Why the Fashion World Is Obsessed With ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

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Why the Fashion World Is Obsessed With ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’

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Her shoes were thigh-high, bedazzled platform moon boots. Her outfit was encircled by a tutu tilted at a particularly rakish angle. Her capelet, cresting in tusklike spikes, appeared to be hand-wrought from aluminum foil.

Jeremy Scott, the fashion designer, leaned forward and fixed the contestant, Alyssa Edwards, with a look. “I will just come out of the closet here and say, This is fashion,” he said.

And because this is also “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” — one of the reality TV shows in the mini-drag empire overseen by RuPaul Charles, the self-proclaimed drag “supermodel of the world” — Ms. Edwards, a drawling diva out of Mesquite, Tex., accepted the compliment and went on to lip-sync Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart.”

For the uninitiated, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a competition on the Logo network to find “America’s next drag superstar.” It is a campy, joyful pastiche of “Project Runway,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “America’s Got Talent,” requiring its would-be superstars to sing, dance, act, strut and lip-sync for the title. Along the way, in and out of drag, contestants design and make their own dresses, spackle on their own makeup and merrily talk trash about, and to, one another.

Is it any wonder that it has become the fashion industry’s favorite show?

“I’ve seen every episode,” said Marc Jacobs, who, like Mr. Scott, has been a guest judge on the show. (Mr. Charles and his friend and sidekick, Michelle Visage, are two of the constant judges, with a rotating roster of regulars and guests.) “It makes me laugh, it makes me cry. There’s a lot of power in it, and I’m not a big reality TV show fan at all.”

It was first recommended to him by the photographer Steven Meisel.

Since its premiere in 2009, “Drag Race” has grown from minor curiosity into niche touchstone, largely by word of mouth and social media. This month, after being ignored by most major awards for years, Mr. Charles won his (and the show’s) first Emmy, for best host.

Its audience is growing along with its acclaim. The first episode of the eighth season of “Drag Race,” its most recent, which concluded in May, was the most streamed in the history of the series.

Viewership for the second season of “Drag Race All Stars,” in which previous contestants come back for a second chance at a crown, airing now, is up 28 percent over “Drag Race” (and more than 50 percent over the first season of “All Stars”).

Winners and runners-up have gone on to perform around the world, record albums and music videos, team up with cosmetics companies and, in at least one case (Laganja Estranja, Season 6), debut a line of marijuana-centric fashion, accessories and dog clothes.

In some circles, the show has been celebrated for its politics of affirmation and visibility. In fashion circles, it is celebrated for this, too — but also for minting a class of demi-celebrities who look great in a dress.

“It’s happening,” said Miss Fame, 31, a contestant on Season 7. “The doors have been opening.” Since being on “Drag Race,” she has attended New York Fashion Week (and will attend Paris’s this season) and made beauty videos for L’Oréal, which sent her to the Cannes Film Festival, where she walked the red carpet in a Zac Posen gown.

Mr. Charles’s queens are now guests at fashion shows and fashion week parties, adored by the biggest names in the industry. Pat McGrath, the doyenne of runway makeup artists, posts images of contestants on her social media accounts. Miu Miu flew several contestants to Paris for a party to celebrate its perfume last July.

They also appear in magazines and ad campaigns. Mr. Meisel was on the vanguard when he shot Carmen Carrera (an early contestant who has since announced she is transgender) for W magazine in 2011.

In the years since, more have followed. Pearl, a contestant from Season 7, signed with Wilhelmina Models in 2015. This year, Mr. Jacobs featured Dan Donigan (better known by his nom de drag, Milk), a contestant from Season 6, in his spring ads, wearing his women’s collection.

And in April, Naomi Campbell gave a shout-out to Naomi Smalls, a Season 8 runner-up who chose a drag name in Ms. Campbell’s honor. “I’m loving Naomi Smalls,” Ms. Campbell told a crowd in London.

