Meet Zaldy: Legendary model, designer and gender-bending pioneer

Walking into Zaldy’s design studio is like all of your disco dreams coming true. Glitter encrusted gowns graze sky-high heels and hand-painted leather hangs alongside mirrored bodysuits galore. Despite being the visionary mind behind Ru Paul, Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga’s decadent dress, the designer never intended to be in the spotlight. “I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t want to be sensationalized,” he softly admits, sitting in his shimmering atelier. A man of many talents, Zaldy was ‘doing it all’ before the Instagram-age of multi-hyphenate as second nature. He came to New York in 1988 to study fashion, and quickly became a fixture of the club-kid scene with his elaborate self-made costumes. A postgraduate move to Paris found him modeling in some of the city’s most illustrious catwalks, as a woman, which in the 90s was a major move. That same boldness of self-expression led him to start his own line, and he soon amassed a fan club amongst the biggest pop stars of our time.

They say birds of a feather flock together, and Zaldy’s creations definitely attract a trailblazing breed. While the current fashion climate is slowly progressing in its inclusivity across racial and gender barriers, Zaldy had his finger on that pulse decades ago. He affectionately describes his longstanding role as Ru Paul’s costumer “like Christmas,” which has earned him an Emmy nomination and worldwide acclaim.  Try as he might, Zaldy can’t hide behind-the-scenes anymore. In an industry rife with homogeny, fast-fashion, and unoriginality, it’s the fantastical stories like his that pave the way for the creative generations of tomorrow. Here we chat with Zaldy on making his mark, his musings on the industry, and pushing the boundaries through fashion.

COOLS: Tell us how you got into this and where you began.

Zaldy: I always wanted to be a designer. I went to Parsons and FIT. When I graduated, I wanted to work in Paris. Everywhere I went, everyone said, “you should be a model.” I thought, “I’m a 5’ foot 9” man, what do you want me to do?” I became a model. I did the Westwood, Mugler and Gaultier shows as a woman. Then I started my first fashion collection in 2001 in New York. Through that, different stylists asked me to make custom clothes; JLo, Britney, and Gwen. Eventually I met Gwen, and she asked me to work on her line. We ended up doing L.A.M.B for seven seasons.

I started doing more things. I met Scissor Sisters and Jake said, “We’re coming out with our second album. Do you know any stylists?” I was like, “I’ll do it. I love you guys.” I designed 98% of anything you saw them in, interviews, editorial and onstage. That was deep immersion into the music world. From that came Michael [Jackson] [This is It tour]. And then when Michael passed, well, at first, I was obviously depressed about the whole thing. I thought, “what artist could you possibly work with?” And then I got a call from Gaga’s people. I met her, when the tour was supposed to be Gaga and Kanye. Gaga was just getting big, and suddenly she was a superstar. That was also when Kanye had the onstage Taylor Swift drama at the MTV Awards. Initially they canceled the tour, then decided to just do Lady Gaga: The Monster Ball Tour. I kept doing more tours. But it became too much traveling; I spent at least 7 months a year away. I had to slow it down, and started my collection again.

COOLS: You grew up in the city in the 80s and 90s. How have you seen the city change, and how has it changed you?

Z: I got here in the late 80s. It was so much about nightlife, club kids, going out. That was your lifestyle. Being glamorous, and flying around the world for parties. It definitely wasn’t as posh as it is now. There was money, but it was very divided. It was like when landlords were burning down their buildings to get the money back. It was really ugly. The trains were all tagged. 42nd street was just hookers. It was crazy, but it was fun too. I think that the biggest difference related to fashion is that at that point, there was the opportunity to come from another point of view. You could coexist. You could exist and have this real New York perspective; it wasn’t like you were competing with a larger brand.

“I think that the biggest difference related to fashion is that at that point, there was the opportunity to come from another point of view. You could coexist. You could exist and have this real New York perspective; it wasn’t like you were competing with a larger brand.”

COOLS: Have you felt that competition bleed into fashion, in a way where now you either survive or you just fall off the face of the earth?

Z: This retail fashion digital climate is real testament. I don’t know how people do it. There’s a resurgence of a downtown New York club, genderless fashion. But even the people with the most support from stores, magazines, editors, etc, can’t even survive. Who can survive? It’s crazy. And then [someone] like Ralph Lauren, who was untouchable, is closing his flagship stores. How does that happen? I have full respect for anybody who can keep it together, because it’s definitely changed. You need more online content. We need more seasons. We need more things in the store. Do more collections, do more collections. Nobody needs this many clothes.

