It is my firm belief that the most impressive artists on the planet are drag queens. From the first episode I watched of RuPaul’s Drag Race, then seeing drag performers live when I moved to Los Angeles, it became abundantly obvious to me that drag queens can do it all. But over time, I’ve also learned that they can’t do it all on their own— the biggest drag stars working today have large teams of creatives and other artists they work with on a daily basis to bring their costumes and performances to life, many of whom toil away just shy of the public eye.
Drag design artist Casey Caldwell is a star of RuPaul’s Drag Race in his own right, but you might not have ever heard of him. That’s because even though his incredible designs have been worn on the main stage by queens throughout many seasons of the show, his name is never mentioned on air. Such is the case for most of the countless other collaborators who work with the drag queen contestants on the show, and it’s high time their contributions to the glorious world of drag are brought to the fore.
With that in mind, I reached out to Caldwell directly to learn more about his journey as a costume and fashion designer, whose otherworldly work has helped mold queer creative culture for years.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Growing up, I was always very creative, very sensitive, very crafty. I loved to dress up. You can find pictures of me when I was in kindergarten, four or five years old, in full Little Mermaid drag. I’m so lucky— I had so much support from my family, and I know a lot of young queer kids don’t have that. My parents were like, Yes! Go wild! Be creative! Express yourself! So I feel like it’s always been a part of my DNA. My mom taught me to sew when I was pretty young, like late elementary school, middle school. I would find things at thrift stores and take them home and rip them apart and put them together in weird ways. That was the beginning of it; I had this need to be creative and make things, and I’ve always loved using myself as a canvas for that.
I know you’ve done some drag yourself, but what was it about working more behind the scenes creating looks for others that you gravitated towards?
I went to college at UC Santa Cruz and initially studied performing; I was a theater and film major, focusing on being on stage and in productions. But after doing a few big shows, I was always so focused on and interested in the behind the scenes element of it. I love acting, but I felt like, as an actor, I was being told what to do and what to wear, and I’ve never loved that. I’ve always wanted to dress myself. When I was a kid, I had to wear uniforms to school, and that literally ripped my soul apart because I just wanted to wear what I wanted to.
So I realized what I was actually interested in was the design elements of shows and productions, because that’s where I can have creative power and control. That’s really when I started honing my abilities as a designer and as a sewer and as a creator.
How did you develop your unique design aesthetic?
I’ve always been attracted to costumes and pieces that feel alive in a way. Fringe elements are always really inspiring to me, or ruffles, and things that, when a performer wears them, the outfit itself almost comes alive. They’re helping the performer do a lot of the work when the movement extends beyond their body.
I’ve always been a beach kid— I was born in La Jolla and I grew up mostly in St. Pete, Florida, and then I moved to Santa Cruz— so I’ve always been very close to the ocean and the water, and I was a swimmer growing up, so I feel like that element has always inspired my work a lot too.
What’s your studio set-up like?
I have a small studio here in Brooklyn; I really like to have my studio in the place that I’m living. I have a little two-bedroom out in Ocean Hill, where the smaller room is my bedroom, and then the big corner room with lots of windows is the studio space. Even before this, for so many years I would use my living room and oftentimes my bedroom to work— I would be swiping pins off my bed to go to sleep.
It’s nice that I have a little bit more separation now, but I do like to have my studio space very close by. A lot of times, it’s 2:00 in the morning, and I feel inspired, and have to make something, or I don’t want to lose the idea that I have. It’s nice to be able to just run and jump into the studio and jot something down or sew something together. It’s important to have that outlet where I can jump in at any time.
What’s the makeup of your design team?
I have my one go-to design assistant, Lilith LeFae. She’s a New York born-and-raised trans woman that I met in the drag scene when I was performing a lot, and she was too. She’s here almost every day, helping get things and orders together, and then when I did We’re Here, she was my assistant that traveled with me for that show. So it’s the two of us a lot of times, and then when things get busy— especially when Drag Race seasons are happening or I’m working on a bigger production— I’ll hire extra hands and people.
Then honestly, my mom flies out and helps me all the time— I exploit her for free labor. She’ll sleep on my couch and just work with me around the clock. She was the one who taught me how to sew originally, and obviously knows me very well, and she’s just very crafty. We’ve been collaborating on costumes my entire life! My mom’s a doer. She feels the best when she’s doing something, so I take full advantage of that. People are like, “Oh my God, that’s something so special that you have— cherish that,” or, “I wish I had that close of a relationship with my mother, and that she was as invested in the things that I do as your mom is.” It is truly special; I love her. She’s my favorite.
So many of your designs have been prominently worn by big-name queens competing on RuPaul’s Drag Race over the years— so much so, in fact, that you have become an integral part of what makes the show so incredible and beloved. What does it feel like being so involved in such a cornerstone of creative queer culture?
