Arts

What goes into designing a runway look for Canada's Drag Race?

Hear from Season 2 winner Icesis Couture and some of the designers who kept this season's queens snatched.

Hear from Season 2 winner Icesis Couture and some of the designers who kept this season's queens snatched

Icesis Couture (left) and Gia Metric in looks for Canada's Drag Race Season 2. (Left: A Squared Photography / Right: Marc Roumi)

This year saw more editions of Drag Race than ever before, which meant dozens and dozens of runways. But if you've ever wondered what exactly the performers are given for prompts — from the initial challenge brief to the final main stage — the sheer amount of time, effort and investment can be quite significant.

Drag, as an art form and visual medium, has always had ties to politics, activism, gender identity and self-expression. And through queens on shows like Canada's Drag Race, we are given the opportunity to dismantle the patriarchy by disrupting masculinity — or examine sensitive topics like slavery, like when Kimora Amour represented an enslaved Black woman, trying to break her shackles as she silently walked down the runway during the "Ugly As Sin" challenge. The look, designed alongside Season 1 contestant Anastarzia Anaquway, left the judges speechless, and shined a necessary light on the history of slavery, racism and colourism in Canada.

As more and more performers audition for the show, more teams are brought in to help these queens bring their visions to life and transform their drag — from clothes, makeup, and shoes to wigs, heels and props — into main stage material. But some queens continue to design for themselves, not just simply due to economics (although it can be a huge factor) but because they want the audience to understand why specific choices with fashion and drag have been made. Canada's Drag Race Season 2 winner Icesis Couture, finally home in Ottawa, tells CBC Arts that for years, she would pick items out of the trash or go vintage picking where she would find items that would fit her aesthetic. "My drag is my expression of myself," she says.

To viewers watching the show, she may have been the fashion queen of the season — but with no formalized training and four weeks to prepare her design package in the middle of a pandemic, she knew she was up against a lot. "I won't lie, a lot of the challenges this season were not really what I would normally design for — I'm into more macabre stuff." But the challenges got her to think outside of her comfort zone a bit more than usual. "I sat at my dining room table for about four days, sketching out concepts before I began sewing everything together for 16 hours a day, for three weeks straight." Since she didn't have access to her regular fabric shops in Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto, Couture relied solely on her community to help her with fabric and other materials required to finish her looks.

"The knitted fabric for my Ugly as Sin piece? Those were knitted pieces from my grandmother! She passed away before the season finished, and wasn't able to see me win."

Icesis Couture's "Ugly as Sin" look for Canada's Drag Race. (A Squared Photography)

While heartbreaking, it's just another reason why the piece is so memorable. It takes something so simple — like an ugly toilet paper roll covering so many of us have all seen at our grandparents' place — and turns it into something... well, couture.

When Icesis applied for Canada's Drag Race after nearly 15 years of performing, she was almost on the verge of retiring — but, she says, "Without drag, I'm not sure where or who I'd be." This is why she recognizes the importance of chosen family, and drag family in particular. She shares that Makayla Walker Louboutin, who appeared on this season's makeover episode this season (Queer Prom), is now officially a part of her drag family (Haus of Couture). And now that she is the reigning winner of Season 2, she plans to use her time spreading a message of love and acceptance. "I never want anyone to feel as alone as I did growing up, and I want everyone to know it's okay to be you."

While Season 2 queens like Icesis and Pythia made all their own looks, many queens work alongside designers and other artists to help them complete their packages ahead of filming. We spoke to a few of them who were involved in this season to get their insights on just what exactly it takes to create a look for the main stage of Drag Race, how nervewracking it can be to work with some of your best friends and what some of their favourite runways were.

Icesis Couture

Icesis Couture's runway look for the season finale of Canada's Drag Race. (A Squared Photography)

All her life, Icesis Couture has been inspired by Alexander McQueen. She says,"I get inspiration from everything in life — things that are a bit out of the ordinary, to things that are dark and macabre." She says her best look of the season had to be her look for the finale because it was the one she truly felt like herself in all season long. Oh, and that mouthpiece? A piece of plastic she had cut at Home Depot, a glue gun and a dream. Spit not included — that was saved for the runway.

