It is a bold and glam statement for fashion, inclusivity and LGBTQ+ visibility and representation as Philippine retail and mall giant SM decided to get fierce drag queen Aquaria to headline The SM Store’s fashion campaign, a milestone in company’s and also the Philippines’ history.
The campaign started by early August with billboards featuring Aquaria enlivening Metro Manila, which excited fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, which broke ground by taking the underground drag subculture into the mainstream and inspiring many people, something which was thought to be not possible several years back. The American reality television show also royally introduced drag queens to the world, and they are conquering it, appearing in runways, magazine covers, films and shows, tours, red-carpet events and big mainstream campaigns.
Drag fever has also arrived on Philippine shores as Drag Race has found avid viewers and fans, and queens became celebrities. This was punctuated by the “Big Drag Energy” in the late afternoon of 2 September at the ground hall of the Mega Fashion Hall of SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City, where SM flew in Aquaria herself for a short performance and a meet-and-greet sessions. The stage and runway were shared like a letter A, where 35 Filipino drag queens, winners of their online contests, sashayed on together with Aquaria, who was fervently welcomed by fans.
According to The SM Store, this latest campaign, which will roll out nationwide and last until the holiday season, is “all about self-expression through fashion, regardless of who you are, whatever style you go for.”
“Around this time of the year, we do our fashion campaign, and so normally we do like (pick) someone…and when the conversation started she was our first pick,” revealed Geo Custodio, The SM Store marketing manager. “There is an audience within SM (for Drag Race and drag in general), for sure. Absolutely.”
“She was always on top of our list,” affirmed Fiona Araneta, The SM Store junior marketing manager. “We chose Aquaria because she won Season 10 (of RuPaul’s Drag Race) and that she’s achieved a lot in her young age, and she is known as the look queen… It’s not because we chose her for this but because she has achieved so much and she is also collaborating with other foreign brands.”
The campaign emerged at the height of the Gretchen Diez incident, in which a trans woman was harassed and humiliated for using the women’s restroom, and the heated conversations about the LGBTQ+ situation in country.
On their part, Custodio said, “We do believe that trans women are women and if they want to use the women’s restrooms, (they can).”
“Wherever you feel comfortable in, transgender (women) can use the women’s restrooms… That is really what we’re trying to say. That’s our stand. We are a safe space. (Whatever is your) gender, your race, your nationality, we welcome everyone,” Araneta emphasized.
They also revealed that there are all-gender restrooms in a few of their branches and they are developing more. They also assured that their staff and security guards are briefed and educated about gender.
Meanwhile, Araneta believed that what is important is that “she is here. We brought her here. It’s very big thing for us.” And the LGBTQ+ community, their allies and others are grateful.
For SM, Aquaria’s catchphrase is “turning looks, stunting pretty,” and the brand created a category, “SM Fashion Realness Meets Overly Accessorized Fashion Queen,” in the tradition of American drag and ballroom culture.
Aquaria is said to be hands-on in the styling process, even personally selecting the merchandise for the shoot. Main highlights are SM Shoes and Bags and SM Accessories from The SM Store.
The Philippine stint with SM Store is Aquaria’s first venture into the Southeast Asian fashion market. It has been whirlwind for her since winning the crown, the youngest to do so at 22, in the tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2018.
The queen from New York, whose real name is Giovanni Palandrani and drag mother is Drag Race royalty Sharon Needles, has appeared in global campaigns for Moschino and MAC Viva Glam, and collaborated with designer Jeremy Scott and make-up brand Nyx. She has also graced the covers of Vogue Italia, Gay Times, New York and Paper magazine. Earlier this year, she also made headlines as she was the first drag queen to walk the carpet at the Met Gala.
Here the queen speaks:
Roel Hoang Manipon (RHM): What’s your personal definition of drag?
Aquaria (A): Drag for me — we always put some parameters on it — but for me, drag is just all about dressing, dressing the way you want, presenting a kind of different persona than what you would normally present as day-to-day, and just living the fantasy and feeling fabulous about yourself whether it’s in a crazy, yellow jacket, or some gorgeous pants. Feel your fantasy and live your truth.
RHM: You have been doing drag since when?
A: I’ve been doing drag since the day I was born whether I was dressing up in a silly costume or whatever. But I think performing, more around like 18 (years old) or so.