It’s so amazing. If I think back to 10 years ago, what I do now wasn’t even a thing. There were no full-time drag costume designers for TV— that job just didn’t exist. It’s crazy how Drag Race has changed the sphere for young designers and queer people in general.
I never would have thought when I was in my dorm room in Santa Cruz putting things together that one day I’d be making things for shows on HBO, or that were featured on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and were inspiring so many people. It’s amazing when you see fan art people make of your designs. They see it on TV, and then they create more art from that; it’s so cool. I actually have a bunch of fan art up in my studio. It’s crazy how big of a phenomenon Drag Race has become and how so many people get to see this queer art. I’m so grateful.
What’s the collaborative process typically like for you when working with a queen for a given look?
It’s so different for every project. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with a lot of my friends— Scarlet Envy, Rosé, Jan— so when they got cast on the show, it was very much like, Here’s the list of runway categories, is there anything you’re inspired by? It’s nice when I’m working with people that I know very well who trust me enough to give me freedom to come up with ideas on my own.
Other times queens will be like, Hey, this is the specific challenge I thought of for you, and they’ll send me images of things they’re inspired by. Then I’ll take the pieces that they give me and sketch something up, and we’ll go back and forth.
When it comes to making designs for Drag Race, the time constraints are so crazy. The queens will get the call that they’re on the show, and then sometimes they have two or three weeks to prepare. The most I’ve ever had is maybe a month for an All Stars season, but you have to push the work out so fast. Then there’s this weird waiting period— I wonder if things were used, or if they liked stuff, or if they made it to the end of the show? So it’s kind of a gamble working on that show.
When you’re watching the show as a viewer, do you get nervous when the looks you’ve created are walking down the runway and being critiqued by RuPaul, Michelle Visage, and the other judges?
I do get a little nervous, but usually by then, I’ve talked to the queen, and they will give me a heads up. Most of the time, it goes well. But I also get that it’s a reality TV show, and they have to build in a lot of drama, and that sways how things go, so I try not to take it to heart.
It’s all subjective too, so if someone isn’t into something, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or anything. At the end of the day, I feel good sending the things out knowing that they were crafted with love, and that the queen was into it, and that it was a successful collaboration. So if it was “tooted” or “booted,” or if the world loved it or didn’t, I’m just like, Whatever, I got my check— I’m good!
This might be an impossible “Sophie’s Choice” question, but do you have a favorite look that you’ve designed with or for a queen?
The first big moment I had was doing Sasha Velour’s look for the reunion episode of season nine. It was this suit that was a mint, crazy, gathered, spiky thing. I felt like it was very true to my aesthetic and it was a genuine collaboration with her to create. That was the first time my business started to blow up in a big way. It was a nice way for me to expand my business and grow, and it was really well received by people. It was the beginning of a lot of collaborations I’ve done with Sasha.
I’m also very proud of the work I did for Trinity the Tuck on All Stars season four. I was in a weird place where I’d moved to Miami with an ex-partner, and I was stuck in a year-long lease. Then Trinity reached out saying, Hey, I’m going back for All Stars and I would love to hire you to make a bunch of things— whatever you can handle. So that took me out of the darkness, and I was able to create a lot of really cool, inspiring things. Then I was able to save up enough money to move back to New York, where I knew I belonged and wanted to be.
Seeing those looks walk on the runway was very profound, personally. I was very proud of that work and it was well-received— I mean, Trinity ended up winning! So it was this design collaboration and moment that brought me out of a place and back to where I needed to be.
Aside from Drag Race, you’ve also worked season two of the HBO series We’re Here, where you were actually onscreen, and part of a team that won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for Variety, Nonfiction or Reality Programming. What has that experience been like?
I love doing things for Drag Race, but a lot of times, the work that you do isn’t credited to you as a designer. Viewers that know will see the queens tag the designers on Instagram, or they’ll find other ways to credit you, but in general, when people watch it, they just assume the queen has made all of these things; it isn’t really attached to your name. So We’re Here was really nice because we’re visible on camera, and viewers see that there’s a team of professionals putting all of this drag together. It really does take an army to be able to create all of this fabulousness…I get to actually be onscreen and show some of the process of how it all comes together. I get to be the face and have credit for the work that we’re doing.
To work on We’re Here and then to win an Emmy for it, that really was a full-circle moment. It was me, Diego Montoya, Domino, Patryq, and Marco Marco, and the five of us have all worked on Drag Race for dozens of seasons at this point. So it felt really nice accepting an award with people that I know have really put in the work in the world of drag who haven’t necessarily gotten a lot of credit for the things that they’ve done. That was a really special moment of celebrating real drag design artists.