RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Hunger Games film franchise, Lady Gaga, and Blue Ivy. What do all of these things have in common? Boundary-pushing and outrageous style and design. They also have something else in common: Casey Caldwell. In the last 10 years, Caldwell worked with all of the aforementioned brands and styling teams, and he’s on a mission to continue to push the limits in the fashion industry.
Caldwell started designing for contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race during season 9, and just recently designed a stunning costume for Rosé on season 13. The prompt for this particular outfit was “bag,” and Rosé, although based in New York City now, originally hails from Scotland. Naturally, Caldwell designed an entire outfit around a Scottish bagpipe. His innovative work has been featured in Posture magazine, Italian Vogue, and a handful of the most famous queens’ Instagram accounts. His most famous designs include zip ties, spikes, colorful neoprene, and lots of ruffles. As he says, “the bigger the better.”
To start, how has RuPaul influenced your life?
Well, it’s kind of funny because I feel like in a weird way, he’s like my boss, who I’ve never met. I’m not actually employed by VH1, I’m kind of like an independent contractor that’s hired by the queens themselves. It’s crazy how RuPaul has influenced the world and how someone like me, a costume designer, can pretty much be employed full time making drag queen costumes. That, 10 years ago, would never have been a thing someone would be doing.
It’s just amazing that all these opportunities for queer people have come to the forefront because of what he’s created. I would love to meet RuPaul one day, we’ll see if it happens.
When did you first get into drag?
When I was little, I was very lucky to have very supportive parents and family. When it was Halloween time, I was probably like four or five years old, my mom was like, what do you want to be for Halloween? I was obsessed with The Little Mermaid. So I obviously wanted to be a little mermaid. And my mom was down for me to be what I wanted, so she was like, ‘Yeah, okay, like, let’s do that. Let’s be a little mermaid.’
Yeah! I like to call it baby drag. But the first time I really did, like, drag drag, and kind of knew what I was doing and actually exploring the art form, was in college.
Where did you go to college?
I went to UC Santa Cruz in California, so I was pretty close to San Francisco. I had friends in the city that did drag and would perform. I would sneak into the bars before I was of age and dress up. And then that kind of turned into like, ‘Hey, do you want to do a number?’ I was learning costume design in school, and I kind of focused on making these crazy, crazy costumes and performance pieces. People started paying me to make them something. And what’s so nice about doing costume for drag is that most of the time the prompt is like, ‘Go crazy, the bigger the better.’ Things with movement and sparkle and just really like, design to your heart’s content.
Where do you pull inspiration from? Do you have any design influences?
My purpose as an artist is simply to interact with the world around me and convey my experience. Inspiration really comes from everywhere, be it politics or love or relationships or even just small encounters with people on a day-to-day.
When I look at my collections in the past, my very first collection was inspired by my grandfather. That was an important moment in my life, when he passed away, I wanted to do something to kind of honor him and what I was experiencing at that time in my life. A collection I did a couple years ago, when Donald Trump was put in office was, I had a lot of friends messaging me, like, ‘Hey, we’re out here protesting, and I want to wear some things that keep me warm while I’m out here protesting and also things that are just going to garner attention.’ You know, crazy head masks and things. So I did a collection called Riot, where I basically made clothes that were tough and fierce and things that you could go protest in.
In many ways, drag is all about inclusivity and making people feel welcome. How do you show that or illuminate that through your designs?
I like to make things that are a bit more oversized and comfortable, and things that any body type and any person could wear. I like to bring that element of drag and acceptance into fashion because, honestly, the fashion world is so exclusive in a lot of ways. There’re a lot of brands out there where only if you’re this specific kind of person, like if you’re a female under 100 pounds, can you fit into our garments. I think that drag and its inclusivity and the kind of bodies and people that I’ve had to design for in the past have really influenced my more ready-to-wear stuff. I like to make things that anyone could feel good in.
How did COVID disrupt your workflow and income?
CC: Yeah, when it first started, there were a few weeks, a few months even, of a little bit of panic because I was unsure of when television production would come back and when performances out at bars or tours — my main gig was making things for performers. I luckily had just done a collection so I had new designs and things out and a lot of it was kind of loungewear pieces to wear around in the house. So yeah, that was kind of perfect.
And then I started making masks: I was sitting at home on a lot of fabric and pretty much all the tools necessary to make them. I started working with this organization called Art Makes Masks. I would do a bunch of orders for them, and they would ship them out to hospitals or drop them off at local hospitals here in our city. It’s kind of strange the ways that artists have to find ways to make sense — I never would have thought I would be at home making masks for people in a pandemic and that that would be my source of income for a few months. So, yeah, that was crazy.
It’s wild how fast things can change.
Yeah, I mean I oftentimes found myself sneaking into fabric stores that were open, but they weren’t open… like out the back door just trying to get some yardage of neoprene to be able to make something.
I love your neoprene stuff.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, I know, it’s funny how I started doing neoprene pieces — I was in Santa Cruz, and surf culture was a big thing. Everyone had wetsuits and I just kind of loved the feel of it. Then I realized there’s fashion neoprene that’s lighter, and it comes in all these fun colors. And still to this day, I use it all the time. People always come to me for the neoprene and the zip ties.
Did the drag community take a big hit with the shutdowns and not being able to go to performances? Drag is such an in-person and community-oriented expression.
New York is so alive, it’s the city that never sleeps, like there’s so much to do here and you meet so many amazing people. So it’s hard when all of that shuts down and you’re forced to be alone. I think a lot of people either couldn’t afford to stay in the city, or they kind of thought the reasons that they came here are not accessible any longer. I know so many artists and friends who have left the city to move home.
Drag is such an art form that celebrates community and being around each other. So I know that so many drag artists have had to find other ways to make money in the meantime. But I mean, artists find a way is what I’ve found, at least thus far in my life. There’s been some really great online showcases on YouTube, or live Twitch shows. People still find a way to get out there and perform and create community; it’s just changed a lot with COVID.
What does drag mean to you? And what do you hope to convey through your designs?
I mean, drag to me is just some sort of manifestation of the queer imagination. I think in the past, and even still, queer people are condemned for their creativity and their fears, and imagination, and drag really is a place where people can just be free and be who they are, and express themselves without judgment, and in a place of community where people are able to do the same and celebrate each other.