Emmys FYC: How Zaldy's iconic costumes made RuPaul the best-dressed woman on TV
Queen Mother of all things drag, behind the greatest woman in reality competition television is a dedicated costume designer making sure RuPaul looks her best each time she steps one of her signature, lengthy legs onto the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway. With two Emmys already under his glistening belt, longtime RuPaul collaborator Zaldy — who’s been working with the legendary singer, host, author, and actor since the “Supermodel (You Better Work)” days — tells EW how his “telepathic” connection with the LGBTQ icon resulted in some of their most stunning work to date as they both contend for more trophies from the Television Academy.
Read on for exclusive sketches and insight on how Zaldy strives to make RuPaul the best-dressed woman on TV.
It might look like construction scaffolding is required to hold up Ru’s sky-high wigs, but the majority of his fashion-based support comes from his intuitive connection to Zaldy’s vision — one he’s trusted for nearly three decades.
“It’s a very loose communication. It’s hard to pinpoint that creative place that Ru and I connect on. But, it’s almost like an intuitive and telepathic thing,” Zaldy says of how he approaches conceptualizing designs for each new season of Drag Race, which typically involves him improvising an entire wardrobe based on a mental backlog of Ru’s likes and dislikes when it comes to clothes. We both know what we’ve done in the past and what’s coming in the next seasons. There are so many things to sort out. It’s more intuitive. We’ve worked together so long and we have this trust and bond, but it’s so natural that we’re on the same page. We don’t have to speak as much.
Still, there are certain criteria Ru’s garments — sometimes which come together as Zaldy and his New York City studio team have to build whie standing on tall ladders, he says with a laugh — must meet.
” We definitely have to show Ru’s waist, we decided on that,” he continues. “As a whole ideal, it’s really about lengthening Ru and making that ratio of the waist really stand out, because she’s a real fashion figure with the proportions of a fashion drawing in real life.”
Zaldy’s working partnership with RuPaul is virtually stitched into his DNA, as their work history stretches back as long as the feather boa on Yvie Oddly’s season 11 entrance lewk. His vision for season 11 marked a definitive shift for RuPaul’s style, however.
“The archetype is the glamorous gown look. Over the course of change, all of a sudden we started doing short dresses and more adult pieces. It evolved the way Ru’s personal style has evolved and the way I’ve evolved and the way fashion churns,” Zaldy observes, adding that Ru often pulls pieces from his personal collection — meticulously archived by the 58-year-old — at random, entirely dependent on his mood.
Fittingly, RuPaul pulled three vintage looks to wear on season 11, including his Snatch Game runway look and a gown from the late ’90s.
“It’s a short, pink leopard, [almost like a] Flintstones look,” Zaldy remembers. “That was one of my favorite looks from her old VH1 talk show, so when I found out it was being worn, I was dying! I think around that same time was when everyone was doing the 10-year challenge on Instagram, so it inspired Ru to be like, here’s my 20-year challenge! It still fits!”
Zaldy used one of the show’s Emmy statuettes (no, really) as a base for which to design this extravagant print, pinning mock materials and accents onto the gilded trophy as a foundation for this elaborate creation, originally crafted for season 11, though it was ultimatley banked by Ru for future usage. Such is the standard when you have a powerful icon calling the shots.
“We’ll design [a gown] so in-depth, but maybe that one needs to wait a second, or we make the gown and Ru saves it for something else,” Zaldy says. “There are a few gowns I made for season 11 that are going to be on upcoming episodes, elsewhere. [This is] one of them. We prepare full seasons — but, being the only [head] judge on your own show, Ru decides where they all go!”
“The big thing was for many seasons [was] we didn’t show Ru’s legs. Everything was a long gown,” Zaldy says of RuPaul’s preferences, though he felt a seismic shift when it came to showing off RuPaul’s iconic stems — which inspired Ru to dig deep into her closet to pull out the aforementioned vintage zebra print leotard during the Snatch Game episode. “All of a sudden, there was a signal and a communication that legs were ok. Ru was going for legs! You can’t imagine the tears that went around my studio in New York. I was like, ‘What!? Oh my God!’ When I first met Ru, it was all legs. Nobody in the world has legs like this…. This is Ru as I met her and started with her!”
