Rey Ortiz was laid off toward the beginning of the COVID pandemic. At the time, he was working at a furniture and appliance store in L.A. selling toilets — yes, toilets — during the day while sewing designs at night. Many of those designs weren’t for any person in particular, just the results of his sometimes overactive mind. But a selection were for contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In May 2020, on his birthday, he was let go from the shop.
“And I can honestly say my phone hasn’t stopped ringing since,” Ortiz says. The designer now counts Lizzo, Latto, Mary J. Blige and more as stars who have worn his pieces. “I would have never, ever, ever quit my job because I would have been terrified to not have an income. If I hadn’t been pushed, I would have never tried.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Ortiz, 41, has fashion in his blood. With a mother and a grandfather who sewed for a living, the child, who was one of five, found an early interest in art and illustration. After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a master’s in arts animation, Ortiz competed on an MTV digital-skills competition show, Engine Room, with his team taking home first place.
Televised competitions are a recurring theme in his career. After learning how to sew from a seamstress in Puerto Rico, he moved to Texas to teach at the Art Institute in Fort Worth. He quit that job when he was cast on the Project Runway spinoff Under the Gunn in 2014. He was eliminated after his first challenge on the series.
“There’s no way that you will not see Rey Ortiz again, and there are going to be a few surprises in the future,” he said in his sign-off. While the claims were bold, the 6-foot-3 designer would not touch a sewing machine for four months over the experience. But the rejection became fuel. “I think the reason that I’m doing well today is because I was able to do better, not only fashion technical-wise, but to be better as a person,” he says. “I tried to get all the joy and the recognition of designing in real life. Not in a competition where the people were there to judge me.”
In January 2015, Ortiz took a gamble. He had made friends with RuPaul’s Drag Race star Alyssa Edwards, helping her out with looks. When he heard that Bianca Del Rio (winner of season six of the drag competition series) was coming to perform at a bar where Edwards also was working, he asked Edwards if she would set it up so that after the performance, he could “tip” Del Rio with a free dress he made just for her. It worked: The dress fit perfectly, ended up being the look Del Rio chose for her season eight cameo, and kicked off a relationship between the pair that has spanned nearly a decade.
Ortiz became one of a group of designers and costumers that competitors on Drag Race began wearing regularly. Some have had their creations pop up on major red carpets as well as on mainstream stars: Joshuan Aponte’s work has been worn by Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, while Diego Montoya has worked with Lady Gaga, created looks worn by Shangela and Jenifer Lewis to the 2019 Oscars, and won an Emmy this year for his work on HBO reality series We’re Here.
Ortiz’s turn came — a few months after leaving the store — in the form of a leopard-print bodysuit Kylie Jenner wore in the “WAP” video in August 2020. “That was my first taste of a non-drag-queen big moment,” he says.
Then it was a slew of looks for Cardi herself including her metal showpiece for the 2021 Grammys. “[Stylist] Kollin Carter was always calling me for this or that for Cardi,” Ortiz says. “He told me he was calling me because I design for drag queens and the stuff that he needed was similar: It has to be showy, it has to move, it has to have a point of view.”
Stylist Zerina Akers found his work while looking for a designer who understands constructing for performance and can work on a quick turnaround. “He goes above and beyond for clients. He’s constantly evolving,” says Akers, who has dressed Megan Thee Stallion, Jazmine Sullivan and Chloe X Halle in Ortiz’s designs.
Says Ortiz of his evolution, “I don’t dress drag queens because they are my target market, I dress people that I respect. To me, these are people that matter, that are doing things bigger than themselves.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.