Rainbow fur, £10,000 ballgowns and hounds in hats: inside LA’s canine couture show

Hairdryers whirr, curling irons sizzle and clouds of hairspray fill the air backstage at LA fashion week, as stylists riffle through clothes rails and make frantic adjustments to hemlines. Models are lining up to be photographed, moments before the show begins, but they all seem a little distracted. One doesn’t want to budge from their spot, another starts sniffing someone’s crotch, while a third makes a break for an open door.

“The dogs are a lot easier than human models,” says designer Anthony Rubio, as he stitches a gold sequin on to a tiny pup-sized bedazzled jacket. “They don’t have opinions and they don’t compete with each other. They’re all about having a good time.”

I have come to the hot, brightly-lit basement of a glitzy venue in downtown Los Angeles, for a behind the scenes look at Rubio’s 2023 Canine Couture show. It is billed as “the feelgood show of the season”, the one event in the fashion calendar “where the humans are the accessories”. After four months living in LA, I feel I may have found its true spiritual centre.

Dogs are born with ready-to-wear fur coats, but that hasn’t stopped their owners from dressing them up further. From the simpler days of practical quilted jackets and waxed-cotton waterproofs, dog clothing and accessories has ballooned into a $10bn industry of designer pup ponchos, mutt-friendly miniskirts and hound-sized hats. Gucci, Celine and Hugo Boss produce luxury lines for four-legged friends, and even high-street brands such as H&M now offer ranges of pooch-shaped plaid shirts and fluffy turtleneck sweaters.

But Rubio’s creations are something else entirely. As the self-styled “master pet couturier”, he was the first designer to put dogs on the catwalk at New York fashion week, crafting tailored tuxedos and bespoke ballgowns that can cost up to $10,000. It has been quite a journey for this high-school teacher of 33 years, who once studied womenswear and fell into the canine fashion world by chance.

“Eighteen years ago, I adopted a dog that had been really beaten and abused,” says Rubio, as he fiddles with an embroidered cape backstage. “He used to shake and tremble. One day I decided to make him a jacket and it really calmed him down. Then we dressed him up as Elvis for Halloween and, before you know it, we were winning competitions all over New York. The rest is history.”

Since then, Rubio has appeared on Good Morning America and says he has raised more than $4m for various animal rescue charities, but it’s the dogs themselves that are the real celebrities. As I mill around the room, trying not to step on fluffy tails and lacy trains, I am handed business cards and stickers from the dog owners – sorry, “pet parents” – each proud mum eager to tell me about their good boy’s list of achievements.

“This is Rossi Bear,” says one, presenting me with her five-year-old cavalier bichon poodle, or “cavapoochon”. He is dressed in a gold sequin jacket, with ruched sleeves and a matching hood, and standing on his hind legs, tongue lolling with excitement. “He knows about 150 behaviours: he can skateboard, do handstands, do high-fives. Rossi, pound it!” He pounds my hand with his fluffy paw and I feel as if I’ve shaken hands with a celebrity. This is a dog that has mingled with Megan Fox and Rob Lowe on the red carpet. “He loves wearing anything that gets him lots of attention – the blingier the better.”

Another enthusiastic dog mum comes over, introducing her seven-year-old Australian labradoodle, who gives me a big smile and a warm lick. “This is Rossi’s girlfriend, Amazing Gracie Doodle. She has 300,000 Instagram followers, as well as an agent and a manager – and it’s all thanks to Anthony.” Gracie first appeared in one of Rubio’s shows when she was six months old and she has been on the runway twice a year ever since. “It’s my favourite thing to do,” says her owner, before correcting herself: “I mean it’s her favourite!”

Outside the canine greenroom, the human models seem like secondary attractions. A man in a tiny G-string inspects his reflection, while willowy women fidget with their stick-on eyebrows. Perfect bodies are slumped on chairs, manhandled into costumes or daubed with makeup – an affliction which the dogs are (mostly) spared.

One exception is Miss Badass Pearl, a four-year-old rescue dog sitting on a bench, resplendent with dyed rainbow-coloured fur flowing from a red heart-shaped tuft on her back – the result of her recent appearance on Pooch Perfect, a dog grooming reality TV show.

