Iconic queen Shea Couleé dives into their fashion history
As the video for their track ‘Collide’ drops on OnlyFans, the All Stars winner talks stanning their mom’s church clothes, their first ‘adorable’ turn in drag, and walking Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty runway
As one of the most iconic queens in Drag Race history, Shea Couleé has given us their fair share of looks. From campy construction worker realness and showstopping crystallised goddess, to all-out pink tulle fashion fantasy, the stratospheric style they brought to the runway across the two seasons they starred in gagged judges, fellow contestants, and fans at home week after week. And while they narrowly missed out on the top spot the first time around, Couleé wiped the floor with the other All Star queens this summer – albeit graciously and with a whole lot of heart – to finally collect the coveted crown from Mama Ru’s outstretched hands.
Now, as if they haven’t given us enough already, Ms. Couleé is back to serve us more, as they drop the long-awaited video for their single “Collide”. Previously spinning around a pole in red latex to the Mykki Blanco-starring track circa episode one of All Stars, this time around the queen steps into the role of hi-tech fembot from the future – in a cyborg-like suit created by Chicago-based fashion designer Joshuan Aponte. Directed by Couleé and Jordan Phelps and now live on OnlyFans, the video pays tribute sex workers and Black and queer artists throughout history – and to say there isn’t a touch of 90s Mugler to the whole thing would be an out-and-out lie.
To celebrate the launch of the video, we got on the phone with Couleé to talk fashion (what else?) – only instead of going into the future, we asked them to open up about the past and chart the influences that got them where they are today. From stanning their mom’s church outfits and their first ‘adorable’ moment in drag, to their recent turn on Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty runway, the immaculate queen talks us through their fashion history.
Hey Shea! Could you tell me about your first fashion memory, or the first moment you became aware of the power of clothing?
Shea Couleé: I would have to say I kind of became aware of the power of fashion at church. You know, you put on your Sunday best and there’s this ritual around it all. I liked the theatre and the showmanship of it – and I especially loved my mom’s wardrobe, you know the suits and the hats. She was always so sharp. I remember this one particular look that she wore to my brother’s… I don’t even know what it was, I guess like a confirmation? Anyway, she was wearing this incredible black and white, very Thierry Mugler, suit with this huge dramatic hat. And I just remember thinking ‘oh my gosh, she’s like, so chic!’ So yeah, I’d definitely say church was the first time I started to recognise the power of fashion and its impact.
Who were your style icons growing up? It sounds like your mom would be up there!
Shea Couleé: Oh for sure. But I would also say… Naomi Campbell definitely. And Grace Jones. I remember seeing her in Boomerang and just being, like, there is something so unapologetic and strong and powerful, and she was intimidating to me as a child but there was still something that drew me to her and connected with her being. And actually I’m watching Moesha on Netflix and I’d have to say Brandy. Watching that and Sister Sister with the twins in these complimentary colour palettes and looks that showed the duality of their personalities… it was just so well done. Those 90s TV shows were really killing it!
What was your aesthetic like in high school?
Shea Couleé: So I was living in a very suburban town called Plainfield, Illinois, and for the majority of kids it was all about Abercrombie and American Eagle, but I used to drive, like, 18 miles to get to the mall that had an H&M because I was really more about Eurocentric fashion trends. That was around the time I started picking up men’s fashion magazines, so I was copying, you know, Tom Ford when he was at Gucci, DSquared2, Burberry, those kinds of brands. I was very London preppy at that time.
What’s the most meaningful item of clothing you have in your wardrobe, like what would you save if your apartment was on fire?
Shea Couleé: Oh absolutely my dad’s class of 1975 ring from the Naval Academy. I always coveted it as a kid, basically because it’s big and gold. And I always loved the way it looked on his hand. After he passed, my mom gave it to me, so I’d definitely say that.
“I remember seeing Grace Jones in Boomerang and just being, like, there is something so unapologetic and strong and powerful about her. She was intimidating to me as a child but there was still something that drew me to her and connected with her being” – Shea Couleé
Obviously you have great style, but even the most stylish people have outfits that they look back and cringe deeply at. What would yours be?
Shea Couleé: Oh wow. You know what? I had to pretend I liked it at the time, but I really cringe at the season nine big hairball outfit. It was like this grey, white, and pink bathing suit with this pink and grey rabbit fur coat. I was so broke at the time and I needed something to complement the colours of the hair. So I just grabbed these two things and the entire time I was praying, like really praying they wouldn’t pick that runway, and obviously they did! And I got read by Michelle (Visage) of course, but she said she liked the way I sold the outfit. And it’s crazy that I managed to, because I still look back and hate that look so much (laughs). Fake it ‘til you make it I guess.
Could you tell me about the look you wore the first time you ever got into drag?
