Dianna DiNoble, designer to the queens, opens up about her fashionable career…
By Christopher Turner
RuPaul’s Drag Race is more than just a TV show that has catapulted to mainstream success in recent years – it’s a worldwide phenomenon that has seen the art of drag explode and create multiple micro economies. The franchises, spin-offs, tours, YouTube shows, music videos and more mean that some of your favourite queens need a closet full of lewks. After all, fashion and drag have always been closely intertwined, and drag queens have long been a force to reckon with in fashion.
While some queens conceptualize and sew their own costumes and accessories, others now have the means (or the necessity) to outsource the creation of their drag to designers.
That trend has taken on momentum as the Drag Race empire expanded into Canada with the launch of Canada’s Drag Race in 2020 and the spotlight has shone a little brighter on some of the country’s queens vying to top the franchise’s increasingly high bar on the runway. Over the years, several local designers have earned their living creating intricate custom garments for the show or for a queen’s post-show appearances. One of the most notable in recent years is Toronto-based designer Dianna DiNoble.
Dianna has been creating bespoke corsetry under her label Starkers Corsetry for over 25 years, and she’s gained a devoted following in Canada, the United States and Europe thanks to her meticulous attention to detail and modern take on historical designs. Bespoke corsetry, bridal, burlesque and fashion pieces are custom designed and handcrafted in her Toronto home studio to perfectly suit each client. Established in 1992, Starkers has catered to a wide range of customers, from traditional brides and fashion trailblazers to risqué fetish lovers and, more recently, drag queens.
Fun fact: I went to high school with Dianna and even walked the runway for her when she presented her Starkers designs at an artist gallery, so it was a pleasure to reconnect and talk fashion and drag queens.
I already know the answer to this…but when did you start designing?
I started designing clothes for my friends’ dolls when I was little. My mom was a second-wave feminist and decided that all of my toys would be gender-neutral, so I got Legos and art supplies. I didn’t get dolls of my own, but my friends had lots, so I loved finding fabric scraps and sewing together gowns for them.
I started designing people-sized clothes in high school, because I loved dark and gothic clothing, and in a small town, the only option was to make them for myself.
Tell us about your early years as a designer.
It really started with the music. When I was 14 or 15, my group of friends had a lot of indie musicians, playing gothic, punk, industrial music. I met up with a band in Toronto to help them with a show. One of the members had a clothing store on Queen West, and it was magic! Her store was called Xiphotek, and it was a baby gothling’s dream come true: loads of velvets, satin, lace, luxurious textures, dark jewel tones, and every shade of black you could hope for – ha. I knew at that moment that I wanted to live in Toronto and be a designer.
As soon as I got back home, I began sewing my first line, which I presented with a friend at the Lindsay Boys & Girls Club. We later took the show to Peterborough at Artspace – where you walked the runway for us, Christopher! I started selling some of the clothing to individuals and local stores. I began fashion school at Sheridan College…which I failed out of, because I was already busy with my own corset-making business, and it’s been going strong ever since.
More recently, you’ve started working with some pretty notable drag stars. Can you tell me how all that started?
I have worked with drag queens on and off over the years, but this past year has been the most fun I’ve ever had. During the pandemic, Canada’s Drag Race came out, and I became obsessed with the show. The creativity and talent of these queens was so inspiring, and I suddenly found myself watching everything drag. All of RuPaul’s Drag Race episodes and spin-offs, Dragula, everything.
One day, a stylist messaged me for a wardrobe call for Brooke Lynn Hytes. I was so excited, and made her a custom dress in record time. Sadly, the shoot was cancelled, but she surprised me by shooting it a few months later for World AIDS Day! The same stylist put me in touch with Priyanka, for her videos, including Jimbo’s Killer Clown stripe look, and it grew from there! One of the coolest things was watching Canada’s Drag Race Reunion episode, and seeing Priyanka, Scarlett BoBo and Jimbo all wearing my creations for the episode. Especially when they all declared to Jimbo that “this is glamour” with her pink and black PVC look that I designed.
Who are some of your favourite queens?
They are all my favourite! Every time I see a new queen on TV, or in a live performance, I fall in love so quickly. The talent is always remarkable. It takes so much to put a character together; to learn the hair, makeup, dancing; and even the crowd control. I’m always blown away. I have worked most closely with Priyanka over the past year, with her base layer corsets, Her Morticia Come Through look, some performance pieces, and gowns like the Peacock reunion dress…and one more special look that she will be premiering soon.
What about a few of your favourite looks that you have designed for the queens?