“It’s a kind of no-brainer,” said Violet Chachki, 24, the winner from Season 7. “There’s a strong crossover there.”

Known on the show as a “fashion queen” (as opposed to a “comedy queen” or a “pageant queen”), Ms. Chachki’s signature look involved corseting herself to a wasp-waistedness so extreme that one of her accessories was an oxygen tank.

Since her win, she has been invited to fashion shows by Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Scott, and was among those flown to the Miu Miu party in Paris (“life-changing,” she said).

The photographer Steven Klein shot her for Interview magazine, alongside the runway model Anna Cleveland, and for Italian Vogue, alongside other “Drag Race” alumni, for an article about the club promoter Susanne Bartsch.

“I think that a lot of people in the fashion world have an eye on me, because I do have that crossover,” Ms. Chachki said. “It seems so normal to me now, but even three years ago I never would have imagined it. Now it seems I’m segueing into that world, more so than the drag world.”

“That world” is watching, and discussing.

“I was on set shooting an ad campaign a few days ago, and I think half the set watched the show,” said the designer Jason Wu. “It was totally the topic of the day. Between the makeup artist and the set designer, we’re all huge fans.” Mr. Wu has a long history with RuPaul; as a doll designer before he worked in fashion, Mr. Wu worked on a series of RuPaul dolls.

“There are many weekly discussions in the office,” said the designer Joseph Altuzarra, who called RuPaul “the heir apparent to Oprah.” “A lot of people go into fashion — a lot of designers, certainly — because they love clothing, they love makeup and hair and beauty. And I think ‘Drag Race’ is such an extreme version of it that it only makes sense that people in this industry can appreciate it and latch on.”

Bianca Del Rio, 41, the winner of Season 6 and one of the show’s most visible stars, said, “Fashion people understand drag.” She has toured the world with her stand-up comedy act, and stars in a new independent film, “Hurricane Bianca,” that comes out this week. “It’s a process, and you get to create absolutely anything you want. The only difference with a fashion show is it’s 15 minutes. For us, it’s usually two hours.”

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, two of the executive producers of “Drag Race,” are also documentarians who directed “In ‘Vogue’: The Editor’s Eye.”

“We were a little anxious they might find out that we made ‘Drag Race,’” Mr. Bailey said about his initial meetings with Vogue editors. “The reverse was completely true. The embrace was fantastic, because they all watch it.”

The affection is mutual. Asked who else from the fashion industry he would most like to have on the show — besides Mr. Scott and Mr. Jacobs, the models Gigi Hadid and Chanel Iman have appeared — Mr. Charles said: “How fabulous would it be if we got Anna Wintour on the judges panel?”

Of course, drag fashion is not runway fashion. Most of the queens on the show make or commission their outfits, only occasionally straying into designer pieces, which rarely come in regular women’s sizes, let alone men-dressed-as-women’s sizes. (“I can definitely make sample size work,” said Ms. Chachki dryly, “which is more than most.”)

More to the point, drag fashion satirizes high fashion as much as it celebrates it.

“That’s part of the bohemian creed,” Mr. Charles said. “You reserve the right to simultaneously love something with all your heart and absolutely hate it to your core. I love creativity and beauty. Fashion is absolutely that.”

Which may in part explain why the fashion industry has found “Drag Race” easy to love. Runway fashion, with very few exceptions, exists in a state of permanent seriousness; drag sends it up mercilessly, worshiping its extremes while mocking its pretensions with impunity. It comes as a relief.

And that is exactly how some use it.

After the grueling production of his most recent fashion week show, Mr. Jacobs said, he dragged himself home and got in bed.

“I couldn’t move, I was so wiped out,” he said. “Eight o’clock came around I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we get to watch ‘Drag Race All Stars.’ What could be better? Lying in bed, eating pretzels with peanut butter stuffed inside them, watching ‘Drag Race’ with my boyfriend.”

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