Exclusive Interview: creative & fashion director Sam Ratelle “I’m excited for where the future of menswear is going”

Hailed by Vogue as “the most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history”, in May last year Billy Porter was carried on to the pink carpet by six shirtless Broadway hunks on a palanquin dressed as Cleopatra in a dazzling gold ensemble designed by The Blonds. Just three months earlier, Porter had shut down the red carpet at the 91st Academy Awards when he arrived in a stunning custom black velvet gown by Christian Siriano. This January, before Covid-19 literally shut red carpets down, a shimmering crystalline curtain fringe on a wide-brimmed turquoise hat by Sarah Sokol dramatically opened to reveal Porter’s beautiful face, complete with a take no prisoners expression and striking metallic eyeshadow as he arrived at the Grammys. Images of these instantly viral, undeniably iconic fashion and pop culture moments are most likely ingrained in your mind. Overseeing every last detail of these appearances was 31 year-old creative and fashion director Sam Ratelle, who over the past two years has collaborated with his Emmy-winning client, actor and singer Billy Porter, on over 400 frequently gender non-conforming looks, including around 150 indelible red carpet arrivals. Named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of four “Rising Hollywood Stylists to Watch”, Ratelle has also shaped standout red carpet looks for actors such as Lena Hall, Michael Urie, Jenn Gambatese, Victor Garber, Donna Murphy, Lindsay Mendez, Van Hansis and Tyler Hanes. With a background in theatre, Ratelle thinks of these appearances as “mini-performances”, telling The Queer Review “for me the red carpet is a stage.” A singer, songwriter and composer himself, Ratelle is a gifted storyteller with a fascinating, inspiring tale to tell.

Billy Porter in custom Christian Siriano with Oscar Heyman Jewels, and creative and fashion director Sam Ratelle at the 91st Academy Awards, February 24th 2019.
Photography by Getty Images.

The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann recently spoke exclusively with Sam Ratelle about surviving his upbringing in a religious cult, his earliest creative inspirations, his style icons, collaborating with Billy Porter and embracing his client’s genderfluidity, the element of activism in their work together, directing Porter’s Black Lives Matter themed video for his cover of the classic protest song For What It’s Worth, how his theatre background informs his fashion work and the premise of his upcoming semi-autobiographical musical, A New City.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: I’ve admired your work for a long time now so it’s a pleasure to get to speak to you. Over New York Pride weekend last month you were involved in the virtual NYC Pride Rally, why was it important for you to highlight the work of LGBTQ homeless youth charity the Ali Forney Center?

“I come from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. When I was eight my mother and I moved to Miami. From the moment that I was born I lived in a religious cult, Branhamism, and once they found out that I was gay at sixteen I was kicked out of my home, and I’ve been on my own since then. When I moved to New York it was during the crash, around 2008, and I ended up finding myself homeless. The Ali Forney Center housed me for a year and I truly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. When you’re so young you’re just trying to get through it, but now that I’m older and I have this incredible platform if there’s anyone I can give back to it would be them. I want to champion them as much as I can and figure out ways that we can raise funds for the kids who live there and continue this testament of how incredibly valuable they were in my life. I’m so inspired by the work that they do. They’re the largest LGBTQ homeless youth organisation in the country, and we’re really trying to get them to be everywhere possible so that they can save kids and hopefully people like me in the future won’t have to go through that.”

Sam Ratelle. Photo by Matthew Holler.

You mentioned growing up in Branhamism, and in your Twitter bio you describe yourself as a “cult survivor”. Tell me a little bit about how your interest in fashion first emerged, despite or maybe even because of those circumstances, because I imagine that you would’ve had very limited exposure to pop culture, so how did you get inspired?

“I actually didn’t find out that I was in a cult until about three and half years ago. I was watching the Leah Remini documentary series Scientology and the Aftermath and I realised that there were all these parallels between the way that I grew up and Scientology, and I thought ‘oh my God, I grew up in a cult!’ I’d just thought that we were Christian, I hadn’t realised that it was so strange that we all worshipped this random man, and that we had to buy all these crazy books, and that there were all these theories, and doctrines, and rules, and laws. Now I’m able to start recognising these things and what is really exciting for me is that I’m actually learning fascinating things about myself. I hadn’t realised until now that my fashion training started in a cult.”

“Living in Branhamism is a very daunting thing that you don’t understand until you leave. We couldn’t really do anything except wake up and praise God. They’re Christian, but it’s so extreme in that everything that you do is for Jesus. They don’t allow members to connect with the rest of the world, so anyone who is not in this cult is shut out, and you’re not supposed to interact with those people even if it’s a family member. You’re not allowed to do anything those people can do; I couldn’t watch television, I couldn’t have a computer, I couldn’t go on the Internet, I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t read the newspaper. You’re not allowed to have sex unless it’s for procreation. Women can’t wear pants; they have to wear skirts or dresses all the way to the floor, with most of their bodies covered including their arms and their breasts, so it’s generally high-necked garments that they wear. Women aren’t allowed to cut their hair, so most women have hair down to the floor. My sister has never cut her hair, neither has my mother from the moment that she joined. So there’s a very specific aesthetic.”

Sam Ratelle. Photograph by Matthew Holler.