RHM: How did you come up with your drag name?
A: The word comes from (the fact) that I’m an Aquarius. My birthday is February 12. I don’t even remember quite how it came about but it’s simple. It’s short and sweet. Not many people in real life have that name, only a few, the lucky ones. I think it’s cute. I’m not really in tune with the horoscope or the stars or anything but I know that I definitely embody a lot of the Aquarius characteristics. So, even though I don’t really pay attention to that stuff, it kind of suited me and it’s fun. It starts with an A so I’m always at the beginning of the alphabet now. So you know my drag name.
RHM: How do you describe your drag aesthetics and how did you develop it?
A: For me, I usually go for something bold, something slightly unexpected, something that you are very familiar with and then mixed with something that you don’t know why you paired it with, but it somehow works. I love focusing on really bold and impactful makeup. Sometimes I’m funky, hair or two. But I don’t limit myself to like, I only wear blue or I only like dresses. I love being able to mix things up day to day and be sort of a drag chameleon and always look a little bit different. I guess it kind of depends on the day, which is so hard. Which is why it’s so hard to pack for weeklong tours and month-long tours. Like what if I want to wear something different?
RHM: How much did fashion school, Sharon Needles, Amanda Lepore and Susanne Bartsch influence your aesthetics?
A: Fashion school definitely informed a lot of my decisions when it comes to design and creation. I’ve always been inspired by the nightlife, the legends, the past, the current, the future. I think fashion in the club is always so on the edge of every trend and definite the heart of a lot of styles of New Yorkers. People like Susan and Amanda are bold, fearless women. No one can help it but to be inspired by them.
RHM: And Sharon Needles?
A: Sharon is evil. No, she’s really cool. She definitely has grown a speciality, more like a sleek, leathery, dark, perfect-silhouette kind of vibe. And that obviously constantly inspires me as well.
RHM: Where do you get your inspirations?
A: All my inspiration comes from all sorts of things I love. I love being inspired by drag. The full circle aspect of being in drag, being inspired by drag is really interesting. I have a bit of a background in fashion history and art history in general. So, I love taking visual or creative cues from old works of art across all different types of mediums. Of course, as a drag queen, pop culture and the pop divas are always at the forefront of my inspiration and creative thinking. Queens like Madonna and Cher and stuff like that are always major influences to my style. I think you can’t go wrong if your drag look is inspired by Cher. Where can you go wrong?
RHM: How is it important that you have this platform now as a way to talk about issues?
A: I think it’s very important. Drag has always been a political statement. And I know for a lot of people — you, me, the next person — we all have things that we want to see in the world… And when you have a platform like I have or like the next drag queen, I feel like you have a bit of a duty to your fans and to your community to use your voice when you can. Sometimes shouting your beliefs…(a part) kind of makes it all just sound like “Ahhh” to some people but choosing important times to talk about important topics can really help make a more progressive and accepting community.
RHM: What is your advice to young people who want to do drag?
A: Just follow your dreams and do everything with intention. Try to be informed with what you want to create. I think having an idea and executing that visually is empowering. It really, you know, makes you feel really, really cool. So if something is inspiring to you, please pursue it. If I didn’t pursue drag, I wouldn’t be here; I wouldn’t be where I am right now. So if you have a love for something, let yourself enjoy it and let your freak flag fly!
RHM: What’s your advice in terms of creating looks or accessorizing?
A: A lot of my love for drag and the fashion of drag come from styling. Being on the road a lot, I don’t get to travel with a lot of stuff, my suitcases, but when I’m home and in my closet, looking at all the silly jewelry and accessories and outfits that I forget I had, that’s where I find the most enjoyment, getting to pick and choose and put things together — you know, hair, some crazy big yellow jacket from Italy with some easy-peasy vinyl body suit. I think for me finding the perfect area, where a look is in your budget, and still showing your creativity is important. So you can really make a lot of something out of little to nothing. And I think that’s what drag always has been. It’s always been that for me… Try to have like a budget or something like that. So just like work within your means.
RHM: How quick can you do drag?
A: I can go from start to finish in about two hours. Today, it took a little longer because I had to do all the hair and everything. Whenever I have a really big event, I always take a little bit too long, even though I shouldn’t, because I’m a control freak and a perfectionist when it comes to some things. And I know there is going to be a lot of press, a lot of pictures. I wanted to look gorgeous for everyone here.