Sean Malmas

Kendall Gender's circus look for Canada's Drag Race, designed by Sean Malmas. (Jamie Mann)

As a day-to-day theatrical costume designer, Sean Malmas has designed for Drag Race alum Brooke Lynn Hytes and queens across other franchises. But for Season 2 of Canada's Drag Race, Malmas worked closely with Kendall Gender, Gia Metric and Synthia Kiss. "For the viewers at home, I just don't think they understand how stressful it can be," Malmas says, explaining that each of the queens are provided with a prompt that is no more than a sentence or a few words about what each runway look should be based on.

"I have such a close, personal relationship with all of these ladies, and to think that something I'm making them might actually get them in trouble, or put them in the bottom… It's very stressful to be helping them and know something could go very, very wrong at any moment." (Remember when Kandy Muse dragged her fashion designer Pinwheel for the Polly Pocket dress they created?) Malmas candidly shares, "There was one outfit that I was a little nervous about. It arrived last minute, and wasn't as wearable as I had hoped. But we agreed to do what we could with it and I re-did the entire outfit from scratch." Although Malmas wouldn't say who the garment was for, he did mention he pulled the artist aside and asked them not to blame him if the judges hated it. "I am just gonna say it: we all have our unique perspective on what is fashion and what is costume-y. That doesn't always translate to somebody else's eye and mind. So that's probably the most stressful part."

But out of all the looks he created for the season, Malmas says he still cannot stop thinking about the purple show-pony look he made for Kendall Gender. "It was the first project I was offered to do after 13 months of not working through the pandemic." And with that opportunity, he was able to hire back many of his friends and coworkers from the theatre sewing department to help finish up the stoning, feathering and sewing and make this masterpiece come to life.

Poe

Suki Doll's "Good Girl Gone Bad" look for Canada's Drag Race, designed by Poe. (Jean-Sébastien Senécal)

For as long as he has been designing, Poe (a.k.a Hubert) has wanted to bring out the inner fabulousness of the fiercest performers who enter his atelier. Season 1 runner-up Rita Baga is a long-standing client of his, as well as fellow Season 1 performer Kiara and Season 2's Suki Doll and Adriana The Bombshell. Over the phone from his studio in Montreal, Poe says, "Most of my contracts are with people who want new ideas, so I prefer to give them just that." With a background in fashion design, Poe says that preparing the queens for Season 2 was an intense process and calls Suki Doll his very own "muse."

"I don't know how some of these other queens worked full-time and got prepared, because it really is a lot of work and such an intense process," he says. This can include everything from an initial consultation, sketching, adapting designs to fit the queen's persona and putting a costume together based on the week's challenge. Out of all the looks he designed for the season, one stands out in his mind: Suki Doll's "Good Girl Gone Bad" look, which ended up being his favourite of his creations for the show. "It was such a special piece because we had the chance to represent and showcase all of Suki's three Asian cultures (Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian), which I knew very little about. But we also got to learn more about her as a queen, which I think is a very interesting interpretation of the theme."

Inspired by the iconic Thierry Mugler for a dress worn underneath the custom "nude illusion" bodysuit, Poe covered the garment in tattoos associated with organized crime groups in Asian cultures that he drew individually by hand with guidance from Suki Doll to ensure he was not appropriating Asian culture. "I just was so proud of what we accomplished together. It's a really, really cool outfit."

Ophelia Manson

Eve6000's "Monochromatica" look for Canada's Drag Race, featuring a wig styled by Ophelia Manson. (Fabian Di Corcia/@fdc.photo)

Ophelia Manson, a graduate of the Toronto Dance Theater, has styled wigs for Toronto performers such as Canada's Drag Race Season 1 performers Scarlett Bobo, BOA and Tynomi Banks. Ophelia Manson (a.k.a. Justin Fraser) says that since she is a drag performer as well, she has faced firsthand what it's like to be affected by the pandemic with bars and clubs shut down. "It has been a bit more difficult to do wig styling because I'm a trained dancer, so I'm definitely a performance queen. Digital drag was kind of difficult to do in our tiny, Toronto apartments alongside everything else."