“William Branham, the cult founder, was born in 1909, but pretty much brewed this belief system in the 1940s after the Second World War. It was really the divine healing romanticising movement; these charismatic leaders who would touch you and heal you, and you’d fall down and convulse everywhere. Well, people still kind of live that way because those are all the sermons and the visuals that you see. Some of them still talk that way too. There are certain nuances in the way that they spoke back in the day that seep into now. It’s so weird, they’re even using a lot of new technology, like they might be in a newer car, but men dress like they’re in the 1940s. The only thing I can compare it to is The Handmaid’s Tale or if you’ve seen Carrie, that’s what my life was like.”

“A lot of those rules started indoctrinating a certain message in me, and I think I just learnt about stories because I was being fed a story the whole time. Before my mother joined this cult she wanted to be a fashion designer. She went to school and she was a seamstress, but my whole life she didn’t have a job. In Honduras my father worked and she was a housewife, but her hobby was making dresses for herself and the sisters from church, because no stores were selling these things. It was the nineties so there were high-waisted jean pants, and all of these different garments of that time that they weren’t allowed to wear. I kept watching my mother, and I learned how to put patterns together. That was a huge learning experience for me, just being around that. And I think how I got into high fashion especially was because I was an extremely curious child. While I was with my mother we went to church every single day, and like most kids I was home-schooled, because you’re not allowed to congregate with other children. Then I saw my father, who was not in the cult, on the weekends. He was a mundano as they say in Spanish, which means worldly. We’d go do all sorts of things together that I couldn’t do during the week. We’d go to strip clubs, because in a third world country you can do whatever.”

Billy Porter arrives at the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards, January 6th 2019. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

What age would you have been at that time?

“Like, five! I was at strip clubs at five years old, and at parties and doing all sorts of things with my father on the weekends. Then I’d go back home to my mother and live in this extremist religious sect where I couldn’t even eat Lucky Charms, or watch cartoons. I think those extremes developed a lot of my being. Because I had this outside opening through my father to see different things, so I always questioned everything and I was constantly in trouble. It taught me that there was something else out there, that there were other ways in which people lived that the kids who I went to church with, or was home-schooled with, didn’t know anything about. They didn’t interact with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, or different religions, or different cultures. I was fascinated by the movies that my father would make me watch back in the day like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or anything with Sharon Stone or Harrison Ford. Things like Star Wars just mesmerised me, I wanted to live in these worlds, because they seemed so different from where I started. So film was really influential for me, even in the wardrobe department.”

Billy wears Alex Vinash Suit, Tiffany & Co. fine jewelry and Rick Owens boots. Photography by Shavonne Wong.

So then you moved to Florida with your mother when you were eight years-old?

“Yes, and when we moved to America my mother and I were both undocumented. I still don’t have citizenship. So I was at the Oscars and at all these other fabulous events, and I’m a Dreamer, so I could literally have been deported because I didn’t have any status. Being undocumented made things difficult for my mother. She worked menial jobs and I had to go to public school, so once again I was in a situation where I was in church most of the time and in this really strict religious environment, then I would go to school and see all these crazy different things. I started to realise that people were reading magazines, and they became so influential for me. But of course nobody was buying them for me, because they were forbidden. So when we went to the grocery store, I’d run away from my mother while she was shopping, and I’d go to the magazine section and rip out the mail in slips. I realised that when you mail them in they start sending you the magazine for free, then you have to pay later. So I’d take my mother’s cheque book and I would forge it for like six dollars, as I kid I thought ‘well, this isn’t harming me and I have to figure out a way to survive.’”

Michael Urie attends the Drama Desk Awards, June 2nd 2019. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)

“Everyone at school just thought that I was stupid because I didn’t know anything about culture. I didn’t know who Michael Jackson was, I didn’t know who Whitney Houston was, and I had to survive, otherwise I was going to be bullied all the time. People were already beating me up, because kids are mean and when you’re the weird one or the one that dresses funny or doesn’t know anything, you’re immediately a target that gets picked on. I was like, there’s no way that this is going to continue happening to me. My mother’s not protecting me, I have to figure out how to fit in and the only way I knew how to do that was with information and getting my hands on these magazines. I had to get to the mail first in the morning so she wouldn’t find out. For about eight years I read magazines in my bedroom closet in secret and that was truly my training. From the ages of eight to sixteen, it was me reading Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, and Details, and learning the masthead, who does what. I was extremely inspired by all of these things that I couldn’t have. It was all about the yearn for me to live in this different reality form the one I lived in, and I just imagined myself one day having all of these things and working with these people. I read about their processes, like Marc Jacobs back in the day when he had a little bit more weight on, what it was like for him to go through this transformation where he became this really buff guy, and reading about his years at Louis Vuitton. It nurtured my understanding and it really taught me a lot about New York too, because a lot of these magazines are based here. So I was also learning about this place that I knew I wanted to live in as soon as I was able to escape. So most of my training in fashion came from me obsessively reading magazines.”

Lena Hall attends a Special Screening Of “Emma” at the Whitby Hotel, February 4th 2020. (Photo by Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

It’s pretty amazing to think about that young Sam poring over those magazines, reading about people like Marc Jacobs and now you know each other. And you’ve been a creative force behind shoots for Billy Porter and your other clients in so many of those magazines, and you were dreaming about living in New York and now here you are.

“Yeah, it’s truly a dream come true. And now I can finally look back on it, because I think when you’re in survival mode, being homeless from the age of sixteen, living in shelters or living in halfway houses, or sleeping in the park, I never had the time to really think about what was happening. Especially during Covid, it’s been a time for reflection and I don’t think I ever realised how tough it was. I just thought that’s what people went through, I didn’t understand that it was something out of the ordinary. Now I’m able to look back at that child growing up and just think about the beauty in how everything truly happens for a reason. That was me as a child manifesting the life that I wanted for myself, and I’m finally here and it’s really beautiful to see it all come true.”

