Marco Morante’s roster of clients is pretty impressive. The L.A.-based designer, working under the name Marco Marco, has outfitted everyone from Katy Perry and Lady Gaga to The Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Selena Gomez and Nicki Minaj, for videos, tours and appearances, and he made headlines last year when he held a runway show featuring drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race. After 14 years in the business, Morante is now used to dealing with high-profile celebs, but his first experience with an A-lister left him a little shaken—to the point where he was thrown off by a fist bump.
When we visited Morante at his studio on Las Palmas, in the heart of Hollywood, he greeted us wearing a simple gray T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black jeans—a stark contrast to the bright and whimsical patterns adorning the mannequins throughout his space. “I’m not much of a dresser. I like T-shirts and button-downs and jeans,” he said. The studio spans three storefronts—a progression made over time—and is highlighted by Morante’s paintings, spools of thread, rows of sewing machines and a collection of client photos rivaling names on the Walk of Fame, just steps away.
Morante is warm, laidback and quick to make a joke, followed by an infectious laugh. We sat at a picnic table in the outside smoking area surrounded by planters and mannequin heads to discuss how he went from designing wardrobe in a friend’s garage to creating the cupcake bikinis for Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” music video.
Were you into fashion as a child?
Both of my grandmothers were seamstresses in factories, so I guess I was around it, but I don’t really remember having any interest in it.
Did you draw as a kid?
I was in art class since I was 5. The first class I took was oil paining. When I got older, I liked to draw comic book characters, which says a lot about the style of clothing I design.
What was the first piece you designed?
In high school, I was doing a lot of scenery for theater. Then I made some corsets for one of the plays. I had no idea what a corset was. I just saw them in movies, so I took pieces of cardboard and glued them together and laid the fabric on top.
Did you notice you had a natural talent for it?
No, I think I thought I was really bad at it! [Laughs]
But you kept on?
Well, I’m stubborn.
What made you want to become a designer?
I went to CalArts. I basically applied to every program, because I decided that was the only university I would go to. I made a flipbook for animation, sent a demo tape to the music school and designed the set and costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Costume design was the first to call. It didn’t really matter to me. I just didn’t want to go to real school. [Laughs]
I started making clothes at school in the cafeteria. I would bring a sewing machine, and me and my friend would lay out a bunch of fabric. You would pick a series of colors and we would make you whatever you wanted in front of you in 20 minutes. It was like a little circus act. We made tank tops and skirts. We’d sell them for five bucks in the cafeteria to the other students—and even teachers—and that basically became our business.
We’d go to an art opening at school and people would be wearing the stuff we made. It was weird stuff. It was really raw. But people felt a visceral connection to it because they were there when it was put together. People still tell me they keep them and wear them.
We started doing that every day for probably a year and a half. When I graduated I just kept doing that. I moved into my friends’ house in the hills and they let me use their garage as my studio. I worked out of there and would book myself at parties like a tarot card reader and make dresses. Here’s the fabric, now you pick what you want. I’d be there for, like, six hours.
Who influenced your design style?
When I was in school, I spent a lot of time learning about futurism and cubism. That influenced my style of painting, and I was always trying to replicate the painting in the clothes. That’s where the patching together of weird fabrics and the more graphic elements come from.
How did you begin working with big-name pop stars?
I didn’t have anything else to do, so I spent a lot of time making as many things as I could and trying to meet people. I met a lot of people at parties who ended up putting me on as a wardrobe person on TV shows and commercials. I started to get work like that. I did all the branded content for American Idol for years. I did a lot of Hot Pockets and Ford Expedition commercials. Hot Pockets, where you’re dressing one boy in a blue T-shirt. There’s, like, two weeks of deliberation from the creative team about exactly what color shirt, and if it’s V-neck or crewneck, and then you come with the one single shirt. [Laughs]
Who was the first big name you worked with?
This was originally a boutique. That’s how I attempted to run it. I would make things in the back and then put them on clothespins on ropes in the front. We would get stylists in every now and then, and they would pull stuff. One of the girls who would come regularly was Lori, who styles for The Black Eyed Peas. I would do my paintings on ties and button-downs. will.i.am started to buy those. He’d buy button-downs, and I would paint whatever on them. Then I started working with the other Black Eyed Peas stylist, who worked with Fergie. She was the first person to ask us to make a dress. We made her a little gold vintage dress for a video.
Do clients typically come to you with an idea?
It depends on my relationship with the artist or how familiar they are with my work. There are certain clients I work with that basically give me carte blanche to do whatever I think would be cool. Others are very specific. Katy Perry has been working with Johnny Wujek [her stylist] since the beginning, and they have a very synergistic relationship. They’re both very active in creating what her style is going to be. I come in at the end of that process. I’m the one who has to make it real. We want cupcakes or we want her hands to be made of wings. Whatever it is, I have to come up with the solutions.
You also work a lot with drag queens.
Drag queens are little embryos of pop stars that just haven’t hatched yet. I’ve always loved drag queens. I always thought if I was brave enough to just commit to this community, this would be a really fucking cool store, because then I could forget about all the necessities women have that drag queens don’t.
For one, if a woman doesn’t fit in a garment, she doesn’t fit in a garment. It’s either too big or too small. And either she has to get bigger or smaller or the garment has to get bigger or smaller. With a drag queen, they create their bodies, so if it’s too tight, they don’t wear tits. [Laughs] If it’s too loose, they just put a little more padding in there. There’s this sort of inevitability that it will work. Women have this struggle, which is totally valid—they struggle with how to peacock and how to be respected as well. Drag queens don’t have that problem. They can glue a Barbie doll to their head and look fantastic. There’s this realm of endless possibilities when there’s a fearlessness.
Is there an interaction with a celebrity that stands out?
When I met will.i.am, it was my first real meeting with someone. I had to go to this house in Malibu they were renting to record in. Macy Gray was there eating Chinese food. I was totally intimidated by everybody around me. We’re sitting on the stairs in this huge stairwell—like, we couldn’t go to one of the many rooms with chairs. We just lounged on the stairs, and I was showing him something. He was like, “Nice to meet you,” and he went to give me his fist to pound and I just shook it—like, grabbed the whole fist and shook it. [Laughs]
Did he play it off?
No, he was like, “What is going on?”
Are you prepping for L.A. Fashion Week?
We might be. We’re in the middle of designing some stuff. I don’t tend to follow the seasons as well as other people because I work as a costume designer. This business isn’t really held to the seasons as much as it might be if I was attempting to sell at stores. I’m always designing pieces, and I’m always working on a collection, but when and where it gets finished and presented is not as much of a concern to me.
What’s the next thing for you?
Right now, we’re working on launching the men’s underwear line and the men’s site. We’ve always sold piece by piece, in person, so this will be our first foray into that side of the business. We’ve had a lot of interest from stores all over the world, but I’m not ready for all that. I like to crawl.