Shea Couleé: So this is a funny story. When I first started doing drag I was homeless and just sleeping on my friend Sam’s couch in this tiny two bedroom apartment with two other friends Emily and Val, so there were the four of us. And so Val’s mom gave her a dress from New Year’s Eve, like, 1989, which this turtleneck style with a sweetheart neckline, made out of stretchy velvet and covered in sequins with these beaded shoulder pads. So we were all in the apartment and obviously we all tried the sexy little dress with the shoulder pads on and it looked amazing on all of us – we ended up calling it the sisterhood of the travelling dress. And so on my first night out in drag I wore the New Year’s Eve dress and felt very… like someone you would have seen in a black and white 90s Mario Testino photograph, it was very Italian luxe. I did my hair with little bangs to frame my face and added a pair of purple peep toe pumps for a little bit of colour, and I remember I barely had any make-up on. I look back at a picture of that moment and I’m always like ‘Oh you’re just so soft and adorable’.
And what did Val’s mom make of the look?
Shea Couleé: Oh she absolutely loved it, like, she still talks about it to this day. Val just got married last year, and my partner and I went to the wedding, and we were still talking about the dress!
That’s really cute! And how has your style changed and developed in the time since?
Shea Couleé: I would say when I started doing drag I was really trying to reflect the trends of the time, but right now, where I am is like I’m trying to do more research and look back for inspiration and reference points. I feel like I’m now trying to create a more timeless aesthetic versus playing into specific fashion trends.
Who are your favourite designers?
Shea Couleé: Okay right now? Let’s go right now. I would say Richard Quinn. Christopher John Rogers. Versace. The Blondes. Marc Jacobs. There are so many… oh wait wait wait! Valentino, of course Valentino, I can’t believe I forgot.
Where do you look for inspiration when it comes to fashion?
Shea Couleé: A lot of the time I start my mornings off just playing fashion shows on YouTube while I’m drinking my coffee and going through my emails – there’s something about it that just relaxes me. Outside of that, I love collecting books. I just got an Erté book in which he curated all his favourite drawings, there are so many beautiful designs in there that I definitely want to borrow from – Erté to me is really like the godfather of design. And just like lots of really amazing fashion history books that show you the techniques and innovations that have happened. So yeah, I read a lot, and get lots of inspiration from books.
Do you have a favourite fashion show that you’d love to travel back in time and walk in?
Shea Couleé: Oh my God. It’d have to be John Galliano for Dior in 2007, for sure. The one where all the models are like dolls. It’s just an out of this world show with all these beautiful Japanese-leaning elements, like origami folds and the way the gowns are draped. It’s sublime and it takes my breath away every time I see it. When I was younger, John Galliano at Dior was the one – that exuberance, that fantasy – that was what got me into fashion.
You recently walked in Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty. What did being a part of that mean to you, and what was the experience like?
Shea Couleé: Honestly, it was everything to be included, because I remember when I was in middle school, putting on my mom’s heels and practising my runway walk with Victoria’s Secret shows on the TV, and I knew I would never, ever be accepted into something like that. But Savage x Fenty has become our generation’s version of that and completely eclipsed Victoria’s Secret to become this truly inclusive world of lingerie. And to be personally asked to come and participate… that was just beyond any dream I ever imagined for myself. Like, it was so cool! Every single person on the team was just impeccable and accommodating and professional and made me feel like a complete star, even though I was just happy to be in the room!
“(If I could get my hands on any piece of fashion history) I would take the red beaded cowgirl chaps, bodice, and hat by Mugler that trans model Connie Fleming wore and I’d just have it hanging up on my wall” – Shea Couleé
And now you’ve got a catwalk appearance under your belt, whose runway would you most like to walk in the future?
Shea Couleé: I’m probably gonna say… Valentino, definitely. It would just be incredible – sheer elegance. Ugh, it would be everything!
Okay we’re looking at you Pierpaolo Piccioli on that one, we need to push that out into the universe.
Shea Couleé: Oh totally! I’m manifesting.
If a biopic was being made about your life, who would play you and who would you want to costume it?
Shea Couleé: Ooh, okay… do they have to be alive?
No! You can go all out fantasy.
Shea Couleé: Okay great, so Edith Head, definitely. Just think of all the amazing films she’s done, like What A Way To Go! with Shirley MacLaine and all those montages. If I were to pick a living costume designer, it would be Ruth Carter, who did Black Panther and Dolomite, which was everything for me because I love the 70s. When it comes to who would play me… I would say Ashton Sanders, yeah.
Last question. If you could get your hands on any piece of fashion history, like an iconic piece from an iconic collection, which would it be?
Shea Couleé: I would take the red beaded cowgirl chaps, bodice, and hat by Mugler that trans model Connie Fleming wore and I’d just have it hanging up on my wall.
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