Jenn Gambatese wears Randi Rahm Couture, jewels by Cartier and gloves by Wing & Weft. Photography by Julio Gaggia.

So you found yourself in New York, and I know that you worked at a couple of department stores in the city as a personal shopper, did that naturally lead you to your work as a creative and fashion director?

“Yes, and no. I didn’t want to work in department stores, it was a day job for me, but I’m so grateful for that experience. People often look down on people who work in department stores, but it’s a very good job and you can make a lot of money. Sometimes people who work at Bergdorf Goodman can make $400,000 a year. You’re essentially selling cars. Like if a car costs $40,000 and a blouse costs $40,000, what’s the difference? You’re able to make commission on an extremely high value product. It’s a very specific task and a lot of it has to do with selling. I already knew a lot about that from theatre anyway, because I went to school for musical theatre, and your job is essentially selling something; you’re giving a performance, you’re affecting people, it’s psychological. My job in fashion is on the editorial side, to me it’s costume design in the highest form.”

Jenn Gambatese wears Matthew Christopher, jewels by Lanvin and gloves by Wing & Weft. Photography by Julio Gaggia.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a child is to live in my own creations. When I go back and look at my vision board and the people who are on it, it’s never been fashion stylists, it’s always been people who create worlds. There are people like Karl Lagerfeld on there; I feel he’s created this immersive world we can all live in. Tom Ford has created this very specific world, also people like Steven Spielberg, Ryan Murphy, and Lena Dunham. I realise I relate mostly to people who create stories and that’s really where my work comes from. When I am doing creative and fashion directing on the red carpet it’s not based on just the wardrobe, those are mini-performances that I’m directing, and if I’m not doing everything I don’t do it all. For me the red carpet is a stage and so a lot of my work is inspired by theatre. That’s how I see these performances on the red carpet, I see them as vignettes and I think you can see that at work at the 2019 Met Gala where Billy Porter was carried in by those six Broadway men and his character was Cleopatra. That surpasses the notion of putting the garment on him, that’s one component of it, that’s the costume design aspect, but what excites me is putting the whole thing together. What is the face going to look like? What is he doing when he gets out of the car? We practise these things. How are you moving? How are you posing? What are the shot ratios that we’re looking for? What are your teeth doing? What is your face doing? What are our eyes doing? And I think all of it together is what really inspires me to wake up every day to do that work.”

Billy Porter attends the 78th Annual Peabody Awards, May 18th 2019. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

That’s incredible that you think about all of those details, and it shows. You first started working with Billy Porter when he’d landed the job on Pose and the series was about to premiere. Why was he someone you were drawn to work with? Tell us about his own sense of style and the ways that you mesh together?

“Because he understood it. He came in and he said to me ‘I want to be walking art and I want to work with you because I know that you get that.’ And what was great for me was that out of all the clients that I’ve worked with in different scenarios I didn’t understand that that’s what I’d been looking for. I’d dressed billionaires, but I was putting things that they wanted on their bodies. I didn’t want to do that anymore. It’s not a bad thing, people want to be dressed and they should wear whatever they want, but what I want to do is to make art on somebody, to have someone who is a canvas and Billy was ready, willing and able to be a canvas for me, and he let me do whatever I wanted. No questions asked. Billy understands that the work is collaborative. It’s not like he’s just wearing whatever and I’m going to be this ogre who’s going to tell him what to do. He understands that he has to allow me to have my lane to do my job and what I know how to do best. Our job is to bring people together and nurture their work and their art to the highest level so that that they can do what they do well. He allows me to do that and that’s why it’s been so successful, because he then goes out there and he has a role, he’s the producer of these mini-performances and his job is to act through the clothing, he has to sell the garments.”

Billy Porter attends Love Ball III at Gotham Hall, June 25th 2019. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)

“There’s got to be a return on investment for these brands. A designer might be making a hundred thousand dollar piece and if there’s no publicity from it, what’s the point? Your job is to be a model. So if you’re not selling clothes there’s no reason for the brands to dress you. And Billy is someone who totally understood that from the get-go. Also, you have to be a chameleon and instead of being like ‘oh, I don’t like that brand, it’s not for me’, you have to figure out the version of you in that brand. What is the version of you in Chanel? Or the version of you in Gucci?’ And so it becomes this interesting journey to kind of implement yourself and become different things. And for an artist like Billy, because he’s an actor he’s been taught to immerse himself into different worlds, so when you sell it that way it just becomes a different narrative. Because sometimes it can be so stressful, this is your big day; you might win an Emmy; your family might be in town, sometimes that might be stressful in itself, sometimes not; you’re nervous, you might have to give a speech, it’s really daunting. There’s also a responsibility in ensuring that the client feels extremely beautiful, that’s a given, they should always feel beautiful, and it should always feel something that’s you, but the joy and the connection and the goal is to figure out what is the best version of you and at the same time promote the brand in a way that is going to represent them.”

Billy Porter attends the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, January 26th 2020. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

It seems like whenever you’ve worked with Billy on a red carpet appearance it has gone viral. We tweeted out a video earlier this year of the mechanical hat at the Grammys with that crystalline fringe curtain on the brim opening up, and our friend the author of Black Flamingo, Dean Atta, replied to it saying: “you and your team are changing lives with these looks and there are people watching you whose eyes and hearts are opening to new possibilities.”

