Billy Porter’s first introduction to fashion was in a Black Pentecostal church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he was born and raised. In 1991, he came to New York, and Broadway hasn’t been the same since. On Wednesday, the Emmy winner opened up about his storied career to Fern Mallis, the creator of New York Fashion Week and the host of Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis at 92Y in New York City.
“Every week was a fashion show,” Porter told Mallis, about going to church as a kid. “And the aisle was the runway!” he added, as the audience erupted with laughter. “Where you sat in the sanctuary is how good you felt that day,” he explained. According to Porter, the closer you sat to the pulpit, the longer the walk down the aisle, giving more time to show off your Sunday best. “You sashay down that center runway, like ‘how are you doing saints,’” Porter said. “It was an early fashion education for me and this is the one thing I don’t think I’ve spoken about a lot. We would put on our own fashion shows.”
Porter is the ultimate performer; he has won both a Tony and a Grammy for his work in the Broadway play, Kinky Boots. But before that, he honed his skills at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, even taking a stylist class that taught him how to handle a garment for the theater. “The men learned how to use the accoutrements from the top hat to the cane to the waist coats to tails to, you know, how to stand, and the women had to learn all of the different ways to work a garment. And I paid attention.”
Now Porter’s presence commands red carpets, too. Take, for example, the tuxedo gown he wore to the 2019 Oscars. “I had no intention of even going,” he told Mallis of the award show last February. But, then, Porter was asked to host the red carpet. “It was during Fashion Week and I was like, what am I going to wear and we went to a Christian Siriano fashion show a half-hour after I got the call.” Porter said it was then he remembered why he loved Siriano’s work so much. “He’s always been the designer that understands that everybody wears clothes. If you are a size 0 to 400, everyone wears clothes. It’s in his DNA to design for everyone.”
“We had already been coming up against a wall with a lot of designers because I wanted to do this gender-bending-fluid thing. We just got a lot of “no’s” from a lot of people. I needed to wear a ball gown and this is the only person who will do it. He is the only person who will look me in the face and say yes. And he said yes. He did it in a week.”
That gown is now on view in a Boston museum and will make its way to Kensington Palace in a year, Porter told Mallis.
When he isn’t on a red carpet, Porter said he gravitates to Thom Browne pieces. “It’s so good to travel with. It’s like Garanimals.” (For the high-end set, of course.) “Everything just goes together. Throw 10 pieces into a suitcase and you have 25 outfits. You’re just mixing and matching and Thom Browne is flawless. It’s so beautiful. After this year, I can’t travel in sweatpants anymore.”
Porter has indeed had a transformative year, and hints at a clothing line of his own. “Something’s coming,” he said. “I’m not sure what yet but something is coming.” We’re willing to bet it incorporates Porter’s personal fashion philosophy: “Wear whatever the fuck you want.”
“That will go nicely on a label,” said Mallis.