Don’t let the monochrome T-shirt and jeans and the plain white garment bags fool you. Zaldy Goco designs in color. As the man behind every single one of the gowns RuPaul has worn on Drag Race, including tonight’s Season 10 finale look—Vogue HQ is partial to Aquaria—it’s a prerequisite of the job.
Zaldy and RuPaul—they both shed their last names decades ago—met in the late ’80s at La Palace de Beauté, a nightclub in Union Square, a space now a lot less outrageous than it was in those days. It currently houses a Petco. Zaldy, as he remembers it, approached RuPaul to talk clothes. “Ru had worn the same outfit two nights in a row, and when I brought it up, Ru told me, ‘When it works, it works.’ ” In the years since that fateful encounter, Zaldy has been largely responsible for making it work for RuPaul, starting with the looks he created for the “Supermodel” video that launched the drag star’s post-club career in 1993. Twenty-five years later, RuPaul says, “I wouldn’t go anywhere without Zaldy . . . . Since [“Supermodel,”] our communication has gone from shorthand to telepathic. Bottom line, Zaldy gets it.” And Ru isn’t the only one to think so. Last September, Zaldy picked up an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Variety, Nonfiction, or Reality Programming from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. (He was nominated for the same award in 2016.)
RuPaul’s costumes come to life several flights above a busy block of Fulton Street in lower Manhattan—except when they don’t (more on that later). The atelier is a small-but-sunlit two-room studio, and Zaldy and his three assistants use the space economically. Which is not an easy proposition considering RuPaul’s measurements. “People always ask me, ‘How tall is Ru?’ ” Zaldy laughs. “All I know is, if I’m standing next to her, my eyes are at her nipple level.” Per season, he creates 14 dresses for Drag Race and nine or 10 for All Stars, “plus the finales and promos.” Sometimes he sketches, other times he drapes on the dress form, but the first step is always scouring the market, seeing what looks fresh. Fabrics come from the Garment District in midtown. “There’s so many people out there doing this, you don’t want to be using the same fabrics.”
If there are more drag queens than ever, that’s due in good part to Drag Race’s success, coupled with the explosion of Instagram, where contestants rack up hundreds of thousands, even millions, of followers. “When I was doing drag in the ’90s,” Zaldy says. “It was the underculture, a subculture. I mean, I wound up modeling in Europe, but it was still underground. Now everybody loves drag queens! I’m flabbergasted by how regular it is. Which means these queens have to be even more extraordinary,” RuPaul included. Zaldy has complete freedom with what he creates for her. “I’ve never had to give Zaldy direction,” RuPaul says. “The groundwork and the aesthetic for our collaboration was built many, many years ago, so that Zaldy has free rein in terms of direction.” She does have her favorites, though. They include a pink silk organza gown with hand-painted leopard spots circa Season 5 and a purple ombre fringe dress, from Season 1. “I loved how the fabric flowed when I walked down the runway and how it felt against my body,” RuPaul says of the pink number. “The color scheme is my absolute favorite and the hand-painted spots are to scale for my body proportions.” As for the purple: “It was so long that no other human on earth could have worn it but me.”
One of Season 10’s highlights, here at Vogue, at least, was the catsuit RuPaul wore for Episode 1; Zaldy designed it on his first trip to Burning Man. “If you’ve been there, you know cell phones and city work are looked down upon!” says Zaldy. “But there I was sneaking away to the trailer to do sketches and then trying to send them with little to no reception . . . literally running around the Playa with my hand in the air hoping it would go through!” (Zaldy was a guest of Guy Laliberté, cofounder of Cirque du Soleil, for which he also creates costumes. He also designed an eponymously named women’s ready-to-wear collection; it’s dormant now, but might not be forever.)
Season 11 promises more extremes. A reference board in one corner of the studio includes, among many other photos, a picture from Pierpaolo Piccoli’s tour de force Valentino couture collection in January—the one with the plumage Frances McDormand wore to the Met Gala. “It’s going to be a lot of shoulders and different types of feathers,” Zaldy promises. Oh, and yes, he’ll be designing RuPaul’s costumes for next year’s Netflix series AJ and the Queen, in which RuPaul stars as a down-on-her-luck drag queen traveling cross-country with an 11-year-old orphan named Ruby. Make that: down-on-her-luck, but fabulously dressed.