“Wow, so sweet!”

Of course these are massive international platforms that we’re talking about, so your work is being seen by millions of people around the world. And Dean’s right you’ve helped to shake up the way people look at gender and fashion. These must be things that you are consciously thinking about as you’re putting the looks together. I imagine your intentions vary from look to look, but it seems like it is important to you to be saying something, to be making an impact with your work.

“Absolutely. Well, I think regardless of what people may think, what you put on your body sends a narrative to people and this is all about visibility. So when you are going out there you are selling something, whether it’s a suit from Macy’s or from YSL, it’s all branding and it’s all marketing from the beginning. I have a client in Billy who happens to be someone who is authentically genderfluid and I play most heavily with authenticity. Authenticity to me is everything. People can smell baloney from a mile away, and so what I love about working with someone like Billy, and my other clients like Lena Hall, is that they’re such authentic people and they’re willing to go the extra mile and to change it up and wear different things. So my job is to elevate that authenticity to the highest place possible and match it with what’s out there.”

Lena Hall. Photo by Cait McNaney.

“It’s not that we have the intention of it going viral every time because we’re truly just working, but I think one of the reasons why that’s happening is because we’re tuning into what people want, and I think what people want right now is authenticity. When you have somebody who is authentic representing these people who are so underrepresented, the work for us really becomes activism because we’re not only representing the Black community, and the Latino community for me, but we’re also representing queer people and people who have never really had this type of platform. People have been doing this for a gazillion years, Billy Porter is not the only one, we have Miss J. Alexander from America’s Next Top Model, she was strutting down catwalks and teaching girls how to walk and living in the Paris scene with couture houses since the 80s. Men have been wearing pumps since the Georgian era. It’s not something that’s new, but it’s really about changing hearts and minds and representation. When we have visibility in a really great way we start normalising specific things. For me it’s important to have that narrative out there, and what I preach is: do you, be yourself, wear whatever the fuck you want! It’s not anybody else’s business.”

Billy Porter attends the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards, January 12th 2020. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

“My job as an artist is to disturb the peace and to tell the tale of what’s happening now. That’s actually innate within fashion. Back in the day when women wore massive skirts, the doorways had to be a certain width because you couldn’t get through them otherwise, and they had to ride in specific types of vehicles. Well, now the vehicles are a little different, and the climate is a little different, so we might have to make clothing that allows us to adapt. That’s something that’s fascinating with fashion, it’s not just about the designer’s standpoint, because the person has to feel great in it too and they have to wear it. You have the talent who are going to have something to say, you have the designer who has this incredible knowledge and then you have somebody like me who has to put all of these things together to make sure that it goes out there in a beautiful way. And at the end of the day the person that pays me is the studio. So when we’re doing these carpets, and say what we’re there for is Pose, we’re there to promote the show.”

“The most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history”, Vogue. Billy Porter arrives The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6th 2019. (Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage)

I know it’s probably difficult to single something out, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Which look that you’ve created with Billy over the past couple of years are you proudest of and why?

“I’m so proud of last year’s Met Gala. We worked so hard on that and it was so fast and really guerrilla. Billy and I are dong something that generally only happens with pop stars where the budgets are a little different. Beyoncé can sell a hundred million dollars of tickets on a tour and so there are all sorts of things happening because of that. Whereas Billy’s an actor, and he doesn’t get to go and sell out stadiums right now, because he’s on set. We got to work with the Blonds, it was their first time creating something for the Met Gala, it was Billy’s first time attending, and it was my first time creative and fashion directing something for that carpet. And not only that, but then to have Vogue say yes to my idea of making this a theatrical thing and for them to honour my directing abilities, and to allow Billy to go in and do this performance, it was just a dream come true. And it was truly a labour of love for so many people. If you look at the credits there are at least twenty people who worked on it. Pat McGrath provided all the makeup, and La Sonya Gunter was the makeup artist that day, she’s just magnificent. And I worked with Nicolas Putvinski on the costumes for the six gentlemen who carried Billy in. I had to find that palanquin in a week, and it’s not like people are just making them! It was just really beautiful to enter into a world, because even let’s say at the Grammys with the hat mechanically opening and me being there on the red carpet pushing the button on and off, that was a little moment, but I think the Met Gala was something that we could completely immerse ourselves in. And when you watch Billy’s performance, sometimes I just look at it and I’m like ‘you really are a national treasure!’ He’s just a master of his craft, he’s acting with every finger movement, with his eyes, he was like a serpent on that thing. It took my breath away because we did this with zero budget, and all of these people came together to create this moment and it went all over the world.”

Billy Porter on the pink carpet at The 2019 Met Gala. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

“Outside of this moment we try to make it as high fashion as possible, but this was an opportunity to really go in with a character. Coming from theatre and having most of the people who worked that day come from Broadway, which isn’t always respected by the fashion industry, was also really special. We got to represent not only LGBTQ people, and drag queens, which are the campiest thing out there, but also Broadway. It was really touching to get messages from the theatre community like ‘oh, my God you guys took us to a place where we’re not always welcome, so thank you.’ It has such a special place in my heart because it was one of the earliest ones and we just worked so hard on it, I don’t think I slept for a week. I actually fainted two days later from exhaustion.”

Really? Oh, no!

“Yeah, I was in a restaurant and I fainted because we were all just so, so tired. You know when you’re passionate about something and you’re working non-stop because you believe in it so much and everybody is on the same wavelength.”

