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From a VIP zone near the crowd at Denver Pride’s main stage, Darlene C. Ritz watched as her friend DeMarcio Slaughter, the festival’s emcee and co-organizer for 17 years, walked off the stage in a top hat and ringleader getup, a dozen circus performers twirling in his wake. A few moments later, he pranced back out in a skyhigh mohawk made of feathers and a skintight, flesh-toned outfit bedazzled with black sequins. Slaughter struck a power pose and the crowd roared. Ritz, who made both costumes, began to bawl.
“It hit me to my core that standing behind me were thousands of people who had not always been able to express themselves truthfully, and in that moment they could authentically be themselves and celebrate, through joy and passion and feathers and sequins and all the juiciness that life can be,” Ritz says. “Every single broken needle, every single time I’ve stung my finger, every single sequin; I understood that in some small way my passion for clothing added to the joy of an authentic moment.”
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For the past half-decade, Slaughter and “the Doctor”—as he calls Ritz—have been working together to create well-constructed, fabulous performance fashion inspired by queer icons.
The partnership began in the mid-2010s, when they struck up a serendipitous conversation at a local art opening. Slaughter needed some sartorial guidance. He’d been orchestrating Denver Pride for over a decade, often on a shoestring budget. (In the earliest years, his fabric budget was all of $50, which he scrimped together from the few businesses that would sponsor the event.) The clothes he wore on stage were usually pulled together at the last minute, with flair—but often without craftsmanship. Misplaced sequins cut his skin as he performed, leaving him with scratches. Once the crotch of a glittery silver jumpsuit, which he had hand sewn himself, ripped right before he was to lip-sync a Bruno Mars number.
Ritz, a professor in the fashion department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, stepped in as a sort of creative director (she won’t say how much she’s compensated, just that she receives a generous gift each year). Every year around Oscar season, Slaughter and Ritz start brainstorming for the coming June. They take inspiration from recent red carpet looks and cultural trends, but Slaughter’s perennial touchstone is Diana Ross. He’ll send photos of outfits she wore with the Supremes to Ritz and ask, How can we adapt this?
“It’s nice to meet a professional who doesn’t make you feel stupid or foolish,” Slaughter says.
Sometimes Ritz turns the costuming into a collaborative project for her fashion students; sometimes she does all the stitching herself. Pre-quarantine, she and Slaughter produced about eight to 10 looks each year, which he would rotate through as Pride progressed. The challenge and the fun of the work, Ritz says, is creating clothing meant to be performed in.
“It needs to fit perfectly. If there’s a cape, it has to be built so that the weight is on the shoulders and the neck or the back,” she says.
There are also the joys of improvisation. In 2019, Slaughter wore a genuine gown for the first time, a magisterial black-and-white number with a hoop skirt and flame motifs. Slaughter remembers calling Ritz from a fabric store in New York and showing her what he had found; she paid homage to Billy Porter’s iconic tuxedo dress in constructing the final look. On stage, Slaughter slipped it off midway through a performance, revealing a pair of slick pants with the same flame motifs. This wasn’t initially planned—while the pair were tweaking the garment on a dress form (a type of mannequin used by designers), it fell to the ground dramatically. Inspired, Slaughter asked: “Could I do that on stage?”
In general, Slaughter aims for sexy, not skimpy. “I want people to say, ‘I wish he would take more off,’ versus, ‘I wish he would put more on,’” he jokes.
For Ritz, the work is about much more than aesthetics. “The things I put on my body that interact with the space around me, that touch my physical skin, they are so very personal. I treat every garment I make with this in mind.”
This holistic approach has helped Slaughter feel embodied and actualized, he says. And it helps that crotch holes are very much a thing of the past. “I can make any butt look good, but DeMarcio makes it very easy,” Ritz says.
For the second summer in a row, Slaughter’s emceeing will be on pause. (Denver Pride, on June 26 and 27, will be partially virtual and partially in-person, with smaller hubs scattered across downtown instead of a central parade and event space.) That means the dozens and dozens of Doctor-DeMarcio creations will remain on their hangers in the costume closet Slaughter built in his house to accommodate them.
While Slaughter, who works as a senior advisor for Mayor Michael Hancock, will miss the joy and uplift of the festivities of years past, the break gives him time to reflect on his journey here, and, with Ritz at his side, plan extravagant looks for all the Prides to come.
“When I started, it was about me feeling better, to be able to be up there and be like Diana,” he says. “Now, I do this for the kid who’s going to their first PrideFest.”
(Read more: What Losing PrideFest In-Person Meant For Denver’s LGBTQ Community)