One of the most fun parts of working with these queens is that they give me a few basic concepts, and then they let me do my thing. I love that one of the most traditionally bridal looks I’ve ever done was for Lemon to host the 2021 CGLCC gala. Plus there’s a quick-release multi-layer Rapunzel look for Juice Boxx, a few fun looks for Jimbo – including a PVC Marie Antoinette look and a sparkly Wilma Flintstone – some pieces for Dragula’s Maddelynn Hatter, and there are some jaw-dropping projects coming up in the new year with Brooke Lynn Hytes and Lemon. My favourite look will be debuting later in December. It took me about a month to create and weighs about 30 pounds. I wish I could tell you more, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Anyone on your wish list to design for?
Everyone! I’m so happy to meet new queens and work with them to make their looks come to life. I love starting with a blank slate and listening to them talk about what shapes and colours make them feel amazing and beautiful. I love dramatic designs, so I’d love to work with people like Sasha Velour and corset enthusiast Violet Chachki, but I also love bonkers fashion, like Jimbo, Utica and Yvie Oddly. I’d love to design for all of them!
Tell me what goes into designing and constructing a corset. The process looks intense.
It can be pretty intense, depending on the design. Whether it’s for a client who wants a plain corset, a drag queen or a bride, I start out meeting with the client to discuss their ideas. Sometimes they have a concept to start with, and sometimes they don’t know where to start. Often beginning with a colour and a vibe is the way to get started in the right direction; then I sketch it out. I take 15 to 30 different measurements and draft their pattern from scratch. Then I make a mockup that they either try on in person, or I mail it to them and we fit it via Zoom. I send them loads of fabric swatches with stones and other details. I want them to feel the fabric for themselves. I make the corrections to the mockup and pattern, then begin the finished garment. I like to have a few fittings to be sure it’s perfect, and that they are happy with it. I make sure all of the details are exactly how they want it, and they get to take it home.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your looks?
The inspiration usually comes from the client: the overall feel of the look they want (‘I want to be That Bitch, but in orange’), the shape (‘Something like Cinderella or Marie Antoinette, but, you know, more bondage-y’) or what they like (‘I really like Edward Scissorhands’). I like just vibing with a client and circling in on what makes them the happiest.
Who inspires you?
There’s inspiration everywhere! Pretty much every drag queen I’ve ever seen, artists like Jessica Joslin and her creatures, Heather Horton’s paintings (those colours!), my teenager’s mind-blowing spooky art…but I find inspiration in pretty much everybody who is a creative. People are so interesting, and everyone has their own unique circus.
Really, drag inspires me. I really relate to the dressing up and creating a fantastical look and having an alter ego. Most days, I’m starting the day in sweats, home-schooling my tween kiddo, and trying to get my life together with coffee and to-do lists – but then I put on my “work drag.” Even if it’s just a bright lipstick or cool shoes, it gives me a boost to go out to an event, meet a supplier or client, or just get sewing.
Any advice for aspiring fashion designers?
It’s really discouraging being a new fashion designer now, with so much production being offshored, and people not understanding why something would cost what you should charge. I mean, seriously, sometimes the materials for a look alone can be over $1,000, never mind the cost of labour.
Just keep going. Keep making beautiful things and putting them out there. Bring a sketchbook everywhere you go, and draw stuff. Maybe you’ll see a tree branch that’s a cool shape, and it gives you an idea for a hat. Maybe a crumpled piece of paper gives you an idea for a skirt draping technique. Be open to seeing inspiration wherever you are.
If you weren’t designing right now, what would you be doing?
I have no idea! Designing has been a huge part of my life for most of my life, and I can’t imagine not doing it. Maybe I’d be one of those guinea pig show people? Be a full-time TikTok creator? I need to be fully immersed and obsessed with my work, and it can’t be cooking, so I really don’t know. I’d just sit there and be sad.
If you could tell people only one thing about you, what would it be?
I probably became a designer of fancy dresses because when I was four, I wanted to be a princess for Halloween, but my mom dressed me as a lumberjack instead. ADHD can be a superpower sometimes. Also, goth isn’t always just a phase.
What are you working on right now? Any teasers for some of your upcoming collaborations?
I’m working on about six pieces right now that will be widely shown by this time next year, some television, some advertisements – all very sparkly and will make you go WOW!
CHRISTOPHER TURNER acted as guest editor for this issue of IN Magazine. He is a Toronto-based writer, editor and lifelong fashionisto with a passion for pop culture and sneakers. Follow him on social media at @Turnstylin.