By Evan Ross Katz
One hundred and forty queens have stormed the workroom of RuPaul’s Drag Race since the show first premiered in February 2009 and ushered in a new era of pop cultural dominance. But Drag Race’s impact goes far beyond queens and the legion of fans, memes, and looks they inspire, extending its tentacle-like reach to drag-adjacent industries including wigs, make-up, fashion, even padding. Among those whose professional lives have changed as a result is 36-year-old Peruvian-born designer Diego Montoya, a favorite collaborator for many Drag Race queens, who, in just two years, saw his own star rise enough to quit his restaurant job and open a Bushwick design studio, which he now manages with five employees on its payroll.
Born in Peru, Montoya moved with his family at age 10 to Miami, a city he came to love for an aesthetic he describes as campy, blingy, sparkly, and excessive. He cites Princess Diana’s wedding dress as an early inspiration of his (“It was so obnoxious and beautiful to me”), but also credits the joyfulness of John Galliano’s work and the darkness of Alexander McQueen.
When he was 15, he started going to Miami drag shows, and in college, while studying fashion design at a school he’d rather not mention — shade rattle — Montoya found himself sketching club kids and drag queens. “You know how in fashion school you have to choose the woman you are designing for, like your ideal client or a muse? Mine was [transgender performance artist] Amanda Lepore, she was all over my inspiration boards,” he explains.
After graduation in 2004, he moved to New York City, where his creative pursuits stalled. Part of that was attributed to what he describes as a staleness within the drag world at the time. It wasn’t until the Brooklyn drag scene rose to prominence that he noticed a shift.
"Suddenly, I was experiencing a different voice in drag,” he says. “It was more de-constructed, more experimental. It was a really formative time for me as an artist. I began meeting and collaborating with all these amazing queer performers. The scene was much smaller back then and it was even dangerous to even go out in drag. Very different from how it is now, where there are bars everywhere hosting viewing parties for Drag Race and even straight people are into it.”
It was around this time, in late 2016, that a popular Brooklyn queen named Sasha Velour reached out about creating some custom looks — for what, she did not specify. Shortly thereafter, Velour was cast on Season 9 of Drag Race. And a few months later, Montoya got another call — the call — asking if he could create a look for Velour to lip sync in for the finale. Having already collaborated on Velour’s entrance look from the season premiere, the two worked to create the now-iconic white dress that Velour wore during her winning lip sync to Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay ”versus Season 9’s eventual runner-up Peppermint. Ornate and beautiful “but also kinda scary” was their intended direction.
This ensemble contributed to an explosive 90 minutes of television, an episode that set a ratings record for VH1 at the time. It wasn’t just a big moment, but perhaps the apex of this popular thing’s popularity — a moment that cemented Drag Race's dominance within queer culture. The meticulous mask removal – which saw Velour in a felt, lace, and hand-beaded mask held together by magnets that she cracked open like an egg to reveal her face mid-performance — combined with her theatricality showed that a more baroque, performance art-inspired drag that had long existed off the show was finally being included in the come-up of more popularized forms of drag, which often on the show veered toward the campy or Insta-glamorous. “I was almost in tears I was so proud,” Montoya says. "Sasha has such a grand vision. How do you make a lip-sync performance so dynamic that it reaches this massive live and TV audience? She did that!”
And for Montoya, the episode led to a flood of requests for custom looks, as well as a widened spotlight on his talents. “I went from 2000 followers to over 10K, which led to so many new opportunities and kind of changed my life,” he recalls. “I had to throw my bed away because I couldn’t fit any more dresses in there." (He was still working out of his room.)
“Diego’s influence is as much his own Peruvian heritage as my Russian fantasy … but the result feels timeless — both futuristic and historical; deeply ornamented but also very graphic and simple; hugely varied but also consistent. It speaks to me on every level,” Velour says of their successful partnership. “Diego is a visionary. His designs are beautiful and sculptural … so much more than clothes. I think of everything he creates for me as a piece of art. Back before I could afford a custom anything, I fell in love with the headpieces and masks he would post on his Instagram. It feels very lucky and surreal that I now have the largest Diego Montoya collection in the world. Guess I’m an art collector now!”
Plenty of other queens have reached out to Montoya since, hoping to build a collection of their own. Ongina. Kameron Michaels. Asia O’Hara. Eureka O’Hara. Monet. Pearl. Jinkx Monsoon. Blair St. Clair. Bob the Drag Queen. Kim Chi. Aja. Honey Davenport. Soju. Most recently, he designed Shangela’s look for the Oscars red carpet.
With those opportunities, though, comes a sticky critique often lobbed from the Drag Race fandom: Since so much of the judges' critique from week to week is based on the runway looks, some might see the positive feedback a queen receives on a look as being more a testament to the designer than the queen herself. Montoya, however, isn't so concerned about claiming credit.
“It’s a collaboration; it’s always a collaboration,” he explains. "The queens invent their drag characters. My job is to understand their character and design something that is beautiful and celebratory of them. The work I do builds upon what they have already created. Because of that, we come to the ideas together.”
That coming together isn’t cheap. According to Montoya, a custom garment can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 depending on the scope, a sharp deviation from earlier seasons of the show when contestants could enter the workroom in jeans and a crop top without so much as a second glance from their competition.
“I think it called for less fantasy then,” he says. "It was more giving a beautiful illusion of a woman that was somewhat based on reality. Now it’s a full-on visual spectacle. Every aspect of the presentation is exaggerated, and that has become the standard. I love that it’s going there. It’s been elevated so much and it is really inspiring to watch. I’m not sure where it is going to go because the expectations keep getting higher and higher. The queens now have to have so much prepared going into the show which can be very expensive but that is where it is now. Every runway is a performance.”
“It’s important for me that the girls look as best as possible when they go out,” he adds. “When you’re a drag queen, the scrutiny is level 11.”
Montoya joins a growing number of queer designers including BCALLA, Dallas Coulter, Casey Caldwell, Isly, Florence D’Lee, and more who have seen their careers grow as a result of the show. “It feels like the community is all coming up at the same time,” he says. “The whole 'by us, for us' thing is really nice and really important. The girls could easily eventually expand to mainstream designers. I’m sure in two years houses will be using drag queens. But I love when the queens choose to stay within the community. Shangela choosing to use my design for the Oscars is a big deal because it shows her wanting to bring the community up with her.”
That community is at the heart of his work, which, during our conversation, he proudly confirms is queer. “Absolutely,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. “In sensibility, in approach, in it’s imagination: This is queer art.”