Billy Porter spreads his wings on the pink carpet at The 2019 Met Gala Celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Well, I’m sorry that you fainted, but it was worth the blood, sweat and tears and the exhaustion! It was an amazing piece of performance art and unforgettable for so many people. But, on the downside, when you’ve created something that’s so impactful, and you’ve made such a splash, do you then feel like you’re putting pressure on yourself to do something equally memorable the next time? Do you think in terms of how can we outdo ourselves?  

“I don’t think there’s ever any pressure, because we always just honour the event. I think if the event calls for it we are always going to go there, but what’s exciting for me is that we are always building, and I always want to do new and different things, so that kind of alleviates the notion of ‘what are they going to do next?’ Or ‘are they going to bomb this time?’ There are a lot of people that critique us, but I think the imperfections in things and the rawness in the art is what excites me. When it’s so perfect and so polished you might lose a little heart. But I am interested in going into different realms, I think Billy is evolving. Now that he’s going into the pop world it’s going to allow us to evolve into a different place. So I don’t ever feel like we have to play into that and it just adds this level of anxiety that I don’t want, and ultimately I think Billy and I are just both in that realm where we don’t really give a fuck. Like, do whatever you want, leave me alone, we’re going to come up with cool art and if you like it, you like it, and if you don’t, you’re going to talk about it anyway.”

Billy Porter performs at the Opening Ceremony of WorldPride NYC 2019 at Barclays Center, June 26th 2019. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

In terms of Billy’s music career, your powerful video for his cover of For What It’s Worth came out recently didn’t it?

“Yes, I directed that video during Covid. I was so mesmerised by the song. He recorded it literally the day after he won the Emmy. We didn’t know that all this stuff was going to happen with Black Lives Matter, he certainly didn’t know when he recorded the song back in September last year. Then the movement erupted around the time that the song was released. All of a sudden we had this crazy footage and I said ‘this is exactly what the song is about and this is exactly why you recorded it’, so the video was just to document the time that we’re in. It’s such a horrible time where police are killing so many people, but systemic racism is finally being talked about which I’m so glad about because I think we can hopefully have some change. It can create a catalyst for where we can go in the future. Billy and I both have a lot of PTSD from several things in our lives, he also grew up a little like me in a religious cult, and so I think that was inside of us too. So to use all of this footage which is so horrible and really attach it to the song was a way to create some art that depicts the time we’re going through, which is really painful, but I hope that incredible things can come out of it.”

Billy Porter “For What It’s Worth” – Black Lives Matter – directed by Sam Ratelle.

Something that we haven’t talked too much about yet is the genderfluid aspect of the looks you’ve created with Billy, like the gowns he’s worn and the way you’ve played with expectations and preconceptions around gender and fashion. Have you gone to major fashion labels and asked to borrow what they consider to be part of their women’s collection and been turned down, is that something you’ve found resistance to?

“Absolutely. I will tell you this, nobody would dress him on day one. So for months he wore my clothes that are in my archive, because I’m a fashion collector, and I would literally empty my bank account and go buy clothes for him because I knew that I had to put him in the good stuff from the beginning. And I’m not going to wait for you to give them to my client, who is more than worthy of wearing these things, we’re just going to do it ourselves because we have to create visibility. That visibility had to be there for people to start paying attention. So I think over time people caught up and realised ‘oh, this is that aesthetic’. Sometimes it would even be people asking ‘how did you get that piece?’ Well, if you’re not going to give it to me, then we’re going to find it ourselves.”

Billy Porter arrives at the 2019 American Music Awards, November 24th 2019. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

“We sometimes still get emails, especially from the luxury brands, saying things like ‘unfortunately the designer does not make his clothing for men.’ And what drives me crazy is: one, it’s none of your business what people put on their bodies, and two, it’s fabric! It drives me nuts, fabric doesn’t say to you ‘hey, I’m female’ or ‘hey, I’m male!’ We as humans put that notion on to the clothes. And so I think at the end of the day you can’t control what people want. We’re very grateful to be in the room, and I like looking at the positive side and at the hundreds of designers who have worked with us over two years, that’s what I’m excited about. He was really great about telling me from day one ‘if somebody says no to you, we go somewhere else, we’re not entertaining that behaviour.’ We’re always very grateful and graceful and we try to be kind, and it is what it is. If they don’t want us that’s great, but then we’re not scratching there again. Sometimes the great part is that they can say no, but I’m going to buy the shit anyway and he’s going to wear it!”

Billy Porter gets ready to attend the Richard Quinn fashion show during London Fashion Week, February 15th 2020. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Exactly, no one can say you can’t wear something if you’ve bought it.

“There’s also this notion, and this happens with luxury brands too, where it’s like they’ll let you work with something but it has to be a full look, or they’ve already styled it for you. And I’m like, ‘what is my job then, to be the messenger?’ Which is all good, but that’s not what I do for a living. And I don’t think that’s what style is about. One of the people who have inspired me a lot is Patricia Field. I think she’s a master at it, you know she’ll take a Margiela thing, or something from Chanel, and mix it with some shit that she found in Chinatown and some vintage shoes; and it’s the coolest thing in the world, so high fashion, but that’s what life is about. Unless you’re a very specific person, and I know a lot of those people, and they exist and that’s cool, but it’s quite an anomaly for somebody to give you a full look every time. That’s the joy of personal style, it’s about putting your own spin on things.”

