Nobody knows RuPaul like Zaldy. The designer has been crafting beautiful gowns, fabulous frocks, and screaming statement pieces for the legendary drag queen since 1992, when the two first met in a New York City nightclub. These days, as Drag Race spreads across the globe, Zaldy is tasked with making about 80 custom Ru looks a year, a feat that’s earned him five Emmy nominations and three wins.
Zaldy looks at each season of Drag Race as a collection of sorts, all inspired by the relationship he has with his client. “I’m thinking about the season as I would like it to look,” he says. “But I also have to think about if Ru’s been into a color or if Ru seems to like showing leg or using a certain cut. Maybe Ru’s into feathers, or maybe we should use crystals. It’s about balancing all of our tricks into one season in a way that still makes it feel fresh.”
And yes, there are tricks. We asked Zaldy to put together his tips for outfitting the Drag Race diva, and he responded with a list of seven “Ru-Rules” for dressing the legendary Supermodel of the World, all of which he’s learned through his countless hours on the job.
Ru-Rule No. 1: It all starts with the shadowed silhouette before the runway walk.
Zaldy: Everything happens so fast when Ru enters the runway. You hear the music cue, and then you see the soundboard knobs moving, and then all of a sudden there’s this silhouette of Ru that goes by so fast. As a viewer, you’re not even thinking about it, but for us, because we do so many dresses, we don’t always know what’s coming up. But when we see that shadow, we can see the silhouette, and we know that’s the dress she’s wearing; that’s where the excitement starts for us, during that shadow. The lights turn on, and then it’s that one-second silhouette before you see the full outfit. Then she walks for a few more seconds, and then she stands there, and then we’re back up on the face again.
The initial impact from the shadow has to work as a contrast, and then when the lights come up, the color or the shine, how it works under these lights … Usually the lighting can enhance all the fabrics and all the colors. We pretty much know what’s going to work and what is not going to work. If the dress is cantilevered, I don’t want it to bounce. It’s all that kind of stuff. It’s just for those ten seconds where you actually see the whole look, but you want to make sure that it looks perfect coming down.
Ru-Rule No. 2: Focus, a.k.a. “My eyes are up here.”
Zaldy: You think about this full-length gown that walks down the runway, but the reality is that we see Ru mostly from mid-torso up the entire show. So we’re not going to put two straps that are just nice and the rest is beautiful and beaded. It’s always about what’s going up on the shoulders or what’s happening on that strap. Is there a hair accessory that ties into the gown, or is there jewelry, which I’ve been making custom as well? It’s like a big balancing act of what we’re really going to be looking at when we do see that clip.
Ru does seem to love an asymmetric shoulder, now that you mention it.
Zaldy: She loves to also have one side of her hair swept over, which does create a very dramatic silhouette on screen. But we do things like having a V line that draws eyes upward as opposed to something straight or adding shoulder interest or sparkles. We like anything that’s three-dimensional embroidery so it feels like it’s leaping off the screen. Always reflective too. It bounces some light back onto the skin.
Do you consider if a corset will be comfortable for Ru to sit in on the judging panel?
Zaldy: That part doesn’t matter because what it takes to get to Ru’s “naked” body is corsetry, padding, and layers and layers of pantyhose on top of everything. The corset is part of that nude body. Ru is building or sculpting this beautiful image from the bottom up, and my job is just dressing that body.
Ru-Rule No. 3: Go big, huge, or teeny tiny.
Zaldy: You really can’t understand Ru’s proportions until you’re looking at one of these dresses hanging. I had to custom-make some rolling racks that are eight feet tall just to accommodate the dresses. Ru is like a fashion figure. Everything looks elongated, but then when you actually see her scale, it’s so overwhelming. We always have to decide, “Is this a big look, or is this a gigantic, huge look? Or is it a tiny look and it’s about the body?” What are we going to give?
If we do a leopard print, it’s never going to be like a normal-size leopard print. It has to be scaled to Ru’s stature so that it looks like a normal leopard print; otherwise, everything looks too small. When we look at regular patterns, they’re not scaled for somebody as tall as Ru, so we’re always trying to correct that balance, if not enhance it.
Ru-Rule No. 4: Always the tiniest waist possible.
Zaldy: The closer to zero we can get, the better. Visually, we want it as small as possible. Ru’s extraordinary tiny waist is one of her great features along with her extraordinarily long legs. We always do our best to emphasize it with belting or with ruching or draping or the way the seam lines go. We always try to enhance Ru’s tiny little waist no matter the look.
It seems like Ru’s also been showing a little more leg in recent seasons.
Zaldy: There was a moment where we never showed legs. That was just where Ru was at. I never put a slit into anything. But then I started to maybe put a little transparent panel in here or there, so you might see a leg. Then one day Ru pulled something out from the ’90s talk show that we did on VH1 that was maybe the shortest dress I’ve ever made for Ru, and then all of a sudden, legs were back. It was a big joyous occasion when we could actually start showcasing those amazing legs again.
Ru-Rule No. 5: Balance — make expensive fabrics look cheap and cheap ones expensive.
Zaldy: Sometimes it just works that way. You buy a silk and it’s the finest one, but then you’re like, “I have to bind this to neoprene and cut it up, right?” It relaxes the idea and makes it not seem so elegant.
This is drag, after all. We are trying to create an original look and original style. I like to play with things so they’re not as straightforward as they may appear. You have to do whatever it takes because it’s all about that impact or if it makes you feel that certain way when you look at it.
Ru-Rule No. 6: Stretch, stretch, stretch.
Zaldy: Stretch is very important. That’s how Ru can pull something out from the ’90s and have it still fit today. Plus Ru is sitting many hours in a shooting schedule. You might have a day where you’re feeling a little bit fuller, too, so stretch is a beautiful thing.
In terms of ease, Ru likes to get in and out of an outfit fast. It’s not like, “Put the dress on, and let’s just hang out until they’re ready for me on set.” It’s two seconds before going on, “Zip me up,” you know what I mean? That kind of ease.
I don’t like to do anything that’s too complicated, either, to where Ru has to feel self-conscious about how a look is performing. There are no real tricks. When I say “ease,” it’s really the ease of knowing that she’s fully wearing this outfit and pulling it off on the runway. It’s a state of mind.
And the world of stretch fabrics is wide, correct? It’s not just all spandex all the time.
Yeah, it can be any price point that you can imagine. $1,000 a yard, whatever it is, it could have stretch in it. It’s just something that we like to use in this industry. When I designed Cirque du Soleil, most everything had stretch in it because they’re out there doing acrobatics and movement. Stretch helps even with all the gussets that we put in there. Every little bit of ease you put in is important.
Ru-Rule No. 7: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
That’s been a Ru-ism forever, and it’s really true. Sometimes we’ll have made a dress and Ru will be like, “I’ll take this one in five different fabrics.” We don’t do exactly that — we might give her two or three of them throughout the years — but what that means is that when a thing works, it’s gonna work again in a different way.
When I first met RuPaul in a nightclub, the first thing I said was, “Oh my God, you were wearing the same outfit yesterday.” Her response was, “When it works, it always works.” I’ve kept that with me for 30 years now.