The world first witnessed his stunning creativity and charming personality as a finalist and returning All-Star on the wildly popular “Project: Runway.” And now while running his own successful design house in New York, Christopher Palu’s talents are getting much love for a more extreme interpretation of fashion… care of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the drag stages of NYC.
Thotyssey: Christopher, hello! Thanks so much for talking to us today!
Christopher Palu: You are so welcome, thank you for having me!
So let’s get right into the big drag news of the moment: RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 13 is premiering January 1st! And the recent cast reveal itself wasn’t a huge surprise to the show’s most ardent fans, but it was great to see everyone’s introductory looks… including Rosé’s, which you created!
The cast reveal was awesome. The girls looked so amazing, and I love seeing my look in the lineup! To be part of something so relevant in our community and culture is beyond exciting. I am looking forward to this season very much!
I love working with Rosé: we are very similar in humor, work ethic, professionalism and creativity. As soon as she texted me and said that the promo was happening, I knew it was going to be due in five minutes… so I had to get a move on! I decided to really harness her love for the 80’s and who she is as an entertainer, and sketch out some looks that would vibe “Jem and the Holograms / David Bowie / 80’s rock n’ roll star / prom fantasy,” and she loved them! We went to B & J to see my friend Louis that works there, and he had an amazing selection of rose gold novelty fabrics for us… and the rest was herstory!
Although this cast reveal has been a nice moment, 2020 has otherwise been a very complicated and challenging year for all industries… including fashion. How has your label Christopher Palu New York been dealing with all of these changes that have been forced onto all of us?
This year was so weird and depressing, to say the least. Most Fashion Weeks were cancelled, and a lot of fashion houses closed their doors–such as one of my favorites, Cushnie, along with the famous departments store Barneys and Lord and Taylor. Other brands like DVF have laid off most of their employees and will be going solely digital, and stores like Brooks Brothers, J Crew and Neimans have filed for bankruptcy. I truly don’t know how–or if–the industry will ever bounce back, but it is extremely heartbreaking to see countless companies be impacted.
For me personally, at the beginning of the pandemic I was creating and selling distressed denim face masks on my website for the first three months. I made many masks and was sewing and shipping out 24 / 7. Then in June, Rosé and Kandy Muse reached with the fantastic news of being on the show, so I switched gears and started creating for them (as we only had a few weeks). After they left in July to film, custom orders took a complete halt. Luckily that month, my fiancé John-Paul had started his new job as a plastic surgeon in a private practice and expressed his need for help in their office, so for the last five months I have been helping out at his company part time.
There’s a whole distressed collection on CPNY’s site now: sweatshirts, T- shirts, flannels, vests and skirts as well as face masks, handmade and all one of a kind!
I really wanted to take my current stock of merchandise and revive it with an edgier feel. I wanted everything to nod to a vintage and rocker aesthetic–something that you can wear around the house or out at night with a pair of leather pants. I do have a new graphic in the works, follow my fashion page for updates.
In general, you’ve worked for a lot of design houses before launching your own. I’m sure there’s a huge difference between being your own boss and working for someone else’s vision!
Working for other brands is incredibly important in learning the process: creating relationships with vendors and factories, learning the ins-and-outs of production, shipping, sales and pricing wholesale-to-retail. For me, it was taking all of that information and knowledge from all of the brands I’ve worked for, and then narrowing it to what I needed and wanted for myself and my company.
What would you say is your best advice to any industry designer looking to branch out on their own?
Learn the process on someone else’s dime–so when you are ready and can set up some investment and financial backing, you are all set! People do not understand how costly it is to do this. I have had to pause a few times due to money.
I would also advise to be nice and professional to everyone you work with… you never know if and when you’ll need their assistance. For example, someone I worked with at one job was a personal assistant to our head designer, a few years later he was a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman. The industry is very small, and you do not want a bad reputation or to burn any bridges.