But through this time, Manson was commissioned by Eve6000 to make and create two different wigs for Canada's Drag Race Season 2. While she's known for mullet design, she said Eve let her have some more liberty and freedom with the wigs. "There was this short, grey, rocker-looking wig that she didn't get to wear — because Eve knows short hair is my thing — and all she said to me was, 'I still want it to be big and with lots of volume.' So I took a full-length wig, like super long, and chopped it up with a bunch of texture. It looked incredible." But in the end, it was the double-stacked blue wig that Eve600 wore during the Monochromatica challenge that Manson preferred most. "It was my first time making a wig like that and if I'm critiquing my own work, I just really love (and prefer) a polished, sleek fashion wig."

Evan Clayton

Gia Metric's Monochromatica look for Canada's Drag Race, designed by Evan Clayton. (Marc Roumi)

When one thinks of Canada's Drag Race, one thinks of designer Evan Clayton. A graduate of Vancouver's Blanche Macdonald Centre, he has designed for CDR alum Juice Boxx, Tynomi Banks and Season 1 winner Priyanka. Clayton considers Season 2's Brat Pack — aka Gia Metric, Kendall Gender and Synthia Kiss — to not only be good friends, but creative muses. "It's just so exciting to help your friends not only succeed but watch them accomplish their dreams when you've been working with them for so long," he says.

Kendall Gender's roast look for Canada's Drag Race, designed by Evan Clayton. (Jamie Mann)

Usually, when a queen approaches Clayton about a look or design, they come in with a vision or concept. Clayton says, "Drag is such a visual medium, so it can be two very different processes: one where you are there to support their vision, or where it's more of a collaborative process. I'm very comfortable with either one." He worked closely with Gia Metric and Kendall Gender during the season and says that it's hard to choose a favourite look, but if he had to, it would be Kendall Gender's roast look. He says, "This was the first piece I designed for Kendall in their package. I had shown them the print just before COVID and knew how much she loved it, so I wanted to do an elevated take on it and hoped it would come in handy for her."

Vincent Huynh

Synthia Kiss's "Ugly as Sin" look for Canada's Drag Race, designed in collaboration with Vincent Huynh. (Fernando Cysneiros)

Although Vincent Huynh usually works full-time as a designer for technical apparel, he decided to branch out when his partner Synthia Kiss auditioned for Canada's Drag Race. Huynh explains, "My job as her designer and partner was to really push her, and to try to give her exactly what she wanted and needed to showcase — not just her art but what makes Synthia shine."

Because Synthia also has a creative background, Huynh says it felt more like the two were partnering together to create each and every single look. He explains, "I always wanted to give my two cents on how to achieve the technical aspect, but it was always Synthia's perspective, and I was there to help her achieve her point of view." Not everything turned out as planned, as they rushed against the clock to get things out the door — "Sometimes throughout the day you're like, 'I think I do love it, but maybe I hate it'" — but once it all aired, Huynh said getting to see his partner looking happy and confident melted that all away.

Specifically, he recalls his favourite design from the "Ugly as Sin" challenge. "During the prototyping process we played around with a 2D round shape that would go in and out of her body. I created a foundation under the structure using aluminum flexible conduit and copper rods we found at the hardware store." Even though the judges found the design "too pretty," he explains that he and Synthia were trying to emulate cheesy and tacky with a touch of sparkle. "I guess this wasn't tacky enough!" he laughs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amanda (Ama) Scriver (@amascriver) is a freelance journalist best known for being fat, loud, and shouty on the internet. Her writing has appeared in Refinery 29, the Toronto Star, THIS, The Walrus, and Xtra. She lives in Toronto.

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