Billy Porter arrives at the 24th annual Critics’ Choice Awards, January 13th 2019. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

I’m glad you mentioned Patricia Field, she’s such a style icon, I’m a big fan of hers too. I interviewed MI Leggett who has the gender free fashion label Official Rebrand earlier this year and also Sander Bos from Amazon’s Making the Cut, who have both designed clothes that Billy has worn.

“Oh, I love Sander!”

Me too, he was my favourite on Making the Cut. He did flirt with gender neutral clothing on the show in one episode, but he generally doesn’t. Are you actively seeking out designers who make gender free or gender neutral clothing?

“Well, we do that anyway by default. It’s always really comforting to go into a space where people already know that Billy is genderfluid and so it’s not even something that has to be talked about. It allows us to focus on the humanity side of things. At the end of the day we’re all human beings and sometimes we’re horrible to each other, especially in the fashion industry. If I had a dime for every time somebody has been a cunt to me I’d be a millionaire. But anyway, why I want to collaborate with designers creating that work is because it creates representation and visibility. I think I will always work with emerging designers because the work is just so raw and artistic. I’m excited about this new generation of design houses who are doing it in their own way, without rules, without someone telling them to be something else because they have to profit. And, yes, remembering that it’s a business first is important too, because nobody is trying to make your dreams happen. Ultimately you have to sell clothes, you have to make money, and you have to pay your bills, but the important thing for me is the marriage of retaining the authenticity of who you and creating something that profits. I’m thrilled about those possibilities and I think it’s going to happen a lot more. I think we are literally at the tip of it. I think that this is going to continue evolving to where all men might be wearing heels in twenty years, I don’t know! We might also be wearing spacesuits! That’s what excites me about the future, which is why I came up with that idea of the mechanical hat at the Grammys, because I want to play with technology, that’s where our world is going. AI is about to take over our world and it’s going to be completely different. Cars are driving themselves. What is fashion going to be like? Will I really need a massive Parka, or could I have a really thin shirt that’s tech automated that I can actually change the temperature of? There are just so many possibilities, and so having design houses who can create clothes for all people is really important. Billy and I talk about shoes a lot. I have the biggest issue with shoes for him because he’s a size 11 in men’s, which is 14 in women’s, and most shoes for women only make them up to a size 11. Well, you’re losing out on this whole range of dudes over here that might want to wear a pump. Why, because the Bible said so?”

Billy Porter arrives at the 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards, January 5th 2020. (Photo by: Todd Williamson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

I don’t get that excited by men’s shoes very often, I haven’t bought any new ones for a while.

“Hold on, do you buy women’s shoes?”

Well, no, I just have my gold Puma sneakers that I wear a lot and some glitter covered men’s dress shoes, as well as more conventional ones, but I’d like to see more interesting men’s shoes.

“Ah, that’s cute! And, yes, even as a dandy guy it can be hard sometimes. I’m going through my own thing right now, my own work with people like Billy is teaching me and so are all of these non-binary kids who are just living so freely. I didn’t get to do that, I was trained by masculinity my whole life. I’m 31 and I just found out that my favourite colour is pink and I’ve never worn it because I felt like a faggot. Even though I’ve never worn a pair of pumps, I’ve never worn a dress, I’ve never dressed in drag, I dress this queen and I do it objectively because I know how to do that. I’ve dressed women, I’ve dressed men, I know how to do my job, I know when to break the rules and when not to beak the rules, but at the end of the day having those visuals really allows us to see something different and to change. So I’m excited for where the future of menswear is going, which is one of the things that we are going to do this year. The possibilities are endless. That’s what creates an excitement for me of not feeling like we’re going to get stagnant or boring, because there’s so much out there to explore and that’s the exciting thing. If you follow that you’re never going to repeat the same thing. Now that men are starting to become a little bit more free, I hope that we are going to see a resurgence where menswear can be more fun, we can have colour, patterns and textures. It’s totally fine if you want that quintessential Wall Street clean-cut type of masculine attire, that’s sexy too. But where’s the other part? Because not everybody fits into these boxes, we’re such evolved human beings and there’s never any room to explore the spectrum that we’re allowed to have and I think now humanity has decided we’re not doing that anymore. You have to do you, you have to wake up every day and dress however you want. If you want to wear a pump with a beard that’s your business not mine. Live your life.”

Sam Ratelle. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Your own style and the way you present yourself is an important part of the job. How have you been dressing during this quarantine lockdown period, have you just been in sweatpants everyday like the rest of us?

“It’s so funny, sometimes it’s been hard for me to dress myself for the past few years because I’ve been working. People think our job is so fabulous, and it is, but when you’re working behind the scenes…you look at even Patricia Field or Kelly Cutrone, or Steven Spielberg, people who have these really incredible jobs, they are not in their custom couture McQueen whatever, because they have to hustle; you have to schlep, styling is a schlepping job. Thankfully I have a team and we all do it together, but I’m still running around a lot. Sometimes you have room to be the talent, and I’m going more on the talent side now that things have calmed down a little, but sometimes it’s harder to do the work on yourself. I actually want to hire a stylist for myself because I feel like it’s such a personal thing that having an outside voice is really helpful. But the job itself doesn’t really allow for you to be dressed fabulously all the time, that’s an illusion.”

