On Friday, September 9, New York Fashion Week attendees shuffled into the Hammerstein Ballroom in midtown for the only show to present Spring/Summer 2017's hottest looks for dogs.
The show was for Anthony Rubio, the self-proclaimed master pet couturier, whose work has been featured in Vogue Italia, Good Morning America, and CNN among a number of other outlets. Rubio is the first pet fashion designer to present at NYFW, which he’s done twice already, but his ambitions are far loftier than a runway show. (The audience at the show seemed not to have gotten the message about the evening’s sober ambitions; seemingly the entire aforementioned VIP section rose to take photos of a pomeranian in a white coat, and chattered amongst itself about how cute it was.)
For Rubio, dog fashion is a little bit about how cute dogs look in little outfits, of course, but more about raising money and awareness for at-risk animals, and—if his gospel spreads widely enough—about getting a sport jacket on every willing dog.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What’s your history in fashion? How did you find your way to dogs?
Anthony Rubio: Coming out of high school I went directly into FIT, Fashion Institute of Technology. I always had an interest in fashion—my mom was always a very fashion-conscious person and I was around a circle of a lot of people that were always into trends. Now, remembering that I was raised in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so we’re talking about the British invasion, the hippie clothing and then going into the Mod stuff. I was around all of that as a kid. I went to private high school, so it was a strict regimen of all academic classes; there were no art classes whatsoever. I still drew at home, but FIT had a very rigorous requirement to get in there: they had requirements for portfolio presentations, a test where you had to do at that time a self-portrait from a mirror, and I did all of that and passed and made it into [Parsons and] the Fashion Institute of Technology. FIT was my choice at the time.
I studied fashion design for several years and was told that I had great talent in my draping and my illustrations. Unfortunately I got turned off from the industry at some point in my junior year... So I went into different work. I worked for Xerox corporation, et cetera, et cetera.
Fifteen years later, I get a call from my brother at work that he had seen a situation around where he lived where there was a dog chained to a fence being beaten by someone who was under the influence of something, a drug or whatever, we don’t know what it was. The police got involved and they took the person away, they were belligerent, and my brother had big dogs, so this little dog, he couldn’t keep him. So I ran over and he asked me to take care of this dog and take him to the shelter. And upon further investigation when I took him to the veterinarian, the vet said that this dog had been badly abused, had several bruised ribs, and that if I took him to a shelter they would definitely put him down because, as a defense mechanism, he would bite anyone who even touched him. He didn’t bite me, and I swore that I would not let this dog suffer anymore.
I adopted the dog and took him under my care and rehabilitated him and he lived another eight years. And because he was a chihuahua—chihuahuas tremble and they’re always cold—a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you get him some clothing? A sweater or coat or something because he’s shaking.” I had no knowledge of where to get any of that, so I pulled out my sewing machine and started sewing some pieces and started getting a lot of reaction from people.
I was referred to a Petco Halloween event, and I was told, why don’t you dress the dog and put him in a costume? And I thought that was the most absurd and ridiculous thing, but my creative side said let’s do it. So I created a costume for him, covered in Swarovski crystals, made a cape and everything: Elvis the King. And by then he was already wearing sunglasses, cause we goofed around putting sunglasses on him, and I got him some sunglasses that were created for dogs from Canine Optics and we went into this competition...
When it was our time, we were like #73 to go in front of the judges, I put—I ended up calling him Bandit because I said he’d end up stealing everybody’s hearts—I put Bandit down on the ground and the little guy performed for them like you would never believe. He walked up and down and sat for them, and he actually played the part of Elvis. They fell in love, he of course won the prize, and they referred us to Tompkins Square Park, where they do the annual Halloween event—I don’t know if you know that, that’s like huge. Everyone comes from all over the country for that one—and I created a miniature float to put Bandit on to go with the Elvis theme. And we put music and lights and Barbie dolls dressed as go-go girls, we did the whole Viva Las Vegas thing. And he won his category. He didn’t place top but he ended up getting a book cover and a lot of recognition, and from then on we attended all the doggie events, and people started inviting me—you have to bring this dog, you have to bring him with your costumes and your outfits. Then the buzz was you have to get into designs for your dog now. And the rest is history.
It’s been about 12 years now; I design by appointment and I’m labeled as the pet couturier because what I do is one-of-a-kind luxury garments. A lot of it is very hand-done work with a lot of beading, crystals, you name it, and a lot of imagination... When Bandit passed away, I decided to adopt a chihuahua, and I ended up adopting that chihuahua and his brother, because I couldn’t separate them. I really am a weakling when it comes to this stuff. So I was like I’ll take them both. And those are the ones I have now: Bogie and Kimba.
At five months, I mean they pick up where Bandit left off. They were doing fashion week, they were doing books. They’ve been published in a book called Couture Dogs of New York. They were featured in Glamour magazine, they had documentaries done, Luxury Beasts flew here and did a whole episode here and ended up doing their birthday party—we did an elaborate black tie birthday party for dogs with a complete dog chef who’s now a friend of mine, preparing things like Mutt-tinis. It’s a crazy world. I don’t know if you know what the dog industry is right now, but it’s just huge. Huge, huge, huge.
I don’t know how much I know about the dog industry.
