Where do they all come from? No, I am not talking about the queens who grace the stage at the annual New York City charity extravaganza “Night Of A Thousand Gowns.”
I am talking about the dazzling tiaras, crowns, necklaces and brooches gracing these royals. It is said that a real lady looks in the mirror before going out, and removes one article of jewelry. The opposite holds true for the Imperial Court of New York, and when an insufficiently bejeweled queen needs more bling, whom does she call?
They all call Robert Sorrell, the imaginative jewelry designer and fabricator who is largely responsible for the blinding brilliance of the Imperial Court and of rival courts across North America and beyond. Sorrell has drenched a thousand gowns with a million rhinestones and has had a career extending far beyond the glamour of the Imperial Court.
We were introduced by chanteuse Robin Kradles, who was Empress XIX of the Imperial Court, and is still a renowned queen. Sorrell told me his story during a visit to his boutique at The Showplace, 40 W25th Street in New York City.
His artistry may scream, but Sorrell himself is a soft-spoken and thoughtful man with a dry sense of humor, and much wisdom acquired from long stints in window-dressing, restaurant service, Broadway, ballet and runway.
His creations have adorned everyone from RuPaul to Madeleine Albright! Born and raised in New York City into a family of modest means, Sorrell understood the equation between hard work and success. He says he never felt deprived as a child, but going to a classmate’s penthouse home gave him his first glimpse of the Manhattan world of wealth.
“That apartment had a huge rooftop terrace, two sofas in the living room and in her mother’s bedroom, a skyline of perfume bottles on the dressing table, and boxes from Saks Fifth Avenue heaped upon the bed. My mother bought one new dress each year, and it wasn’t from Saks,” he said. “My parent’s paid $75 monthly rent. When I got my first place on the Lower East Side, I paid the same. I got my first job at a crummy department store through a friend who worked there. It was a Christmas seasonal job selling nativity sets. I couldn’t sell one of those things, so they moved me into the production shop where I learned to use power tools for making window displays. Next, I had a job at an art framing shop where I learned that you can’t measure after you smoke a joint.”
The first key to Sorrell’s success is to believe him when he says that he never interviewed for a job. Friends with ventures would call him up, asking him to wait table at their new Sunday brunch venue, to run a Fire Island restaurant, to manage a fledgling shop (that grew into the empire known as Pottery Barn) or, to deliver jewelry in New York’s “diamond district” where it wasn’t long before his boss gave him castoff beads to string.
Sorrell eventually taught himself how to assemble jewelry using solder and metal components. The second key to Sorrell’s success is had when he says that in every job he ever held, he’d rise to the top because he understood the value of showing up and solving problems. He also admits to losing a few jobs because he would make decisions that countered his boss’s wishes if he knew that his way was better.
“That’s what they were paying me for, right?” Never mind, he has always managed to land on his feet.
Sorrell remembers retrieving cryptic messages on his landline many years ago. A strangely accented voice said, “You are the one I want to do my jewelry….runway…Paris…my next line…call me…Thierry.” Sorrell kept deleting the messages and said he eventually asked a friend, “I keep getting these weird messages from someone named Thierry Mugler. Have you ever heard of him? My friend almost screamed and said, ‘Oh darling, don’t you know? He is just the most fabulous designer in the world and he has the biggest dick in Europe!’ Well. I called him back. A few days later, he gets out of a limo in front of my building and I’ve got Thierry Mugler sitting on the bed, leafing through photos of my work, and telling me the concept for the Paris show debuting his next collection. He really was hot and I kept shoving to the back of my mind what my friend had said about him, thinking I need to focus on his words.”
Ever the professional, Sorrell was able to focus on those words, with Mugler describing his need for a jeweled headpiece for supermodel Linda Evangelista made to look like Marilyn Monroe’s classic coiffure. He wanted to know if Sorrell could make that.
“One thing I’ve learned is that whenever someone asks you if you can do something, always say yes,” he said. “Even if you’ve never done it before. Say yes, and then figure it out.”
Before long, Sorrell found himself in Paris with the requested headpiece and enough spare jewels, components and a soldering iron to handle any mishap. This wise bit of precaution served him well because those entrusted with the other jewelry pieces had botched their assignments, but Sorrell was able to reconfigure what they had provided, cementing his trustworthy reputation. He has worked with Mugler on several shows, including a Cirque de Soleil show for which he provided three complete sets of jeweled jock straps.
“All the fittings were done over the phone and via mail. They’d say, ‘Make it bigger here, tighter there. Difficult process,” he said.
When a friend wanted to do drag at an Imperial Court event, he asked Sorrell to create the necessary bling. Within a year, Sorrell himself was presented at court and was on the board of the Imperial Court. He says, “Empress Jose Saria gave me the title ‘Official Court Jeweler.’ At his funeral, many queens wore my tiaras over their black veils. For ten years, I was the minister of protocol for the Court. I wrote the rules. Don’t show up drunk. No lewd behavior. Also, I put an end to all those lengthy speeches that made the events go till 5 a.m. I told them, “Even Wagner can’t hold an audience that long.”
Robert Sorrell is a man of quiet mirth and quick wit who has managed to chart a course for himself, sidestepping a treacherous world of egos, reputations and unhealthy temptations. He’s a New York City boy who has seen it all, and has lived to tell. He continues to create beauty and sparkle in the city he loves.