Grace DuVal’s Drag Race Hat Trick

Grace DuVal, Refuse Refuge [14], 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Grace DuVal, Refuse Refuge [14], 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

by Joe Giovannetti

For many across the country, Friday nights on VH1 have brought much-needed reprieve over the last year in the form of the joy-filled, record-setting [15] season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Behind the scenes, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alum Grace DuVal’ [16]s designs are helping spread the joy.

When asked to describe her practice, wearable-art maker and photographer DuVal (Post-Bac 2012, MDes 2015) found it hard to put herself in one box. “I’ve never found that I’m quite one thing,” she explained. Though she doesn’t identify as a fashion designer, DuVal’s captivating work aims to transform unconventional materials into “something totally unexpected or unbelievable.”

It makes sense; “unexpected” is also one way to describe DuVal’s journey to Drag Race

Growing up in Natural Bridge Station, Virginia—population: just over 1,500—DuVal had two television channels. Her entry into wearable garments began in volunteer sewing and costuming at the local university. 

“I was kind of discovering extravagance in extremity in a garment. I immediately was like, This makes sense to me. This is exciting. There are no limits—whatever I dream up, I can do,” DuVal said. “So in my rural Virginia brain I was like, One day I want to design for drag queens. And I don’t know where that came from; I had never seen a drag show … it just made sense to me.”

DuVal in her graduate studio at SAIC. Photo by Grace Johnston. Image courtesy of the artist

DuVal in her graduate studio at SAIC. Photo by Grace Johnston. Image courtesy of the artist


"My time at SAIC, honestly, completely transformed me as an artist … When I worked directly with Nick Cave for my master’s, he taught me, ‘If someone asks you to do something, the answer is always yes, and you figure it out.’”


DuVal’s adventurous spirit led her to SAIC, where she studied fashion design at the post-baccalaureate and graduate level. There, a chance encounter with SAIC staff member and Chicago drag performer Lucky Stiff [17] sparked DuVal’s entrance into drag fashion.

Time Out [Chicago] sent me to document a drag performance at Disco Chicago, where Lucky Stiff was performing. I was just immediately like, I have to work with them,” DuVal explained. They had an instant connection, and DuVal began regularly creating wearable pieces for Lucky—one of which was noticed by a season 13 fan favorite, “Chicago’s Ice Queen,” Denali [18].

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, DuVal got the call: “Denali had seen my work on Lucky, and so, when Denali got the word, she called me and was like, ‘Hey! We’ve never met. You don’t know me, but I am going on Drag Race, I love your work, and I’d love to work together.’” DuVal was ecstatic, but with a shut-down, shuttered stores, and a seemingly impossible time crunch looming, she wondered how she could make it happen.

Grace DuVal, KITTY!!! [19], 2019, faux fur, Swarovski crystals, taffeta, custom designed lining by Melanie June. Model: Lucky Stiff. Photo courtesy of the artist

Grace DuVal, KITTY!!! [19], 2019, faux fur, Swarovski crystals, taffeta, custom designed lining by Melanie June. Model: Lucky Stiff. Photo courtesy of the artist

Luckily, DuVal says that SAIC and Stephanie and Bill Sick Professor of Fashion, Body and Garment Nick Cave [20] prepared her perfectly for this moment: "My time at SAIC, honestly, completely transformed me as an artist … When I worked directly with Nick Cave for my master’s, he taught me, ‘If someone asks you to do something, the answer is always yes, and you figure it out.’”

And that she did; against all odds, DuVal found a way to realize Denali’s designs, fabricating three unique pieces for the RuPaul’s Drag Race main stage. Online shopping turned DuVal’s at-home studio into a flood of boxes. She crafted a mannequin to Denali’s exact measurements and sought advice from her tight-knit network of collaborators. In lieu of fittings and field tests, DuVal and Denali exchanged pictures, videos, and feedback all over the phone (at the time of this writing, they’ve still never met in-person). Without the promise that any would actually be seen, DuVal shipped all her designs and hoped for the best. All three of them made it to air.

In the end, the show hasn’t just been a blissful moment for the fans; this behind-the-scenes opportunity inspired optimism in DuVal’s life when she needed it most.

“In the middle of this maelstrom, to have this kind of lifeline show up to be like, I need you to make things that are joyful … things that are wild and fun. I need you to dream. It was honestly a godsend.”

Learn more about DuVal’s featured runway looks below.

THE LOOKS

Category Is:
Fascinating Fascinator

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Category Is: Fascinating Fascinator [22]

The challenge: create a realistic, gravity-defying snapshot of a coffee pot, mid-pour, that’s adjustable, hangs off the side of Denali’s head, and can survive a flight from O’Hare to LAX—oh, and she’s going to wear roller skates. In the end, resin, cardboard, a plastic globe, and an assist from a friend with a 3D printer helped DuVal execute the look and unlock the secret to perfect balance: a meticulously placed fishing weight. Throw in a red-and-white striped dress and a tray of plastic food, and you’ve got DuVal’s first-requested runway look.

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal

Category Is: LITTLE BLACK DRESS

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Category Is: Little Black Dress [23]

DuVal constructed this arachnid take on a velvet LBD, including a fascinator to reveal Denali’s extra eyes. Denali’s inspiration was DuVal’s award-winning look from the 2019 Wearable Art New Zealand competition [24]. “She was like, ‘I want this, but spiderwebs.’” DuVal employed couching techniques and used beaded chains to pull off the silky, stretchy spider wings.

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal

Category Is: EXECUTIVE REALNESS

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Photo by Adam Ouahmane, @adamouahmane [21]

Category Is: Executive Realness [25]

After working on the previous two looks, Denali asked for DuVal’s assistance to pull off one additional piece: a Cruella De Vil–inspired fascinator to match an already-constructed black neoprene dress. Armed with aluminum mesh from the local hardware store, felt, and some construction advice from Associate Professor, Adj. Eia Radosavljevic [26], DuVal completed the garment just in time. DuVal laughed: “I really put my hat class to use!”

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal

Photo courtesy of Grace DuVal


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