New York City based Florence D’Lee is a designer that you should be on the lookout for. His work has been seen on the Great White Way and on our television sets over the years as his career continues to grow. His work includes some of the most articulate, colorful and mind-blowing outfits worn by people we all know and love including RuPaul’s Drag Race winners Sasha Velour and Monet X Change.
Florence also did an amazing job at handling himself after Sherry Pie, the season 12 RPDR queen who he designed many of her outfits for, was disqualified. If anything it helped him as many of his fans still supported his efforts as they were able to see the incredible work he put into her looks outside of the multiple allegations against her.
We chatted with Florence about that and how he’s feeling weeks after the claims broke as well as his amazing career, the difficulties in the world of costume design, and what’s next for him.
How did you find yourself in the world of design?
I have been involved with theatre from a really young age. By the time I reached high school, I knew I had a flair for costume designing. So, I spent most of high school focusing on the craft of designing and ended up continuing in college where I got my BFA in theatrical costume design. I moved to NYC pretty soon after college where I worked as a First Hand in a Broadway costume house. A First Hand is basically the person who cuts the fabric, pins the clothing, delegates the sewing and does all the other not fun or creative work of the costume building process. Being dreamy-eyed and naive, I thought that this profession would eventually lead me up to the world of designing on a large scale.
I was very wrong and after six years of doing First Handwork, I realized there was no place for me to go from there. You see, in college professors never share with you the harsh reality of the theatrical design world. There are a lot of pigeonholes, and the second you pick up a needle and thread you are labeled as a costume ‘technician” meaning you will never be a part of the design world. Did you know that most Broadway costume designers have little to no sewing skills?! So long story short, I ended up walking away from that career path. Luckily I had also been moonlighting as a Drag Queen in NYC at nights, and I was able to turn that into a full-time profession for a little over a year working 5-7 days a week.
Now in case you don/t know my stats, I am 6’8 and built like a very large, broad-shouldered linebacker, so I was generally always making my own costumes for shows, special events, and pageants. A lot of other plus-size queens took notice and started commissioning me for custom costumes. Fast forward a few years and I have left the performing world and run my own design brand full time focusing mostly on drag queens, but also serving as a designer for the nightlife community.
Was there a particular designer that you were and are really inspired by?
I have been a huge fan of Gregg Barnes since I was in high school. For non-theatre folks, Gregg is one of the most iconic, gay theatrical designers of our time. If you have ever gone to a Broadway show and been gobsmacked by the costumes I would bet he designed them. Some of his work includes Something Rotten, Aladdin, Follies Revival, Kinky Boots, The Drowsy Chaperone and the original Side Show. Apart from being an iconic visionary, he is also one of the sweetest people in the business. The first show I worked on when I moved to NYC was Aladdin on Broadway, and I have never, to this day, met a designer of his caliber be so involved in the process. He always makes a point to talk to and approach every person working on his show with kind words and complimentary conversation.
There are so many design shows out there like Project Runway. Ever thought about auditioning for them?
Actually, I have been in the casting process of Project Runway for the last 2 seasons. Both times I made it to the final rounds of casting, and the first time I made it to LA for screen testing and to meet the big wigs of the production team. Both times I made it to the final 26 or so, but they always went in a “different direction.” You know what, their show and their rules so more power to them.
However, it seems to me like the “queer” archetype they have gone with instead of me has been a conventionally attractive, muscle gay who also makes queer clothing. Seems like they are trying to push a narrative of what they think queer designers should look like. No more days of Chris March on the show I guess. It’s a blessing in disguise though. Whenever you are one of those programs, the show ends up owning your career and dictating you every step of the way. I’m hard-headed and very controlling about my brand, and paving my own way seems to be what’s right for me.
You have done a wonderful job at designing outfits for some of the biggest drag queens in the world. Has there been a favorite outfit you have done and why that one in particular?
Personally speaking, I have 2 favorite looks and they are for the same queen. Scarlett Envy‘s promo gown for season 11 is one of my prouder moments. It is much more minimal than I am used to, and the clean lines and simplicity of the silhouette just fit her so well. That season’s promo seemed to be full of feathers, appliques, and ruffles, so Scarlett appeared to stand out amongst the group. Scarlett’s finale gown, which I also did, was another really proud moment for me. She wanted to really sparkle and stand out that night, and I think she did. The whole gown was designed around the jewelry she was wearing. She still wears that dress often, and I never get tired of seeing her in it.
Furthermore, who is your favorite celeb that you have designed for and why?
I ADORE Brenda Braxton as a client and as a friend. Brenda is a Broadway legend, in case you aren’t in the theatrical world. Brenda was in the original company of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, as well as playing Velma Kelly in the Broadway revival of Chicago. I made Brenda’s Tony Awards dress last June, and the experience was awesome! I think we may be in the works for another Tony gown this year!
You spoke passionately about designing all of Sherry Pie’s looks and your frustrations around the situation. Social media, however, has been super supportive of you as they are able to look past what Sherry did and simply see the work you put into each outfit so far. How are you feeling at this moment with all the chaos surrounding it?
I will start off by saying I did not make all of her looks, I made almost all of them. I did not design Spring/Fall on her first episode, and I did not design her “basketball wife” look last week, which was the second look in the ball. If those designers feel comfortable sharing that work and letting everyone know they made them, then that is their right. Otherwise, I will just stick with saying I did not do them.
The outpouring of support was really great. What I was trying to get across with my public statement was that the RPDR community can be awesome, but they can also be more vicious than any other reality show fan base. I just wanted to ask a favor of all of the viewers to not feel the need to shred and tear down every aspect of Sherry on the show, because so much of what you are seeing is coming from great designers and artists. I did not want everything going down at this time to fully eclipse or pollute the product we are seeing on the show. That includes myself and other talented artists as well: wig designers, prop designer, photographers, and jewelers.
What most viewers don’t realize is it takes a village to make these queens on the show. Drag Race has evolved a lot in all of their seasons on the air. We are past the time when queens brought all their old drag and made everything for the show. These girls are shelling out SERIOUS money to bring the looks you see on the race. I am not saying this is true for everyone. Some girls do still make a lot of their looks, but it just isn’t as common now.
Do you think RPDR and World of Wonder made the right decision in disqualifying Sherry?
Everything I have to say on this matter I have said over social media, and that is as far as I am willing to go with this situation.
With all of that being said, what are you most hopeful about in your future and do you have anything major in the works for our audience to know?
Well, assuming we all get past this pandemic mess, I am working on my premiere line debuting in the Fall. Hoping to show my collection during fashion week next year and hoping there is a Fashion Week next year. I am ready to show the world a fully realized collection from Florence D’lee. As Scarlett Envy says, “The world wants me, and the feeling is mutual!”
Follow Florence on Instagram here.