working three [side] jobs. A friend said he had just interviewed for a cool job at Balenciaga. I wished him luck, but also applied myself. They called and I got the job that day. I was doing stock, inventory, picking up the jobs no one else was doing, shoveling snow, organizing the stockrooms, kind of crappy work. I don't even know what the job title was. Within a year, the company was growing so fast, I was bumped up to inventory manager.

Eventually I shared I was interested in merchandising and they didn't have someone in that position, so they trained me and I went to Paris for the first time ever, met designer [Nicolas Ghesquière] and his team, and they schooled me on what the aesthetic was for merchandising. I took over the merchandising for the showrooms, the shop-in-shops at Barneys, Holt Renfrew in Canada, a couple of stores in California. I was traveling.

What did you take away from that role?

I definitely took away the importance of the aesthetics that you present to your customers. Within the first couple of months doing merchandising, we had a presentation with Anna Wintour. That's when I learned we have to be super buttoned-up, coffee has to be super piping hot, everything has to be draped to perfection.

And I would study and dissect the runway pieces; every one was a piece of art. There was one coat called the cocoon jacket, hand-painted and hand-embroidered, which was designed by Cristóbal [Balenciaga] and reinvented by Nicolas. The cut of it was incredible, felt very couture. That was my favorite piece. I've never tried to recreate it, but someday, when I'm ready, I will.

How did Gypsy Sport get started?

In 2012, I left Balenciaga. I had actually been designing some hats hoping Nicolas would put them on the Balenciaga runway, but they weren't into them, a little too scrappy I guess. As soon as I left that job, they fell into the hands of a stylist name Alastair McKimm, who was styling spring/summer 2013 for DKNY, and he asked if I could make those hats for him. That was the first official product I sold. That immediately got the interest of Opening Ceremony, which placed an order for 60 of the hats, and I came up with the name Gypsy Sport two days before they premiered on the Opening Ceremony website. It took about three weeks to get that order done, me and my friends working together in my apartment.

I came up with the name Gypsy Sport because I knew I wanted to have the word "sport" in it, I thought it was a cool, generic word that felt very '90s to me, and "gypsy" because I wanted a global word that represented subculture, an outsider for outsiders. The logo is two baseball hats floating on top of each other, which looks like Saturn. We call it a "haturn."

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A look from Gypsy Sport's fall 2016 collection. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

A look from Gypsy Sport's fall 2016 collection. Photo: Jonathan Grassi

How did you go from designing hats to designing runway collections?

[VFiles founder] Julie [Anne Quay] called me in for a meeting and said, 'We're doing a runway show and we need young brands from New York, will you put your collection out?' I said, 'I don't make a collection, I make hats.' Well, she said, 'We're about to put you on the Fashion Week calendar.' I had two weeks at that point to make my collection, I banged it out with some friends. I'm glad that happened; I always wanted to make clothes but never had the courage to design and put something out there.

What was the most important thing you learned from the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund?

I would say being myself. I was very scared to [enter the competition], that I wasn't educated enough, not connected enough, wasn't in with any Vogue journalists, wasn't buddies with any CFDA members, I was a total outsider with an underground brand. I was just expecting to be ousted immediately. The very first meeting all the contestants had with Anna Wintour, she said to be authentic and be yourself, because I'll see right through everything else. I thought, ok, I'll be myself and they can either like it or hate it.

What have you done with the prize money?

We've spaced it out, it's give us cushion for business for the next three years. Immediately what we've done is hired a third person onto our team. We have an official PR team now, and we're able to put snaps, zippers and buttons on all of our samples, whereas we used to cut corners before; now everything is functional.

Your clothes are unisex. How did you decide not to do gender-specific collections?

I always wanted to wear girls' clothes as a kid; girls always have all the cool stuff, and guys have the very basic cuts of shirts and pants. So when I was able to design clothing, I didn't want it to be designed for boys or for girls, that would make you feel limited in what you could wear. Whatever your gender, you can wear it as long as it fits how you want it to fit. We've been working really hard to get our fits so men and women can both buy from XS to XL size range.

You've had some wonderful celebrity placements. Who would you like to see wearing your clothes?

I always like what the Smith kids [Jaden and Willow] wear. I think they have very authentic personal style. Jaden was at the spring/summer '16 show; he's a friend, he comes to hang here sometimes. I actually asked him to walk in this show, but he said he needed to lay low. Kids like him are changing things, more than me and designers. He's in the world wearing gender-less pieces; I don't as often as I should. Not to say that a hoodie and jeans isn't genderless, but I'm not wearing skirts so often.

I would like to see Anna [Wintour] wear my clothes. I'm not even saying that facetiously; I think she could. I have to think about designing for a broader age range; I want to cater to anyone from ages 15 to 50.

You said at your show last week that you wanted this collection to be as commercial as possible. Why is that now a focus?

Because of the [CFDA/Vogue Fashion] Fund. I could easily spend the prize money in like one season on a collection if I wanted to. But I think what they did was give me that award so we could be a more profitable company. Stores we used to reach out to before, who would never reach out, are now approaching us. It's really because of the Fund.

Do you consider your clothes to be streetwear or fashion? Is there a meaningful distinction?

It's hard. I didn't even like being called a unisex brand before. Yes, I think it's important that we are considered streetwear, but I don't want it to only be streetwear. I see my friends and even people I don't know wearing Gypsy Sport now, which I think is cool, but I also have the pleasure of seeing Vogue editors wearing it to work, and so it's not necessarily streetwear anymore.