Fashion Designer Helen GerroDec 10, 2019 01:40PM ● By Patricia Letakis
Dressing a FashionistaPunta Gorda fashion designer Helen Gerro is at the top of her game with artsy couture and ready-to-wear styles that will definitely get you noticed
BY PATRICIA LETAKIS
Walk into designer Helen Gerro’s Punta Gorda studio and an assemblage of sexy, fashionable women greet you. Some resemble curvy mermaids, others are divas with full sensual lips dying to get noticed. Most are adorned in Florida’s bright tropical colors, but a few sophisticated ladies wear black slinky dresses and hold glasses of wine, looking like they stepped out of a New York City cocktail party.
Gerro calls them her “girls.”
Truth be told, the ladies are all paintings—artwork that Gerro created over her 40 years of art and fashion design under the label Gerro Couture. Her creations are twofold: painted canvases and painted clothing.
Dressed in one of her hand-painted skirts featuring a lime green mermaid with flowing blonde hair that matches Gerro’s curls, the designer is happy to show off her couture collection of statement-making gowns, as well as her pop art-inspired ready-to-wear designs—and, of course, her mermaid paintings that cover the walls of her space.
“I was always creative, even in high school,” explains Gerro, who grew up in a small town in Minnesota. “I started painting when I was 16, and then I moved to Minneapolis and did several shows. People always wondered what I wore, as I made my own clothes.”
At the age of 21, Gerro moved to Manhattan and landed herself a job as a model and receptionist at French Connection, where she learned as much as she could about the garment industry. “I thought, well some day, I’m going to have my own line,” she recalls.
Eventually Gerro returned to Minnesota and did indeed launch her own line. Among the collection was a gold lamé parka that helped set her design career in motion. “I sold it to many stores throughout the United States,” she says.
As her fashion design evolved, so did Gerro’s artwork. “I started with clothing first in 1981. A gallery owner saw my designer sketches and said, ‘You should really do paintings.’ So I started doing watercolor back in the ’80s,” she says. Today those notebook sketches appear larger than life in acrylic and oil paintings.
Coming to Florida
For family reasons, Gerro and her husband moved to Punta Gorda in 2002, and the designer opened a shop in the downtown area. Influenced by Florida’s colors and lifestyle, Gerro’s art and apparel flourished. “When I was in Minnesota, I did not do bright colors at all; it was very neutral colors. But you can totally see the change. My work just popped with color as I lived here,” she says.
One of her first endeavors was painting jeans. “I painted a couple hundred jeans; they were very popular in that period. Then I started thinking, ‘I’m going to paint on my dresses,’ ” she recalls.
Her first attempt was to use painter’s canvas, which turned out to be too heavy and stiff. Soon she discovered Dupion silk, which worked beautifully for both painting on and wearing. “It’s like my paintings jumped off my canvas onto my dresses,” she says, referring to the divas that adorn the gowns in her studio. Soon Gerro was creating custom dresses with hand-painted mermaids for beach weddings as well as a couture collection of over-the-top designs.
dress made from a whopping 20 yards of parachute fabric is a cover-worthy
creation, as is a dress that pays tribute to Andy Warhol with its Campbell’s
Soup Can styling. And then there’s her signature dress made of 1,956 “Gerro”
labels sewn on in rows—the number just happens to be the year she was born.
“These dresses belong at a ball or on stage or on the red carpet. They are for
somebody looking for something outrageously unique,” she says.
From 2006 to 2014, Gerro was invited to participate in numerous fashion shows. Her designs paraded down Southwest Florida’s catwalks during the St. Pete Art and Fashion Week and at shows in Tampa Bay, Sarasota, Naples and Punta Gorda.
She became a regular at the Art
Walks the Runway event at Fort Myers’ Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. The
show’s curator, Melissa Tschari DeHaven, recalls Gerro’s contributions: “She
really brought something special to the show. Her canvases transferred to her
dresses; they were very grand, very bold, very couture.” DeHaven notes that Gerro
also brought performance art to the show, by using glow-in-the-dark elements and
by collaborating with body painters.
Gerro’s dresses have appeared in Vogue Italia, in fashion events on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, at benefits in Manhattan and, most recently, on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera.
The designer is quick to admit that after working 40 years, one of her dreams, one of her goals, was to see her gowns on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. Earlier this year, a casual conversation with friends about the festival led to an opportunity to provide dresses to Roya Ghaznavi, who worked on the festival and would be walking the red carpet.
Emails flew and Gerro received a request for three dresses. “She picked out a red one, and I made her a custom fit. She picked out a black one, so I made one like that in her size, and the third one was a gold dress. I painted the hemline and it really photographed well,” says the designer.
The plan was for Gerro to fly to France with the dresses and stay at Ghaznavi’s villa in Cannes where she could make fitting adjustments before the festival. However, an airline strike prevented Gerro from getting on the plane and it became a race against time to ship the dresses. “I only got one message from her. She said she’d try to do the best she could. She needed to takeup the straps a little bit, so she had to find someone to do that, a couple of tweaks, and one wa s a little too long,” Gerro recalls.
Ghaznavi’s silence led Gerro to assume that she did not wear the dresses—maybe they could save them for next year she thought. After the festival wrapped up, Gerro texted her: “What was the outcome of the show?” Ghaznavi’s reply was that she wore two of the dresses on the red carpet and photos of her with the paparazzi in the background followed.
“It turned out to be a wonderful thing. She wore the red one and the black one,” Gerro says with a smile, adding, “I tried to put something together in 60 days that was phenomenal.”
Although red carpets and catwalks are great for spotlighting her fashions, at the end of the day, it’s all about the customer. Gerro sells to women from ages 25 to 75, who she describes as ladies who have a distinctive look and like to express themselves through their clothes. Playful, statement-making, comfortable, sexy and unique are other adjectives she uses. “I have a broad range of people—which is nice,” she concludes.
When it comes to her artwork, she sells to folks all over the United States who like fun, whimsical art. Some come in to buy and she ships the paintings, others are locals and some purchase the art online. “It’s very vivid colors, very bold, very statement-making, very fun,” she says of her “girls” on canvas.
No doubt, Gerro’s one-of-a-kind gowns are the attention getters, but she also has ready-to-wear collections that are a little more mainstream—in fact, almost boring in comparison. Her denim skirts, which are hand-painted jeans converted into long skirts, are a big seller, as are her T-shirts with mermaids printed on the front and touched up with some hand painting.
For something sexy, she is introducing corset-style tops designed to be worn over a T-shirt, either above or below the bust by adjusting the straps. They are reversible with hand-painted leaf or peacock-feather designs on one side. “The T-shirt tones it down a little bit and you can wear the corset either way—with or without it,” she explains, adding that it pairs especially well with jeans and skirts.Gerro is currently working on a line of shorter, more resort-like dresses and a bohemian-inspired collection of gauze fashions made from digitally printed fabrics. “I’ve been branching off into digitally printing fabric—my art on my fabric,” she explains. “I print the fabric and make dresses out of it. “I’d like to actually license my artwork on fabric. When people see my artwork, they can put it on whatever they want,” she says, citing Dillard’s, Target or Bealls as brands she could see herself working with.
But until that happens, you can see Gerro’s artwork and clothing at her new home in the Artisans’ Atelier, 117 Herald Court Centre in Punta Gorda, as well as at gerrocouture.com.
Patricia Letakis is the managing editor at TOTI Media.