So just a little background… where are you from originally, and how did your interest in art and fashion begin that ultimately led to your current career?
I was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island in a town called North Massapequa. When I was in high school and the time came to apply to colleges, I was looking into how I could utilize my talents in both art and creating with the end goal of having a fabulous and exciting career… and fashion is where I landed. I have always held an interest in fashion, and my mother actually attended the Fashion Institute. So I was intrigued, and on a mission to get in.
While I attended FIT, I worked as a front desk receptionist at a NYC hair salon in the Meatpacking District and one of our clients had a friend that worked for Vera Wang. She set us up to meet, and I was brought on as an intern for two semesters. I mostly helped with sourcing and executing pieces in both the Ready to Wear and Bridal collections. While there, I was actually the one that hand sewed Chelsea Clinton’s wedding belt. I also assisted on Hillary Duff’s wedding gown. It was beyond exciting to see the hustle and bustle of this industry from Vera’s perspective. I knew this is what I wanted for myself one day.
You gained a worldwide fandom thanks to your participation in Project Runway’s 10th Season in 2012, and later you returned for the show’s third All-Star Season in 2014. This was all at the height of the franchise’s massive popularity, so it was quite a few million eyes on you. What was that whole experience like?
I absolutely loved my experience on the show: the judges really liked me, so I had a great time! [Co-host and on-set advisor] Tim Gunn was the sweetest man you can ever imagine, and [co-host and co-judge] Heidi was fun and silly with us off camera… [fellow judges] Nina and Michael kept to themselves.
I was 23 at the time, so it was such a cool experience to have under my belt at such an early stage in my career. We filmed the entire season in six weeks and four days, and went back and forth from work day to runway to work day to runway. We did not get a lot of sleep and it was very draining, but the excitement of it all kept our adrenaline up!
I will say that Season 10 was very different from All-Stars. It’s a completely different cast of judges, directors and producers. It was fun to meet the other seasons’ “fan favorites” like my girl Korto, but it all did feel a bit planned. I found that in All-Stars they can better use you as a chess piece because they know more about you.
Overall, what was your favorite Runway moment?
Creating the winning look during the Rockettes Challenge. It was such an exciting milestone for me because it was one of my four major wins on the season, and Debra Messing was the guest judge!
Geoffrey Mac, another New York designer, won Runway’s 2020 season. Do you know him well?
I actually don’t know Geoffrey personally; I met him on TV, along with the rest of the world! I love his aesthetic, and his presence in the New York gay community.
In general, is it a challenge to maintain friendships with other designers despite the “competition” factor that inevitably exists in the industry?
So, making friends in a pressure cooker is hard. I found friendship in people that had different design aesthetics as me, but held the same level of confidence. On Season 10, we all pretty much had different design aesthetics. I think it could have been harder to be friendly if we all did the same thing and it was harder to stand out. I mean, we also wanted to have fun and make the best of this stressful six weeks, so most of us got along very well and let our work speak for itself on the runway.
Does your design inspiration come from specific people or places?
One of my greatest inspirations is Alexander McQueen. I am intrigued with how they play with suiting and motorcycle jacket details. The leather, draping and beading is all just so exciting, innovative and impactful. The Christopher Palu look is strong, empowering, elegant, chic and edgy. I do have to switch gears a bit when going from drag to women’s wear, but those adjectives certainly transfer back and forth to both brands. In women’s wear, I tend to do a lot of black–but the key to doing all one color is to do it in all different textures, so the light hits it all differently. For costumes, I like to play with more boldness–whether it’s a color or texture.
I always imagined that designing for drag queens must be an entirely different universe than high fashion, and probably appeals to a whole different skill set.
Designing for drag is definitely different, and even a bit more intense construction-wise. Since you are playing with female impersonation, you really have to keep it in the back of your mind that you can’t use an invisible zipper–they will pop in a second. The zippers have to be on the heavier side. The cinch and fit is beyond important, and there is usually tons of boning. On the outside, it is the perfect illusion and that is what matters!