Michael Urie attends the 2019 Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, June 9th 2019. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

“The other thing is I’m a little thicc right now, I used to be Billy Porter sized, but I’ve worked for three years and I’ve been stress eating and I haven’t had a lot of time to work out and be a muscle queen! So that’s also something that’s interesting to me in this industry now that I’m a little thiccer, I don’t have the ability or the accessibility to find great clothes for myself. It reminds me of the idea of diversity within clothing. We’ve tapped into the plus size market for women, but I think we forget that a lot of men are also plus size and we don’t have clothes to wear. I’ll go to Paris and I literally can’t fit into anything. But I think I have a very minimal funky aesthetic. I’m all about having a pop of something. I believe in pieces and in being a collector. Collections are really exciting for me and I hope that we go into that range now that I feel that mass market is going to be killed a little bit after Covid, and the situation that we’re in. I’m really fascinated with art in clothes. I appreciate the threading and what fabric is used and the amount of hours that it takes to bead something.”

Van Hansis wears Levis and Tyler Hanes wears YSL. Photography by Santiago Felipe.

And speaking of wanting your own stylist is there an actor or pop star or someone in the public eye who is styled very well, who makes you think I’d like to be wearing that and rocking those kind of looks?

“Do I have a male style icon? I think Tom Ford is just a quintessentially incredibly stylish human being. I’m really inspired by his aesthetic in general and that’s what excites to me about his world, he’s an interior designer and now this whole thing has blown up, but I’m really thrilled by him and what he does. I think Zayn Malik is really cool, and I love Timothée Chalamet, he’s just so cute. But it’s hard because I can’t fit into these things! But I think for me, it’s situational; there’s an outfit for everything. There’s something to wear to the beach, there’s something to wear at a cottage, or if you’re going horseback riding that’s a specific look, or if you’re going to do your laundry that’s also a specific look. I’m really interested in people who have cool styles that represent themselves, like Shia LaBeouf; it’s like homeless chic, but I love that he’s been able to make that into such a cool thing. Harry Styles is so fabulous, I love that he’s owning this side of himself and that he’s so outgoing and fun and cool and funky. I really like Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek, I think he’s probably the closest to me. He’s just done such a super job. He picks a lot of his clothes himself, even with the show he talks about how these were things that he used to wear anyway, and he’s obsessed with high fashion. So I’m that person, I really love things that are interesting. I’m probably less inclined to grab something off the rack if I feel like I could get it Theory or Zara. I always try to teach people to invest their money in pieces; invest in jewellery, shoes, or a really cool coat that you can have for ten years. I have a hard time spending a thousand dollars on a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, things that you’re going to rip up anyway.”

Van Hansis wears Tommy Hilfiger and Tyler Hanes wears D.Gnak by Kang.d. Photography by Santiago Felipe.

Yes, the price tags on some designer t-shirts and jeans are mind-boggling.

“It’s just crazy to me, but I can appreciate this coat or a pair of pants that somebody embroidered, and yeah, I can warm up to paying two thousand dollars for that. I’m a sucker for shoes and accessories. My father was the kind of man who was always in a custom tailored three-piece suit, with a Parker pen, and a Rolex watch. I can still remember it now, he would ingrain these things in my head, like ‘always have a great pair of shoes, even if you don’t have any money put all of it towards shoes, because they tell me who you are, they tell me where you come from, and they tell me what walk of life you’re going to.’ If you’re wearing  a really uncomfortable shoe, or an all-white outfit, I can probably assume that you’re taking cars everywhere, which means that you have a certain amount of money, which tells me something about you. That’s the thing that’s so great about clothes, it is really an extension of yourself and the narrative that you want people to see. You want to make more money? Wear a suit. People have that ingrained in their minds, so if they see you in a suit they are going to think you’re rolling in it. Like the saying goes, first impressions are lasting impressions. People have no attention span. You only have x amount of time to impress people and they are going to make up their own narrative about you whether you like it or not, so you might as well allow them to make that narrative one that you want them to have.”

Lindsay Mendez attends the 72nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall, June 10th 2018. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Away from your fashion work you’ve been creating a musical, A New City, which I know was due to be workshopped soon. Everything is on hold right now of course, but can you give us an insight into what inspired you to write it?

“All I wanted to do as a kid was to be in my own musical, because I didn’t want to sing other people’s songs. I was like, ‘no, I have a lot of shit to say, so why would I sing that song when I have my own?’ I started writing when I was about 18 and by the time I got into my early twenties, I had a catalogue of over a hundred and fifty songs. I was working with a manager and performing all over New York City selling out venues, and I had a thirteen piece band. My manager started hooking me up with people in the industry and I met with this gentleman who produced Nora Jones’ first record Come Away With Me and, I’m glad it didn’t happen, because he was like ‘I love you kid, I think your passion is so great, your story is great, I love your songs, you’re a little gay to me, but we’ll figure that out.’ And I was working at Saks Fifth Avenue at the time as my day job, just hustling and making money, and I’d perform and write and sing in the evenings and in my free time. This guy said ‘let’s do this, let’s make a record,’ so I quit my job and on my way home from celebrating I got run over by a car. And so that set me back. My hand is quite bionic; it almost ripped off, so it’s all metal. I’m very lucky to be here, I could have died. It took me a lot of rebuilding, I had to move out of the city and I was bedridden for six months recovering from all my ailments. Then eventually it was a case of starting over again and that’s when I went back to Bergdorf Goodman. It wasn’t that I ever really gave up, I just had to get myself back on my feet and it’s taken me years to do that.”

Van Hansis and Tyler Hanes. Photo by Santiago Felipe.

