Las Vegas has been called a city of surface, where the glossy exterior conceals hard work and long hours. Under the sequins and spangles, there’s often safety pins and glue, something few people know better than designer Grant Philipo.
Philipo has designed and/or built costumes for such iconic divas as Dolly Parton and Ann-Margret, as well as rising starlets like Absinthe’s Melody Sweets and burlesque queen Kalani Kokonuts. For decades, he has been collecting and restoring show and movie costumes, which are contained in his Las Vegas Showgirl Museum. Since the museum is in his home, Philipo spends every day surrounded by mannequins in scarlet-feathered headdresses and hooded velvet gowns, chain-bedecked jumpsuits and mirror-studded codpieces. “Glitz and glamour,” he intones, “glitz and glamour.” It’s more than a description of his surroundings: It’s Grant Philipo’s philosophy of life.
Philipo’s costume career came by accident. He grew up in Iowa but relocated to Las Vegas “trying to be a model, singer, dancer—typical of Vegas in the ’80s” and found himself at a house party. “A girl answers the door in a g-string and nothing else,” he continues. “I look out a sliding-glass window to the pool, and there is this ocean of naked bodies—this was back when dancers couldn’t have tan lines.”
One of the dancers showed Philipo a bird costume she was making, and he cringed. “It looked like the worst Aztec war helmet—absolutely nothing like a bird. … She was using a little teeny stuffed toy duck as a model! I said, ‘I hate to tell you, but I believe I could do a better job.’” She asked if he could sew. “No. I knew art, I had won art scholarships, had things in museums.” Philipo created an extravagant white feather costume. “When she saw it, she cried. … All she did was raise her head and open her wings [onstage], and she got a standing ovation from the audience.”
Not that the success of that first design turned Philipo’s head. “I said, ‘I will never make another costume. I do not want to be in the background.’” But when Puerto Rican sex bomb Iris Chacon saw the costume, she asked him to design production numbers for her new show at the Caribe Hilton, and Philipo couldn’t say no. “I was going to Puerto Rico,” he says, shaking his head. “I thought I was going to Europe! I thought I was finally going to Paris!” The project had its obstacles—the glue on a dozen feathered headdresses melted en route to not-Europe; Chacon found her outfits insufficiently glitzy; and it took “a barrel of rhinestones” to overcome the language/taste barrier. But the show was a success, and Philipo finally accepted that it was his destiny to make the stars shine.
Philipo went on to perfect his craft with legendary Hollywood designers Bob Mackie and Bill Hargate, learning the fine arts of feathering and beading, draping and sculpting. He worked with such icons as Michael Jackson and Sylvester Stallone and bands from the Mandrell Sisters to KISS, thus adding the handling of major egos to his skill set. “The bigger they are, the sweeter they are,” he says of his dealings with celebs, “the less known they are, the more horrible they are.” Philipo also had his own experience inside the glitter: “I was Liberace’s fitting model. I was working in the design house. … I got to wear all of those costumes.”
Philipo is still creating big productions, albeit in a slightly different format. He has met with several casinos about a permanent, large-format home for the Las Vegas Showgirl Museum—all 20,000 pieces, plus the sets and props as well. So if you were born too late for Lido de Paris at the Stardust, you can still catch the show. “We want people to see the sets exactly like they were if you were sitting in the showroom,” Philipo says. “You see row after row of the showgirls in costumes.”
What’s more glitz and glamour than that?
Philipo offers tours of his in-home museum by appointment only. A $10 donation is requested. Sign up at LasVegasShowgirlMuseum.com.