How did you get into the drag costume world?
I started designing for the Drag Race queens after I showed up in full drag to judge the finale of Look Queen in NYC. I wore a gown that was actually the [result of the] first time I experimented with this holographic material. Alexis Michelle saw me in this gown and reached out to me to make her promo look for Season 9 and that is when it all started!
Even though you’ve since designed many great looks for huge NYC drag acts, that gown for Alexis’ Season 9 promo look still resonates so strongly with fans.
I love that people remember this dress! It was the dress that kicked off my Drag Race career. So, Alexis came to me with the color story from the Drag Race production team, and we picked yellow because that matched the holographic plastics the best. We based her gown off of mine in the sense of shoulder shape and hip padding, but made it into a leotard / skirt so it can be multi-purpose. We used a few different fabrics in the same color to add dimension and texture, and then of course stoned the hell out of it.
Immediately following that yellow gown came [recording artist and multimedia star] Todrick Hall. I remember my phone ringing and him being like, “hi, this is Todrick Hall,” and me being like, wait… what!? That was super exciting. I got to create the half-Wicked Witch, half-Glinda gown for him and the jacket for RuPaul in his Todrick’s “Low” music video.
Working with Alexis really opened the door to working with all of the greats, and I’m so happy and proud to have these relationships. Some collaborations include Miz Cracker, Dusty Ray Bottoms, Monet X Change, Shuga Cain, Shangela, Monique Heart, Eureka, Blair St. Clair, MILK, Nina West, Brita Filter, JanSport and now Kandy and Rosé. Creating looks for these girls for something so important, as Drag Race is as exciting as it sounds.
More than just appearing in drag, I’ve actually gotten to see you perform on stage once! You served the packed house of Liberty Hall at the Ace Hotel in Chelsea a little Liza, as a guest performer for the Lady Liberty drag competition back in 2017 (which Rosé ultimately won, kickstarting her own career)!
I love doing drag! One reason being that I get to wear my own creations, and the other being that I find it so exciting to be someone else for a few hours. I love making people have fun and laugh, so Liza is a great character to play–especially when I can get my hands on some Fosse backup dancers. I do try and do it whenever I get the chance.
And regarding Drag Race, are you allowed to tell us anything regarding what sort of looks from you that we might see on Season 13?
The looks you will see this season are a step away from the usual sequin dresses, but are still bold and fabulous! I’ve experimented with different silhouettes and fabrics, and can’t wait to see it all on the main stage!
Have you had an all-time favorite accomplishment in your career?
I would have to say starting my own LLC was the biggest accomplishment. Being able to be a business owner with a brand and a direct-to-consumer website is such an awesome feeling. I really can’t wait to get back to a normal world, so I can have some runway shows and photoshoots again!
Many designers today have issues with their designs getting ripped off, either from other indie designers or major labels. This is especially common thanks to social media trends today. Has this happened to you?
Absolutely. After I started the holographic trend, I saw it everywhere–even the Garment District was selling fabric with the same shape diamond palettes as my garments. I mean, to be able to inspire the fabric manufacturers is pretty cool, because it’s usually the other way around with the designers being inspired by fabric.
What can designers do to protect themselves from intellectual property theft?
For us small businesses, there really isn’t anything we can do in this scenario. It really sucks to not be recognized for your work. But I think what drives me even more nuts is when someone wears your garment on social media and doesn’t tag or credit you. That’s what gets me.
Where should we go to keep up with your designs and offerings?
Finally: what’s your New Years resolution?
To continue to work hard and to not compare myself to people that are having greater success than me. I work hard, and it will happen when it happens! This pandemic taught me that you really have to roll with the punches and not get too worked up over the things you can’t control. If I can do one thing a day that I am proud of, I have done my best.
Thanks so much Christopher, and Happy New Year!