However, I love that you can find a place for yourself instantly. If you’re in Middle America and you have questions about yourself, you can find a place to belong. It’s much easier to find your world, but the accessibility has bred mediocrity too. It’s like your brand is cute, but is it taking me anywhere? Real, intense talent is very rare. And that goes from all aspects, PR and editors. We’ve entered an age where everyone thinks they can do everything. Even with shows that are design positive, like Project Runway, the problem is that everyone wants to be a designer. Nobody wants to be a master patternmaker, or master tailor; they want the glamour job. Nobody wants to be behind the scenes, and master the craft. Everyone wants to be the person in front, and not everyone can do that. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks.

COOLS: Most of your designs are custom, but in terms of commercial wearability, do you think about that when you’re designing?

Z: I do. I’m not just making things just for photographs. I like to keep things very small; I haven’t done a collection in a year. But every season, I put together my inspiration files, and start thinking of what I want to do for that season. Right now I’m just sitting back and seeing what will be the right move to make. When you read these headlines like “50% of retail jobs will be gone by the end of the year.” What is happening? It’s finding a way to get your clothes out there. Everyone always says online sales. Do you know what it takes to do online sales? Stock. Small designers can barely get their collections out there, and then you’re just supposed to have stock on hand? It doesn’t work.

“It’s like your brand is cute, but is it taking me anywhere? Real, intense talent is very rare. Nobody wants to be a master patternmaker, or master tailor; they want the glamour job. Everyone wants to be the person in front, and not everyone can do that. It’s not as easy as everyone thinks.”

COOLS: Speaking to when you were modeling in Paris, and did both men’s and women’s shows, you were ahead of your time with gender fluidity. How has the industry reception of that community changed over the years?

Z: It’s just more out there. I remember the first Gaultier show I did, he knew I designed and wanted me to make my own clothes. I was like, “I’m a model, I don’t want to make my outfit.” I didn’t want to stand out. I didn’t think of it as a political thing. I thought of it as a job, and a job I didn’t ask for. I didn’t want to be sensationalized. Now, that’s what it is, like Andreja Pejić. It’s good because it educates people. It’s moved so far. You have Laverne Cox on Time Magazine, and Hari Nef, on Transparent. It’s definitely moved on, but it will always be a stigma. It’s gonna take time.

COOLS: Do you feel like anyone is doing a good job of pushing that right now?

Z: It’s more how opulence makes these men look, and feminizing them. I don’t think it’s going away. I question that while you can love it, who goes to the store, as a man, and says, “I want this floral, ruffled, organza gown?” I’m curious, and I actually want to know. I think it’s fantastic, but how do you make that business? When they even say fast fashion isn’t hitting their projections. Do you know what it takes to make clothes that cheap? Tiny hands. And it’s not good.

COOLS: How did you start working with Ru?

Z: It was just from going out. Ru would see me and ask, “Would you make me something? I’m coming out with an album.” And it just started there. I love Ru so much. It’s an interesting thing, ten years ago, we didn’t really put it out there because it got confusing for people. Now, you can do a million things. People don’t care. I kept some things under the radar; that’s sort of my generation. I’m not self promoting. For me to do Instagram, that’s not my nature. But that’s where we are right now. And with Ru, when I was nominated for an Emmy last year, I have to embrace this now, I can’t hide from this anymore. That’s when I agreed to be a judge on the show. Now it’s out, and it’s crazy actually. I can’t believe what has happened in the world of drag. It’s insane.

[*During collection walkthrough*: Ru is an extraordinary situation I find myself in. I have this with some people too. We don’t discuss anything. I just make, and ship. For Ru, it’s like Christmas. But I want to move Ru in a different direction for season 10. I want to elevate. It’s fun. I’ve found that it’s my studio’s favorite project.]

COOLS: Did you ever expect to get so much commercial attention?

Z: No. Absolutely not. It needed social media. It needed Ru Paul. It needed more exposure for people to go “wow, I can do this.” All these feminine men in heels and panties; I love it. I cannot believe how many people love drag. I think it’s amazing. It’s very different to see this.

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