After hours in his uncle’s Boston tailor shop, Giovanni Capato painstakingly taught himself to sew.
Coming to the United States from Brazil 15 years ago equipped with not even a phrase of English, he had considerable experience with fashion — as a model and stylist — but had not yet put needle to fabric.
You could say he’s come quite a ways: He’s done wardrobing for MTV, crafted dresses used in Boston Ballet performances, and was even set to be a contestant on the sixth season of the acclaimed fashion-designing show “Project Runway.”
Now he designs and teaches in the up-and-coming arts city of Haverhill, through his boutique Reach Fashion on Wingate Street.
“I never went to school,” said Capato, 40. “I learned by doing.”
Locals point to recently opened custom fashion shops such as Reach and The Color Mint, as well as giant outdoor murals, public art (you may have noticed the enormous shoes that paraded all over town a couple years ago), and numerous other projects in the works as examples of Haverhill’s blossoming culture.
“The art scene is getting pretty good here,” said Jeff Grassie, a local sculpture artist who is involved with the volunteer group Team Haverhill. “The city is “pretty much on the tipping point of its greatness.”
Reach, which opened in Sept. 2012, offers several camps throughout the year for ages 6 to 18, as well as sewing lessons for all ages and open studios. According to Capato, there have been close to 100 students since February.
Its shelves and racks, meanwhile, showcase various custom-made items, jewelry, and even one-of-a-kind doggy clothes.
The shop also put on a fashion show last year, and will host a Haverhill Halloween Ball on Saturday.
“We love to work with the community,” said Capato, dressed in slim black jeans and a form-fitting gray sweater on a recent afternoon in his shop on Wingate Street. “We want to get more involved. We love to support anything that’s going on in town.”
Which is quite a bit, if you ask Grassie. He pointed to the Essex Street Gateway Mural, an enormous homage to various facets of the city’s past; the “Soles of Haverhill,” which literally stepped it up by placing 14 large, colorfully decorated shoe sculptures throughout the city in 2009; and the 30 or so other murals covering what were once boarded-up windows on historic brick buildings.
Then there’s the future “art walk” to be established on the Bradford Rail Trail, which will include permanent and rotating sculptures.
Of Capato, Grassie said, “he brings such a unique opportunity to Haverhill. He’s going to do wonderful things for Haverhill.”
But doing what he’s doing — and ending up in Haverhill — is something Capato never expected. Growing up on a farm among all kinds of animals, he briefly attended veterinary school. But he “always loved, loved fashion,” he said in his thick Portuguese accent. So he moved to Rio de Janeiro, working as a personal shopper and image consultant to politicians, musicians, and business people. He also became a model, which brought him to the states in 1998.
But with the nature of modeling like a “revolving door,” his career waned, and Capato eventually bought his uncle’s shop, Mario’s Tailoring, in Boston’s Bay Village, renaming it Giovanni’s Atelier. It closed about six years ago when the economy tanked, and he eventually moved his operation to Haverhill.
Always in the back of my mind, I wanted to sew,” said Capato, who is now married to his husband, Steven, and father to two adopted sons.
Then came the “Project Runway” opportunity, which unfortunately dissolved when the show was moved from Bravo to Lifetime.
In the warm light of his shop on a recent afternoon, he pulled out a striped, vintage-inspired dress, crafted from a throw rug, that he showcased when applying for the show.
“I washed, washed, washed,” he said as he rubbed a hand over the hand-stitched fabric, “put on so many softeners.”
Around him in the studio, five sewing machines sat at the ready, blank T-shirts in numerous hues were stacked for printmaking, and mason jars were filled with buttons of various sizes and colors. Framed oil paintings graced the brick walls, along with fleur-de-lis sculptures and vintage sewing machines. Meanwhile, at the back, bolts of fabric of all prints — stripes, plaids, tie-dyes, flowers, tropical designs — were lined up in a floor-to-ceiling case, an explosion of color.
Prints prompt students and budding designers to push their imagination, he said. “Having solid colors, it’s easier for you not to think farther.”
During fashion camps, students have created tote bags, headbands, skirts, pillows, T-shirts decorated with cut-outs and appliques, and — currently — Halloween costumes.
“They want to experiment,” he said of his students.
One of Emma Young’s creations was a skirt bedecked with colorful cut-out flowers and buttons, recycled from a salmon-colored T-shirt.
“I made it so I can wear it with leggings,” said the Haverhill 11-year-old, who crafted it as part of a weeklong camp at Reach in August.
Her dream: To be a fashion designer, particularly for plus-sized girls and women.
“Being a plus-sized girl myself, I know that shopping can be really frustrating,” she said. “I want to create some beautiful clothes that are plus-sized. I want to make girls happy about themselves, and confident.”
Before camp, she did a lot of sketching, but didn’t know how to sew — with a machine or by hand — or do the other essentials, such as cutting fabrics to size, marking them, and pinning them. Now, she’s proficient, and is working to get her own tool kit of essentials for her intended career, including a sewing machine.
Her favorite colors are blues, fall hues like greens, browns, reds, and oranges, and prints of the “hippie” variety, she said As a designer, her goal would be to create items with “pops” of colors.
“It made me so proud to see her eye for color and putting things together,” said her mother, Samantha. “Giovanni has been a great influence and mentor for her.”
But, Capato said, the inspiration goes both ways.
“They think they are learning with me, but I’m learning with them,” he said. “The more I share, the more I learn.”