“She had been locked in a cage the first year of her life before we got her,” says her owner, as she trims the fur around her muzzle and adjusts her lacy dress. “She’d never seen grass and her teeth fell out in my hands. But now she’s living her best life as a badass diva.” I look at Pearl for confirmation, but her expression is shielded by freshly coiffed waves of pink and blue hair.

Across the room I meet Bandit and Beau, a handsome husky and pomsky double-act, dressed in matching golden costumes that give them the look of Las Vegas magic duo, Siegfried and Roy. The dogs have just come back from a weekend frolicking in the snow, where you can’t help but think they would rather have stayed.

Resting on a couch nearby, with the air of a grande dame who’s seen it all before, is Layla, a 12-year-old shichon (half shih tzu, half bichon). She is wearing a purple ballgown embroidered with silver flowers and a matching bow on her head. I find myself asking what she likes to wear – which, by now, seems like a normal question. “She loves dresses and anything with a bow,” her owner tells me. “Her closet is bigger than mine, I’m not kidding.”

As I chat to the lapdog influencers, my eyes keep wandering to the biggest dog in the room, a three-and-a-half-year-old sheepadoodle called Milo, who has been standing patiently in the corner, panting heavily. He reminds me of the big fluffy dog in the Dulux paint adverts, except for the fact that he is wearing an iridescent silver lamé jacket with jewel-encrusted wings, giving him the look of a cosmic Assyrian deity. “He’s done a commercial with Mario Lopez,” his mum tells me (yes, AC Slater from Saved By the Bell now hosts celebrity dog awards. “He loves being on stage, he’s such a ham!”

Sitting away from the hubbub, aloof from proceedings, I come to a creature that’s neither human nor dog. With a faint look of Elton John after a busy year touring, this is the biggest celebrity of them all, snoozing in the corner behind a pair of crystal-studded sunglasses, like she’s over it already. This is Bagel, AKA Sunglass Cat, one of the internet’s most famous felines. She has 840,000 Instagram followers and a collection of more than 700 pairs of sunglasses.

“She was born without eyelids,” says her owner, explaining the cat’s eyewear. “She can’t close her eyes or develop tears. If anything gets in there, it would scratch her cornea and she’d go blind. So the sunglasses are fashionable but also functional.” Rubio’s kitty gown on the cat is a multicolour marvel, swirling with embroidery and jewels like a Gustav Klimt painting. “Now I’m just trying to find somebody that will make us matching outfits,” says her owner. “Wouldn’t that be the bomb?”

I find Rubio again and ask him about his vision for this season’s collection. “Glitz and glamour!” he says, as if that wasn’t obvious from the surrounding bling. “After Covid, people have got used to staying at home, being lazy and wearing sweatpants. Whatever happened to the times when people dressed up and felt festive? It’s a celebration!”

But that’s humans. What about the dogs – does he think they enjoy being dressed up? Some of them are starting to look a bit hot and bothered.

“This is not hurting the animals at all. They’re enjoying it because they like to put their best paw forward for their parents. And we do it all to bring attention to the fact that there are animals out there who need homes, animals being mistreated. It’s about raising awareness.”

I glance across the room and spot a little pomsky zipped inside a carrying case, with a mischievous, slightly manic, twinkle in his eye. He gives me a conspiratorial look through a little mesh window. “He’s not so much into wearing clothes every day,” his owner tells me. “But he likes Anthony’s outfits.”

Upstairs, it’s finally showtime. The VIPs have taken their seats, snapped their selfies, and sipped their sponsored beverages. The catwalk erupts into action with a deafening explosion of music and lights and the models emerge from behind an LED archway, clutching the pimped-up pooches, or walking them on spangled leashes. The crowd goes wild. The dogs gaze out, looking bemused, intrigued and anxious in turns. Then the inevitable happens: the pup with the cheeky eyes poops on the runway, as if exacting sweet revenge.

“The models were raging,” one of the dog mums tells me gleefully afterwards. “They were all worried they were going to trip in the shit.”