“Then I met my husband, who is a Broadway producer, he’s worked on 23 Broadway shows from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Gypsy with Patti LuPone to Spider-Man with Bono. So he has an extensive history, and he said ‘I love you baby, but the industry has changed, nobody is going to give you an advance anymore, and your aesthetic and your vision, and the way you direct things is so grand that that can’t happen without a budget.’ And so he said ‘why don’t you put it into a musical? Because they won’t be investing in just you then.’ So I said to myself ‘why not?’ It’s practically the same thing, I can still tell my story, these are my songs and if I feel like singing them later I can pull a Carole King and sing the shit out them because I own everything!” So I started working on A New City, which is the story of my life growing up in this religious cult and it follows this character Ginny, who is pretty much me. But even though it’s about me, I knew that it had to be a woman’s story because the women in this cult are so suppressed by patriarchy and misogyny; they are beaten, they are abused, they are raped. I knew that that was a story I wanted to tell. A lot of those things happened to me too, but I think it’s just more striking when it’s a woman, because I got to fit in visually, I just looked like a dork, but they couldn’t. They’re playing soccer in literally gowns. The premise of the show is that they live in this compound and Ginny is a troublemaker because she constantly has questions, just like I did. Their only access to the outside world is through the UPS guy and she ends up falling in love with him and he helps her and her friends to escape. Then in act two you see them in a new setting having to adapt to everything because they’ve never seen anything outside the cult. We’re doing a lot of work on it right now since we’re indoors, and so hopefully as soon as we’re out of Covid we’ll start doing some workshop performances and eventually get to an actual theatre. I’m hoping that it can come to London and New York, but we’ll see what happens.” 

Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter open the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 9th 2020. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Obviously there haven’t been any major in-person entertainment events like awards shows over the past few months, so have you been spending some time planning ahead for future events?

“Yes, I was working on the Met Gala for six months and then it got cancelled. There have been a lot of changes like that and everything has kind of moved, so we’re still planning a lot of the year. But I’m really thrilled to be working on a few large-scale exhibits, collaborating with historic royal palaces in London, and directing and producing an LGBTQIA+ high fashion couture runway show with Pride in London. I really want to continue championing queer fashion, queer designers, anything that’s genderfluid and just really playing with the spectrum of who we are as people.”

Billy Porter arrives at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards, February 9th 2020. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Finally, do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ movie, TV series, play, musical, artwork, book, piece of music, something that’s resonated with you over the years?

“I’m inspired by a lot of queer artists. Rent really changed my life. It was the second musical that I ever saw and it taught me a lot, and I knew that I wanted to live in that world. It allowed me to see a character like Angel too, because I’d never seen a genderfluid person before that time. So that was really amazing. Call Me By Your Name really touched me, because it’s cinema that can be relatable to everyone, and I think that now we have more visibility we’re able to create a lot more stories that are just about life. Although the characters maybe LGBTQ, and we can appreciate it in that way, it can also be something that’s commercially viable that normalises who we are as human beings. And I hope that they continue to push it forward with shows like Pose.”

“As a director, I’m really excited to go into conversations about what it’s like to be people like us, because nobody teaches you this shit. There’s so much patriarchy and misogyny even within our own community, like we have this whole “masc” thing going on, and if you’re a bottom you’re considered less than, and it’s like who cares if the guy wears nail polish or not?! It’s a great thing that people are bottoms and it’s a great thing that people are tops, and I want to start playing with these things that we talk about amongst ourselves, but that aren’t often mentioned in other public settings. I think it’s an education for kids in general. When you’re an LGBTQ+ kid generally your father is not teaching you what to do with these boys or girls, they’re not teaching you how to clean out, that’s not in the conversation of the birds and the bees, they’re not teaching you how to go on a date with a boy if you’re a boy, or a girl if you’re a girl, or if you’re a young adult and you happen to figure out that you’re pansexual, who is the person who teaches you how to navigate that? Which generally would be your parents. So I’m excited to go into content like that that speaks about the raw nature of who we are as people and just allows us to retain our humanity, and also it could potentially be a way for us to get to know each other better as queer people. There’s also a book called Rainbow Boys by Alex Sánchez that changed my life because until that book I’d never known what gay people were like.”

Jesse L. Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia in the 1996 original Broadway production of Rent. Photo by Joan Marcus.

When did you read that?

“I was around sixteen. The only way I was able to get music and books at that time was at the library, so I would spend all of my time there. My mum would certainly not but me the new Britney Spears CD, so I had to go the library to listen to it. My first exposure to secular music was Diana Washington and Sarah Vaughn and Motown and Tina Turner, and musicals like everything by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rogers and Hammerstein and Sondheim. And the novels I was reading were things like A Brave New World and The Color Purple, because no one was buying me the new things. But Rainbow Boys was a book that I found in the LGBTQ section, and this young adult story is one of the reasons that I started becoming more comfortable with myself. And if you look at the book cover, Matt Bomer is on it!”

Rainbow Boys by Alex Sanchez. Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Oh, OK, so that’s maybe what made you pick it up in the first place then?!

“Yes! I recently bought it for myself because I wanted to do a post about Pride and I was like ‘oh my God, that’s Matt Bomer’, who knew that he was a little model back then!”

By James Kleinmann, Editor

Sam Ratelle is a creative and fashion director, composer, and the co-founder of RRR Creative, a boutique creative agency based in New York City. Ratelle is also the co-founder of The Cast Agency, a digital agency that aligns brands with Broadway’s most popular influencers for paid social media campaigns.

Follow Sam on Instragram @SammyRatelle, Facebook at SammyRatelle and Twitter @SammyRatelle.

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