(Above: Juanita More!, San Francisco's drag queen extraordinare, is the subject of 24-year retrospective fashion show—featuring couture looks created for More! by her longtime friend and designer Mr. David—at the de Young Museum on Friday, May 13, 2016)
One independent fashion designer. One drag queen muse. Two hundred glamorous, fanciful, unique dresses created over twenty-four years. That's the magic equation for the DeYoung Museum's extravaganza, "Mr. David for Juanita More! 24 Years of More." This one-night-only runway show is the story of a friendship between creator and muse—an epic selfie of one of San Francisco's most enduring creative collaborations.
Mr. David, as the designer is known, has his fashion roots in New York City, where he once rode the fast track to fashion fame, designing the iconic harlequin jumpsuit worn by Deee-Lite's Lady Miss Kier in the 1990 dance video "Groove is in the Heart." "The fashion industry was never my goal," he says now. "In the nineties, I had editors from Vogue coming to look at my stuff, telling me how to edit it: 'You can't do that this year. You can't push that.' Then two years later I'd see something just like it in the magazine." Fleeing that stifling environment, David arrived in San Francisco and quickly found a muse in a just-emerging drag queen calling herself Juanita More! The two of them have worked together ever since. The DeYoung event gives the rest of us a chance to revisit their greatest hits.
From his studio in SoMa, two days before the show, Mr. David sounds surprisingly calm. "It started as a huge tidal wave, but now it's ordered and peaceful. We edited down from 3,000 items," he reveals, calling the process "painful but practical." The original idea—pick 10 items from every year—didn't make sense when they opened up the storage unit where the garments are kept. Some years had more to offer, some less; some dresses were in tatters. In the end, it wasn't the year of creation that mattered, but the story they wanted to tell, one of what he calls "timeless" inspiration.
"There were things I made in '94 that I could send down a runway today, and they wouldn't look dated. A 12-yard ombré wrap-sari doesn't belong to a specific year. It's like paintings—they're not painted for a season. Artists do the thing they do. This stuff is just in me, and I must get it out. In San Francisco, I get to do what I want, and that's heavenly."
That sense of well-crafted, artistic glamour makes this a perfect fit for the DeYoung, which prioritizes textile art, evidenced by the current Oscar de la Renta exhibition. "We love Mr. David," says Renee Baldocchi, who organizes the DeYoung's free Friday-night programming. "We've worked with him for years. He did a wonderful fashion show during our 2007 Vivian Westwood exhibition. Our audience loves him. It's not just nightlife people. Lots of families come out. Kids just adore drag queens." But where de la Renta took inspiration from elites like Marie Antoinette or the Russian tsarinas, Mr. David comes up from the streets—New York's East Village in the gritty '80s, and the SoMa and Tenderloin nightlife of 21st-century San Francisco: "Every single piece in this show has a story attached. This comes out of my life."
Though he's designed for countless performers, this retrospective focuses on designs created specifically for Juanita More!, herself an indelible icon of local nightlife and fundraising (and a former 7x7 cover girl). That orange ombré sari was sparked by Juanita watching Hare Krishnas chanting on the street in saffron robes, an image she brought to Mr. David. "She's been my main muse so long because she just knows when to pull me in and say, here's an idea for a dress. There are times when I've been too sick or too tired, and Juanita just gets my juices flowing."
Mr. David's interest in sewing was encouraged by his mother. As a child in New York, he would take the subway from the Bronx to school in Manhattan, with side trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for inspiration. He attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, but only completed a few years. "His genius was developing faster than his teachers were pushing, and he stopped going," Juanita explains. "His knowledge of fashion history is beyond my brain. He can tell you the year the zipper was introduced into clothing. He can sew anything. But it's not just pulling out a flat pattern and making something. He runs on creative energy."
"I love watching Juanita step into a room on a given evening," Mr. David says, "But I don't like being under that gaze myself." That sentiment comes as a surprise, since his own legendary drag persona, Glamamore, has electrified stages high and low for 30 years, going back to the East Village's legendary Boy Bar Beauties. "Glamamore is transcendent on stage," says Mica Sigourney, who co-produces the weekly drag show "Some Thing" with Glamamore at the Stud Bar. "But as Mr. David, he doesn't like attention and doesn't want it. Juanita is a nightlife celebrity, and she presents herself that way. Meanwhile, Mr. David is off to the side taking notes."
Though the two of them are not in a romantic relationship, Mr. David says of his long friendship with Juanita More, "Take a love affair and give it color and shape—that's what we've been doing for two decades. It's been an absolute joy." Juanita concurs: "At tough times, fashion has helped us continue and move forward together."
// 7:30 to 8pm, Friday May 13, free admission; "Mr. David for Juanita More! 24 Years of More...Runway Show" at DeYoung Museum (Golden Gate Park), deyoung.famsf.org
K.M. Soehnlein is the author of three novels including The World of Normal Boys