Wearing horn-rimmed glasses, bright red lipstick and vintage shoes, with her short blonde hair in tight curls, Sailor Gruzleski appears to be plucked from the 1940s. Gruzleski passes this vintage charm along to other local women as founder and owner of Cincinnati’s only full-service pinup photo studio, Retrocentric, which she started as a means of pursuing her passion for pinup photography and the time period it personified. Interest in the concept grew faster than she ever dreamed.
“I opened Retrocentric in 2008 and I quickly learned how popular it was with the everyday woman,” she says. “I think a lot of people assume that the pinup studio is for girls who are into pinup but it’s the complete, exact opposite.”
After a client contacts Retrocentric, Gruzleski — a trained hair stylist, makeup artist, set designer and photographer — organizes appointments, photography packages and scenes in which the client is interested in being photographed. Retrocentric has more than 100 scenes to choose from, ranging from a boudoir to an authentic 1950s kitchen. Each client receives a studio guide with details including what to bring (little more than shoes and underwear) and how to feel more comfortable in front of the camera.
Retrocentric welcomes friends to attend for support or to join in on the fun. They offer several party packages for bridal showers, bachelorette parties or just a group of ladies looking to get dolled up and have a good time.
When the client arrives for a photo session, she is handed a glass of champagne and given a quick tour, followed by hair and makeup. Retrocentric employs four stylists who transform each client in traditional, World War II-era pinup style: red lips, black eyeliner and retro hairstyles ranging from coiffed curls and pompadours to victory rolls.
The client then picks an outfit from Retrocentric’s extensive collection of period-appropriate clothing, including garter stockings and girdles, and proceeds to her first set. Gruzleski oversees each shoot, posing the client quickly and efficiently. She keeps her clients moving and laughing; the smiles you see in Retrocentric’s photos are never forced.
Retrocentric edits the photos to find the perfect moments in each scene. Once editing is complete, they provide a gallery to the client who then chooses her favorite shots to be printed.
Everyday women make up the core of Gruzleski’s clients and are the ones she most enjoys working with.
“I understand them because I don’t like being in front of the camera at all,” she says.
“I don’t like people staring at me. I don’t like speaking in public. I don’t like being the center of attention. But I need to be pampered, too, and I need to feel special every once and a while.”
One of Gruzleski’s recent clients, Molly Scruta, echoes Gruzleski’s feelings. Scruta first contacted Retrocentric because she wanted photos to send to her boyfriend overseas, but she says she also saw the experience as a gift to herself. “I’m glad to be doing this as a Christmas present for my boyfriend,” Scruta says, “but I also did it for me because it’s just a really positive experience and it does give you a boost for the day and beyond that.”
Gruzleski estimates that half of her clients are getting photos as a present for someone. But what may start as a loving reminder or Christmas gift can transform into a personal experience that the client will never forget.
Retrocentric has already outgrown two locations, and recent growth in downtown and Over-the-Rhine played a part in Gruzleski’s decision to move into a space on Central Parkway.
“I saw downtown and OTR on the precipice of progress,” she says. “I thought to myself, how exciting is this?”
Gruzleski considers her new location to be a diamond-in-the-rough spot with unseen potential.
“I looked for a space for three months,” she says. “I kept coming back to downtown. I saw the space that I’m in now months and months ago. It had no power, it was vandalized; it had been vacant for years. It was in horrible shape — we could barely walk through it.”
But the state of the building didn’t deter her.
“I kept comparing everything to that space,” she says. “That’s when I knew … I’m hooked.”
The newly renovated location features more usable space, higher ceilings (a must for a photo studio) and a more cohesive layout.
Through Gruzleski’s work, she has learned that every client has a story. One client wanted her photos taken at the clothesline because of her connection with the Clothesline Project, an anti-domestic violence advocacy group. Another was recently diagnosed with cancer and wanted a new round of photos taken before she lost her hair. By the time she arrived for the session, she was bald; shortly thereafter, the woman succumbed to her illness. Gruzleski still chokes up and wipes away tears when she recounts the story. Still, she is able to see the positives in each of her clients’ stories, even the ones that seem so heartbreaking.
“We got that moment with her,” she says. “We got that day with her. Retrocentric could fold tomorrow and I’d have all those things. I’d have that.”
This is Retrocentric and Gruzleski’s greatest gift. Women from all walks of life are invited to come in, sit down and feel beautiful, powerful and inspiring. It is this physical, emotional and mental transformation that Gruzleski tries to instill in every client.
“That’s why they’re so attracted to Retrocentric,” she says. “They don’t have to apologize when they walk through that door. I own that business; I do everything myself; I’m a strong, independent woman. But I wear red lipstick and I wear a dress. I don’t apologize for that.
“To me, that’s what I believe is the biggest attraction and the reason Retrocentric is so popular, because it’s a place they can celebrate their beauty. You can be celebrated for being a woman and still keep all your strengths and all your independence. You can have it all.
RETROCENTRIC’s holiday party and grand reopening takes place Saturday at 2183 Central Parkway, Downtown. More info: retro-centric.com.