The first question that a lot of people ask is why would you dress your dog? We created occasions to dress the dogs after Halloween because of course on Halloween you dress him in a costume. But then there were doggie proms, there were socials, there were luaus, then came the weddings. I’ve done weddings for dogs, in fact I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records for most expensive doggie wedding, I designed the garments for the bridal party. And those are not called “nuptials,” those are called “puptials.” And this was a Jewish one and it had a chuppah which cost $5,000 with the roses. It was meant to raise money for the shelters.
These events are done not only just to dress the dogs and bring them to the events, but the money raised selling tickets and bringing attention and the media brings attention to the causes that are close to our hearts, like dog shelters and to advocate for animal population control, such things as cancer that dogs gets, and educating the world because there’s a lot of ignorance out there and people think that you buy a dog because it’s cute and then when you can’t afford the medical bills throw the dog out in the street, so we educate people about what the responsibilities are. And it all started with the doggie fashion.
Now, what does being a pet couturier mean? What do you do day-to-day? Who are your clients?
I create whatever the fantasy [the clients] want to create. Another thing is that it’s very competitive. It’s human nature—this person has something and I want to up the game; I want something better. There are some contests, but a lot of the time people like to include the dog [at real people weddings] because the dogs are now family members and so they want the dog dressed. I just did the tuxedo for [the dog of] someone who got married at St. Thomas. So there’s an example of something that’s odd, you know the dog is being flown to a warm climate, so what do you design? I have a line of clothing that I do called “Nude Illusions” where the garments are made of very sheer fabrics and I embellish them and create designs that are visual and glittery but the dog is very friendly. But before anything else, and I need to stipulate this and make it very clear: it’s about the dog’s comfort. It’s about the safety to the dog, and one third of what I raise in terms of costs of the clothing goes to animal shelters. I do a lot of charity and I raise money and I donate checks to different organizations and it’s one third of whatever I make on the garments.
I forgot to mention that some Jewish people also do Bark Mitzvahs. That’s another one.
Now, it’s getting out to the rest of the world. The thing is, the rest of the world’s not so receptive because of the ignorance and they think that Americans are very, how would I say? Eccentric, to be nice. And that we do things out of context because we are show-offs, so when I traveled with the boys and I dressed them up, people sometimes look at them in a weird way or say things like, That’s ridiculous, there are people starving and you’re dressing dogs. And I’m trying to explain to them that there’s a reason for this and that’s why I do a lot of press, because it’s about raising awareness to the fact that there are animals in shelters that need to be rescued rather than puppy mills... We’re always involved in something that has to do with correctness in raising animals and what goes on there.
How seriously do you take this couture label? Do you follow the French regulations?
If I told you I didn’t care I’d be lying immensely. I live, eat, drink, everything, fashion... I’ve been introduced to a lot of really prominent designers: Carolina Herrera, Diane von Furstenberg. I’ve met so many designers, and Ralph Lauren’s daughter who runs the candy store, Dylan, I met her. She was a judge at one of the first events I went to, and she fell in love with Bandit and every time I see her now, she’s like I’m dying to know what you do because it’s such an exciting thing that I didn’t plan and it’s just taken on a life of its own.
What about when you have clients that aren’t chihuahuas, that are bigger dogs? How do you accommodate different kinds of dog bodies?
There’s a whole process to this, I don’t just dress anybody’s dog and I don’t just dress dogs in general. I have to meet the person and the animal I’m going to be dressing. I want to know that this animal is willing to or will like to be dressed... So I do have clients who call me up and they’re like my dog has never been dressed. The first thing I ask is how old is the dog? And if they tell me it’s like over a year-and-a-half, two years, I’m like, “I think you should leave that dog alone, because now you’re gonna try to re-train the dog to wear clothing just for your whim and the dog might not want it and you might be wasting money and I don’t want to make a bad situation.”
My biggest dogs are leonbergers and these leonbergers happen to be very famous also; they’ve been on Broadway and they’ve been in a Denzel Washington movie recently. I’m one of the sponsors for one of the dogs for Westminster because they compete at Westminster.
There’s an art to this; you don’t want the dog to look silly like its wearing a person’s clothing, so I have to do it precisely, like what a tailor does—I take a tape measure and I do the measurements like they have to be done.
The jacket that goes on the leonberger actually fits me, and I am not a small person. That’s how big the dog is. The dog stands on its hind legs and is face to face with me and I’m 5'11", so this is a 170 pound animal. And they’re docile as can be. For the New York fashion shows I close the show with the leonberger and if you wanna hear gasps, the dog comes out walking and it’s like a big lion and the people, the cellphones come out and they’re clicking, clicking, everyone goes crazy for these dogs.
So I dress the big dogs, I dress the small ones, I do the male and females, I do dresses, ballgowns, you name the theme, you name the occasion, and I research it and I do it for the client. It’s a luxury product and something that’s done from a lot of research and a lot of love from my heart. A lot of the time when those garments leave my hands, I feel like I’m putting up my garments for adoption because I spend weeks putting these garments together and it’s like I don’t want to let it go!
Do you have any hopes or predictions for the dog fashion community?
Absolutely, absolutely. America is already sucking this up and enjoying it and loving it. [Dogs] are everywhere in commercials and cats too. And I dress cats by the way. In fact, recently, one of my newest clients is a monkey.
My goal in the future is for everyone in the world to accept this, appreciate it, and know that this is not a mockery or a joke, that this is very serious and that this is more of a celebration of animals as family members. And if you’re going to sit your family down for a portrait, why put the dog naked? Why not dress the dog too?