RHM: How do you integrate ready-to-wear into your look and elevate it?
A: I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing for me but I am notorious for rocking more casual fashion mixed with something cool like what I have now. This is really easy, affordable bodysuit I bought somewhere online… You know, sometimes, everyone is living on a bit of a budget. I remember when I was first getting started in drag, you can only afford so much. But the one thing I always knew that I had was a creative eye and creative gifts with my hands and my makeup. So, as long as I have some elements to create, I can do really whatever I want. I can just wear something boring on the bottom. But if you use the ability and the creativity and the skill that you have as a human to kind of elevate a look that makes it look more expensive, I think that’s where the perfect balance is. It’s about… convincing other people that you’re doing with the design that’s $15 looks like $1500.
RHM: If you were to design an accessory, what would it be?
A: Nowadays, I think I would love to design some gorgeous, little black shoes so I don’t wear crazy heals all the time. But a more fun answer would be a nice, big, chunky platform wedge, something that is big and bold and powerful, but also, you know, wearable and fashionable.
RHM: Out of drag, what would your typical outfit be like?
A: I like dressing up when I’m out of drag, when I can like when I’m going out to the club. But sometimes my day-to-day style I describe as a fashion intern. I’m always in like a black skinny jean, a black little tank top. I look like I’m behind the scenes all the time. And I think some of that is because when I’m not in a crazy outfit, I love being in the most chill outfit. But I always love a good, random accessory. A crazy pair of sunglasses or a crazy bag definitely elevates my fashion intern look.
RHM: What do you think will make you last?
A: What a lot of drag queens have imparted to me is to be really mindful of your mental health, your health out of drag. Be really respectful of your body. You know, I am in high heels right now, but I’m not in high heels all the time. That will kill your feet. You know, there’s so many things that you can do when you’re young and you can’t do as you get older, and I think being mindful of those things is important.
RHM: For this campaign, what are your inputs?
A: For styles and trends that we’re focusing on the season or this year, there is a lot of animal prints, and some bold, red looks. But they are all categories and themes that I think not only are present in fashion today, but also are often represented in the things that I wear. I love animal prints. I love to wear too much red… Most of the trends were inspired by things that I already normally wear. So it just kind of matched.
RHM: What do you think of the expansion of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
A: It’s so cool. How big it blew up in the (United) States is crazy to think of and it’s really special to be a part of that. But having all these other offshoots and franchises around the world is really cool. Drag Race Thailand is bringing some of the most ridiculous things, I think, ever be seen on the runway from things lighting up in flames to God knows what else is going on. That’s so cool. UK Drag Race I’m so excited for. Drag Race Canada. They’ve just announced Australia. I would love to see Drag Race Philippines. That would be incredible.
RHM: A lot of drags are being accepted by a lot of brands. What are your thoughts about that?
A: It’s really cool. This past year, I think we definitely saw a massive amount of drag queens being involved in makeup collaborations and things of that sort. And just to see that is so cool. It’s nice for us to have jobs that aren’t always performing like at of our clubs, and to be taken seriously and respected in a world that is not our immediate drag circle. It not only empowers us and our audience, but also shows that drag is very prevalent. It’s here to stay and it’s powerful. And everyone loves it. Even if you don’t love drag, you’re probably lying. It’s very much like Spongebob. Squidward hated the Krappy Patties until he tried them and then he was like, hold on, wait a second, you’re onto something. I think this is the same way. Just because you don’t think you love it or whatever doesn’t mean that you don’t actually.
RHM: You’re 23 years old and you have achieved much. What else do you want to do?
A: Oh my gosh, like this collaboration with The SM Store, I wouldn’t know that I wanted to do that until the opportunity presented itself. I’ve always been someone who is very open-minded to taking different opportunities, to exploring different routes and jobs and lifestyles and stuff like that. So if a director comes to me about a role in a movie and I think it is a good fit for me, I would love to do. If a brand want to collaborate on, like, me designing clothes or something like that and I think it is the right time for that, I would love to do that. If my life is just me performing on stage for the rest of my life and I just keep doing what I’m doing, I would also be so grateful for that, too. So I kind of take every day as it comes. And I know it’s important for me to go out and create my dreams.
Check out The SM Store’s Instagram account (@TheSMStore) and Facebook.com/TheSMStore.