You Better Work!

 Zaldy has designed almost every outfit the drag superstar has worn in public since the 1993 video for “Supermodel,” Ru’s breakout song. That includes all his music videos, The RuPaul Show on VH1, live appearances, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality competition that wrapped up its 11th season in May. In all, hundreds and hundreds of looks. “I wouldn’t go anywhere without Zaldy,” RuPaul told Vogue in 2018. “Since ['Supermodel,'] our communication has gone from shorthand to telepathic. Bottom line, Zaldy gets it.” The two met in the late ’80s at La Palace de Beaute, a Union Square nightclub that’s now a Petco, and Zaldy and his then-boyfriend Mathu Andersen created Ru’s interstellar glamazon look. Andersen did the hair and makeup; Zaldy focused on the fashion.
Zaldy Goco, photographed by Weston Wells for Variety
Zaldy Goco, photographed by Weston Wells for Variety.
“It was not a typical drag queen look,” Zaldy says. “We did a lot more sci-fi future fashions, genderless looks.” Now that “Mama Ru” stars in four TV shows—RuPaul’s Drag Race and RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars on VH1, a U.K. version of Drag Race on BBC Three, and AJ and the Queen on Netflix—Zaldy whips up an “extravaganza eleganza” (in the show’s argot) in his Financial District studio at a breakneck pace. He imbibes a sense of RuPaul’s fashion direction through informal conversations, creates a diverse collection with his team of three assistants, and lets the drag queen decide what to wear when. RuPaul does not ask for edits. “I don’t even sketch for Ru,” Zaldy says. “We’re just so comfortable with each other. It’s intuitive, and it’s open.”

Four more killer Zaldy creations (with commentary by the designer!)

Some of Zaldy’s favorite designs for RuPaul were the “ugly dress,” with a black-light painting of Ru riding a panther digitally printed on velvet; and a leopard print hand-painted onto flowing pink organza. (Because of the star’s towering height—6-foot-4 without heels—off-the-rack prints aren’t at the right scale.) After nearly three decades of designing, Zaldy is finally getting the major recognition he deserves: two Emmys, in 2017 and 2018, and a Costume Designers Guild Award in 2019. “I never really thought awards were going to be part of my world,” he says. “It’s your peers saying you’ve done a great job—and that’s amazing.”

The judges on the Draglympics episode, in which RuPaul wore the Emmy statuette gown: Olympic figure skaters Mirai Nagasu and Adam Rippon, RuPaul, choreographer Travis Wall, and Drag Race fixture Michelle Visage.

Zaldy "Spills the T" on making RuPaul's Emmy Statuette-Inspired Gown

RuPaul wore this creation on Drag Race Race Season 11, episode 6—the “Draglympics” episode. (Notably, FIT Advertising Design alumnus Scarlet Envy was eliminated in that episode.)

1. Sometimes RuPaul pulls a gown from the archives to wear on the show—often reaching all the way back to his ’90s talk show. This dazzling number has a more recent provenance, namely, the 2017 Emmy Awards, in which he played an Emmy statuette in a hilarious skit opposite host Stephen Colbert (below). Before sending it back to CBS (the network owns this gown), Ru wore it on Drag Race.
2. The dress needed to make Ru look like an Emmy statuette, but Zaldy also wanted him to feel confident in it—and at the time, Ru only wore full-length gowns. “When you look at the Emmy, if you really look at it, the dress is so undefined on her,” Zaldy says. “It falls right below the calf. It’s definitely not something you want to recreate line for line for Ru.”
3. The typical way to make a dress look like solid gold would be to vacuform a hard plastic armature into shape and coat it in gold chrome. Not only is that process expensive, but the resulting armor would be too stiff to sit in. Instead, Zaldy used a technique he’d engineered for Cirque du Soleil performers, applying strips of a high-shine metallic transfer to stretch denim, creating a flexible gold material that looks solid.
4. When designing the gown, Zaldy took into account how much Ru would have to walk and whether he would have to sit. The final creation is pliable but not exactly comfortable. “It’s not the drapiest and most movable fabrication. I was surprised that Ru wanted to wear this down the runway and then sit in it for the many, many hours it takes to film the show.”
5. The original gown came with wings; Ru left those off for Drag Race.

Where are they now?

Checking in on the three Drag Race contestants who attended FIT

Fashion Design alumnus Giovanni Palandrani, better known as Aquaria (left), took home the crown in Season 10. Aquaria has since signed with IMG Models, starred in a MAC campaign, and in 2019 became the first drag queen to walk the red carpet of the Met Gala.
Scarlet Envy, aka Jacob James Grady, Advertising Design ’14 (center), competed in Season 11—and “sashayed away” in the “Draglympics” episode after losing a nail-biter of a “lip sync for your life.” Fueled by publicity from the show, Scarlet has become a sought-after performer and host at nightclubs nationwide.
Illustration ’00 grad Jiggly Caliente (right), the Filipino “plus-size Barbie” from Season 4, came out as trans in 2016, adopting the name Bianca Castro. Now a musician and actor, she has appeared on Broad City and Pose.
Featured image (at top of page): For this golden All Stars gown, Zaldy laser cut metallic fabric in the shape of lotus flowers.
All images courtesy of VH1.