When Mistress Isabelle Brooks took over the screens of the world on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Houston was cheering her on from her hometown, and that support went two ways. Many of the looks that Mistress dominated in as the self-proclaimed “heavyweight champ” of Season 15 were created by Houston designers Gin Martini and Yahaira DeHill.
Even those who haven’t kept up with Drag Race have perhaps seen the work of Martini and DeHill on stages around Houston, since both of the designers are active in the local drag scene with multiple costume projects in the works.
Even before Martini discovered their passion for designing costumes for drag performances, they say, “I couldn’t not do fashion if I wanted to. This shit is in my blood.” From their mother to their great-great-grandmother, whose sewing machine sits in their studio, Martini was destined to pursue a future in fashion.
Martini, who is pansexual, started designing clothes in high school and founded the school’s fashion club. Their confidence grew after being asked to create “simple dresses” for local drag performers, which led to enrolling in HCC’s school of fashion design. “If it weren’t for them getting me to do things, I probably wouldn’t have as much confidence, because they loved all my original sketches. They literally would look at my sketchbook and be like, ‘I want that,’” Martini recalls.
“It snowballed from there. Honestly, a lot of it is just doing things for my friends—who ended up doing really great things with [my fashions]. Mistress Isabelle was somebody that was just like, ‘Hey, girl, I need to use your machine, because mine broke,’ or something like that. And then she ended up using things on Drag Race that I made her, and I was like, ‘Oh, sick!’”
When DeHill became involved in designing costumes for drag shows, she already had an illustrious history of creative endeavors under her belt. After graduating from Prairie View A&M with a degree in architecture, she began designing cakes and then got involved in recycled runways, which sparked her involvement in Houston’s fashion world.
Around six years ago, DeHill and her husband attended a Dessie’s Drag Race show at a local club and “fell in love.” From there, her husband began competing in drag competitions, with DeHill constructing his costumes and doing his makeup for performances.
“At first, the family thought it was weird, because they were like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you putting your husband in makeup?’” DeHill recalls.
Now, DeHill says, her mom is one of her biggest supporters and helps out with sewing. She will be joining DeHill at her first DragCon this year, and is now “a part of this world.”
“I think that people don’t really know what’s going on [with drag]. They just think they know what’s going on, and cross it out right away,” DeHill muses. “But once they get to know the whole community, they fall in love with the people and the culture.”
When others in the drag community learned that DeHill was designing and creating her husband’s costumes, they began asking her to construct their costumes. “I had to learn stuff quickly. Sometimes I was making costumes for three out of the five people that were performing [at a show], so I had to learn to be really, really fast,” she explains.
That speed has continued to be a virtue with such a large customer base. She often has multiple projects going on at once. “There’s a show every day. There’s always a need for a costume, so it’s like we can never go out of business,” DeHill laughs.
Martini has had a similar experience, having forgotten long ago how many costumes they have masterminded. But she’s well aware of how quickly they need to be designed and made.
Fashion and costume design, Martini notes, has always been a women-driven industry, with many famous designers who have followed in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers before them.
“Even though there are a lot of male fashion designers, in the actual costuming departments and the nitty-gritty in these fashion houses, it’s always women. You rarely see men on the floor. I’m not saying it can’t be done by men, or something like that, but for the most part it’s a women-driven industry when it comes down to it.”
Martini, who also releases their own music and was the winner of Houston’s Pride Superstar competition in 2015, believes there is no one “right way” to become a fashion or costume designer. For example, Martini was drawn toward creating designs for short films, music videos, and drag performers in particular.
“What drew me to fashion to begin with was that you have to create this character’s look,” Martini emphasizes. From the iconic dress of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to Beetlejuice’s signature stripes, “these characters can’t exist without these outfits, so for me, it’s creating what that character is gonna look like. That naturally led me to drag queens, because a lot of queens have their own persona.”
DeHill describes working with drag queens as a “dream”—a sentiment that Martini echoes. DeHill is spurred on by competition and enjoys watching people showcasing what they love to do, whether that’s on a Houston stage or on national television. With four sewing projects in her kitchen, three more in her studio, and a house currently taken over by preparations for DragCon, her passion for costume design shows.
“When somebody asks me for something, I try to make it happen. I try to make their vision and my vision—both things—come together,” DeHill says. “It’s just fun working with different types of people, and drag queens have just been just a dream to work with, because their costumes are crazy!”.
Keep up with Gin Martini on Instagram @ginmartinidesigns_.
Keep up with DeHill on Instagram @yahairadehilldesigns.