Inside 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Costume-Exhibit Opening With Fan Favorites, Michelle Visage

RuPaul and Zaldy - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Dan Steinberg

Parties can begin before RuPaul arrives, but parties don't really start until RuPaul arrives.

The opening cocktail party to celebrate the third annual RuPaul's Drag Race costume exhibit kicked off at 7 p.m., and a full hour had gone by before RuPaul Charles arrived to provide that spark to liven up the festivities. That's not to say there wasn't anything notable happening inside the previously empty retail space at 8382 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles that had been transformed into a temporary drag museum of sorts.

Gowns from RuPaul's Drag Race season 10 were set and centered, fan favorites Asia O’Hara, Aquaria, Eureka O’Hara, Kameron Michaels, Miz Cracker, Monet X Change and The Vixen were sipping wine, posing for pictures and wearing Miss Congeniality-ready smiles. They all seemed genuinely happy to be there, mingling with press and fans, but everyone was downright thrilled when RuPaul showed up. 

"Yes, Mama!" shouted one of the queens when RuPaul entered the space and circled his way around the gown platforms toward a waiting microphone. 

"Thank you all so much for coming to see us," said the Emmy winner, who was crowned best host for a reality or reality-competition program at the 2017 ceremony. "Give the queens a round of applause. And Michelle Visage is here."

That she was. Visage, a superstar judge, stood behind him, holding her phone up to record RuPaul's comments. Then, RuPaul turned his attention to another camera-toting colleague in front of him.

"I'd like to introduce you to Emmy winner and designer of all these beautiful gowns," RuPaul said. "Zaldy is here." Zaldy then took a step forward, inching closer to his veteran collaborator. The two have worked together since RuPaul's "Supermodel" days in the early '90s, Zaldy told The Hollywood Reporter during the RuPaul-less hour of the event.

Ever the professional, RuPaul then seized the moment to ask Zaldy a question. "Where do you get the inspiration to create these beautiful gowns?"

Zaldy was ready with a simple answer: "It's all you."

"I thought you were going to say, 'From a circus clown,' " quipped RuPaul.

"Like I said, it's all you," Zaldy shot back, shade worthy of making it onscreen during one of the reality show's shade-heavy runway segments. The room erupted, and RuPaul even threw his head back with laughter. 

It's the kind of back and forth one could expect from collaborators so comfortable with one another after decades of working together. They've actually been at it so long, that RuPaul admitted that he had no idea how many gowns Zaldy had created over the years. "Probably thousands," he estimated. "It has been just a pleasure to have this wonderful relationship. Please give Zaldy a big round of applause."

The Television Academy certainly did in 2017 when the veteran designer also took home a new golden accessory when he won (shared with Perry Meek) for best costumes for a variety, nonfiction or reality program. In a showing of humility, Zaldy never mentioned his Emmy victory during a brief chat with THR but he was quick to dole out praise to RuPaul. 

"Everyone can agree that Ru is one of the most lovable personalities out there. It's not acting, this is who Ru is, day, night, on TV, whatever; Ru is such a genuine, lovely person," explained Zaldy, looking every bit the fashion-forward New Yorker in a one-piece shorts ensemble with kimono-style top. "That’s inspiring for my work, but really it's the proportions that are the most amazing thing to work with. In our studio, everyone is literally up on ladders working on the top of the gowns. It's hilarious to see a 6-foot guy on a ladder working on a dress."

Laughs aside, Zaldy said he got serious about creating the gowns for this season in a way he hadn't done in years. 

"I stopped touching sewing machines for 15 years, but this past season, I just felt like I wanted to try and do some stuff for fun to see what it was like," said Zaldy, who works out of his New York studio with a team of assistants and collaborators. "I actually made like four of them this season all by myself. I locked everyone out of my studio and said, like, 'Don't come in for two, three weeks.' Some of those are my favorites because they are personal to me."

Also special is the fact that RuPaul's Drag Race has become such a pop culture phenomenon that his work is noticed by some of the most famous fashion designers in the business today. Not that Zaldy has time for distractions right now. He's had his head down for months and months to keep up with a feverish work pace that recently produced tour looks for Katy Perry's Witness, Pink's Beautiful Trauma and Lady Gaga's Joanne.

"I have a couple of other things in the fall and I just finished something for Cirque du Soleil," he adds. "That's why I'm always asking to get started on Drag Race as soon as possible."

His request was granted, and the team has already completed all of the looks for the upcoming 11th season, and he's also working on looks for the new installment of RuPaul's Drag Race: All Stars. "None of it airs for a year from now," he says. "We’re in fashion, we work a year in advance."

Speaking of fashion, Zaldy says it's funny to hear about how his work on the show resonates with designer peers. Marc Jacobs is a rabid fan, and some of the queens, like Violet Chachki, have been plucked for fashion campaigns after their star-making moments. "I was out to dinner with friends and one of them told me about how Jason Wu wrote that he wanted to hang out (with me)," Zaldy says with a smile. "But we're New Yorkers, we're always working. People are really nice about it."

He also lit up when he explained what it feels like to be so open about creating designs for a drag performer, something that used to be a taboo subject. Today, not so much as regular ink in the pages of Vogue and The New York Times is devoted to the show on the regular. "In the early days, 10 years ago, when I was doing my fashion collection, people used to say that you can’t do fashion and be known as a drag costume designer so I never really talked about it," he says. "It’s so funny that this little quiet thing that we do and have done has become one of the most widely known things that I do. The world has changed and perceptions have changed... for the better."