This striped cotton dress is another piece Ru added to the season 11 mix, much to Zaldy’s pleasure. That makes his job a seamless, unorthodox blend of intuition, history, innovation, and curatorial excellence.
“In episode 10, she wore a gown I designed back [in the ’90s], a long, striped cotton gown. But it was just in the mood, that’s just how it goes,” he says. “What’s amazing about what Ru has built is that Ru is the host of this reality competition and Ru is the final judge. In the same way we look at her wardrobe, Ru will have the final say. That’s how we communicate!”
Zaldy estimates each of Ru’s looks can come together in anywhere from four to 14 days. The caftan look from episode 2, however, gestated for a few years before finally coming to fruition to fit the theme of the week’s acting challenge, which saw the queens acting in a Black Panther spoof.
“I’m very motivated by fabric. I bought that fabric for Ru maybe two seasons earlier, and I kept trying to do something to make it work,” the designer recalls. “Something just spoke for season 11, and it goes against our ‘we need a definite focal point at the waist’ [mantra], but a caftan just seemed right, so I made it a half-caftan where you could feel that there was a waist under there, too. I love that look so much and Ru was so into it. It’s fun to be on that discovery path with Ru!”
When Zaldy finishes his collections for the season, he knows each piece doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in front of the camera. He says Ru has final say on what does or doesn’t make it to air, and whatever lives to bask under the lights above the runway can largely depend on Ru’s momentary mood. That, he says, is what keeps the true spirit of fashion alive on the main stage — especially when Ru went head-over-nine-inch-heels for the bold, oversized shoulder gown he wore next to Miley Cyrus on the season 11 opener (something Zaldy threw in as a risky surprise that paid off).
“That was a really different look for Ru. I thought Ru would get into the vintage vibe of the whole thing. When it arrived, Ru was like, ‘Oh my God, this is episode 1!’ She couldn’t wait to get into that outfit,” Zaldy excitedly remembers. “It’s like a full puffball gown, which isn’t his normal thing. It’s a lot of coverage for Ru, but it was good, and a nice example of [me sending things] I’m feeling that I want to see in a season.”
As Drag Race evolved from its humble beginnings on Logo to the worldwide stage of VH1, Zaldy’s workload got bigger, and so did the dresses. He used to keep Ru’s designs closely tied to the week’s episode challenges, but has since taken extensive liberties, either squarely playing into the week’s aesthetic (for example, this gown from the “All That Glitters” episode) for maximum impact.
“It’s so different from the way most people work. In the early seasons, I would get a list of what the episode themes were, and even though we adhere to the old adage that legends know no dress code, Ru doesn’t have to play into any of the themes, but sometimes I enjoy playing into those themes,” explains Zaldy. “That was in the early days when we had a linear game plan. As the seasons went on, everything got bigger and we got busier. I never know what’s coming!”
“It’s a Bob Mackie-Cher relationship,” Zaldy continues. “It’s a weird thing. A lot of people, especially in television, where there are producers’ concerns managers’ concerns, everybody trusts our relationship. It’s not only us. Nobody needs to check in to make sure everything is going to be on par. It’s different. It’s the package and culmination of everything we’ve built as a supermodel.”
Like the rest of us, Zaldy hopes Ru will one day launch a permanent exhibition of his extensive collection, which includes some pieces that are multiple decades old.
“Ru is her own archivist and takes impeccable care of each look. I hadn’t seen some of these looks from the old VH1 talk show from the past, like 20 years ago,” he observes. “They’re still in perfect condition. It’s really amazing, and I know that Ru would love to do something with it at some point. [Sometimes] they’re on display [but] I think Ru has a nice, complete vision of everything through the past decade.”
Museums of the world, take note.
RuPaul — as host, mentor, and creative inspiration — decides who's in and who's out.