Billy Porter has done it again.
Since he stepped onto the carpet at the 2019 Golden Globes, the public has learned to hold for Billy Porter’s arrival. The Tony Award winner and current star of FX's Pose has reinvented the red carpet moment and ignited conversations about gender norms, self-expression, and politics through his style; but theatre fans have long appreciated that Porter knows how to make an entrance.
The 73rd Annual Tony Awards on June 9 were no exception when Porter stepped onto the carpet in Celestino Couture, made from the upcycled Kinky Boots Broadway show curtain.
For the past two years, former stage manager Jennifer Kahn of Scenery has been manufacturing handbags, clutches, and now bangles from recycled curtains and show decks. When Kinky Boots announced its closing date, Kahn stepped up her game. “I reached out to [RRR Creative, who handles Porter’s styling] and said, ‘We’re getting the Kinky Boots Milan curtains, do you want to do something with Billy?’” Kahn says.
Stylist Sam Ratelle of RRR Creative ran with it, enlisting designer Sergio “Celestino” Guadarrama to create a custom look we haven’t seen. And the Tony Awards, celebrating Broadway and Porter’s home turf, was the place to do it.
“We’ve already done the cape, we’ve already done the ballgown, we’ve already done what we did at the Met Gala,” says Ratelle. Porter, Ratelle, and Celestino all had a say in the final ensemble. “We’re really strengthening this conversation of him being a merge of the masculine and feminine. To us, it’s pants and a skirt—Billy’s been asking for a train. We knew this would be a really grand moment.”
“It just couldn’t be a better thing,” Porter says. “Theatre was the original dream. Theatre is the thing that helped me dream beyond my circumstance that saved my life. All the time when I’m back here I feel loved, I feel special and I feel like it’s right.”
A portion of the red velvet curtain that used to hang in the wings of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre arrived only three weeks ago to Celestino. (The rest will be made into Scenery bags, on sale later this month.) Porter’s design team spent a full day splitting the fabric from the canvas. Everything you see is made of show curtain. “It’s pretty much a suit and pants and under the suit this train hooks onto it,” Ratelle explains. “Everything under the train is tulle, but the rest of the garment is the curtain.”
They encrusted the gown in 30,000 Swarovski crystals, a brand that just won FIT’s Social Impact and Sustainability Award. The custom shoes by Orel Brodt are also sustainable and encrusted in Swarovski.
Aligned with Kahn’s mission to reduce theatrical waste and upcycle theatre history into fashion, Porter’s look will also benefit the sustainability of theatre through TDF, just as her Scenery line does. “We arranged for Billy’s entire look to be donated to TDF so that they can rent it to museums or whomever might want to display it,” Kahn says. “So even the portion that won’t be used for Scenery bags will still go to benefit the educational programs with TDF.”
Making a Statement
Once again, Porter obliterates labels and gendered fashion rules. “He’s not a drag queen. He’s a man in a dress,” Ratelle clarifies. “We’re fighting gender norms and what that means. It’s putting a man in female clothing that’s exciting to us.”
Drag queens exaggerate the feminine within. Porter re-defines the possibilities of maleness. Drag queens play with artifice. Porter brings realness.
“What we’ve internalized is that being a masculine figure is strong and being a feminine figure is weak, and it’s not,” says Ratelle.
Though Porter did not dress as a woman, the garment is an expression and admiration of the female form as well as a protest for abortion rights. “The sides of the dress are fallopian tubes and all of the embroidery on the back of the train is resembling a uterus—done in an artistic way. And Billy is supposed to be what women could be and who they are. They are magnificent creatures we need to honor and respect, and I think we don’t as a society.”
Fashion as Theatre
“I want people to remember that fashion is theatre and theatre is fashion,” says Ratelle, whose mission includes making red carpets in the theatre industry as talked about as those in Hollywood. “I was the one that dressed up every day for three years during Kinky Boots,” adds Porter.
“We have to dress theatrical people and we have to care about fashion,” he continues. “It doesn’t have to mean that you wear a Valentino dress, it just means you have to say something, or else why are you walking on the carpet?
“I just feel like more people would be into fashion if the powers that be that control fashion would actually pay attention to us,” says Porter, referring to his Broadway community. “They think we’re corny. But they’re paying attention now.”
Watch Porter discuss his looks more with Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest the morning after the Tonys in the video below.