It's time to stop mentioning "Project Runway" when we talk about Christian Siriano.
The impulse to do so, of course, is understandable: Siriano is the design competition's version of Kelly Clarkson — its most successful winner, not to mention its most successful contestant. But while winning "Project Runway" might have opened a door for Siriano to enter the fashion industry, it hasn't kept the lights in his studio on for the past 10 years. Hitting that decade milestone has come down to Siriano's hard work and gut-based decision making; from partnering with Payless Shoes before collaborations were cool to changing the image of who high fashion could represent both on the red carpet and the runway, Siriano has evolved way past his reality-TV beginnings.
"I'm really proud that we pushed away all the noise and all the judgment, and all the things that maybe we shouldn't have done, and me and my team did what I wanted to do," Siriano says.
On Saturday, Siriano will be celebrating his brand's 10th anniversary with a blowout fashion show in New York City. Though he plays coy with details, he promises the event will be centered around the women — famous and not — who helped to make his business what it is today. He's also been taking a deep dive through his past collections.
"It feels good to see the growth from the beginning to now, because we're going back through old archive collections and we're pulling out pieces from our first seasons and revamping them, and it's really fun to see them," he says. "It's like a walk down memory lane, which is always fun."
But Siriano isn't spending too much time looking back; like every other fashion designer, he's looking forward to determine what the future of the rapidly changing industry might mean for his brand. Ahead of Siriano's 10th anniversary show, the designer shared his thoughts on making fashion fun again, what he's learned over the past decade and how he plans on taking back control of his business.
What does it mean to be celebrating your 10th anniversary?
First, it's great to just be able to hang on. Ten years isn't that long, but it's a long time for the grind, because it's a lot of work and not every day is a great day.
When you started 10 years ago, what was your goal?
I had no goals, I think; I was young and questioning what I wanted to leave behind, in a way, but I had no idea. I wanted the collection to always be diverse; we always we wanted to dress a lot of different types of women. We always wanted to sell at a lot of different types of retailers, so there was never one place that I was like, "I have to be here." I just knew I wanted a lot of people to have something of my world. I think that I'm lucky that that happened, for the most part.
How do you feel you've evolved as a designer and as a brand in 10 years?
Oh my god, I think we've evolved so much, because the customer has evolved so much. I really listened to our woman for a long time, and I think that showed in the collections: That I wasn't really designing for what everybody thought I should be doing, I was designing for what the women wanted and what they were looking for. If that was beautiful eveningwear and great dresses, whatever it was, I'm glad that we kept to that.
I think the customer is very important; without her, we'd be nothing. I'd always had the customer on my side before anyone, which I think is very different than a lot of brands. That was easy for me, to always get women more excited to come and shop, and they still are. That's really great. You can always get this customer one time, two times, but getting her coming back, season after season, that's obviously the goal for every brand, and I'm glad that we have that.
What has having such a dedicated customer base meant to you?
It's the best thing in the world, especially with what's going on in our crazy economy. I'm sure you read about it all the time: Young brands that are just dropping out every day because it's a tough business. I'm really happy that we have great women, and people of all price lines too. I've now been working with Payless for 10 years. That's a totally different world, and I'm really proud of that, too. I love having the mix, and all the different price points has really made the brand grow. There are people that, maybe at one time shop at those price points at Payless, if they change or get a new job, they can shop at Neiman Marcus also. I never wanted to alienate people. I think that's very important.
What do you think the secret has been to making it last 10 years?
[Launching during the recession] helped; 2008 was our first season, so we had nothing to go off of the season before. To us, we were like, "Oh, we're doing great! We got two stores." [laughs] That really helped.
It's such a cliché thing, but every brand has to figure out what works for them, and what works for me and my world might not work for the Proenza [Schouler] boys or Jason [Wu], because we all started at similar times. It's all different things. It's great that we all figured out for ourselves what was working and not working. That's also still changing, because obviously the industry is still dominated by big houses, and so we all have to keep making things.
What do you wish you'd known before starting the brand?
A million things. I really wish that I was more aware of all the logistical things of creating clothes. People think clothes just show up in stores and unfortunately they just don't. [laughs] That's the hardest part. It's not enough to want to make pretty clothes, it's the process that is so difficult: Ordering fabrics from Italy, shipping goods to retailers, making sure you can reproduce the clothes. All of those things are the grind part that is so hard every day — you can't even sometimes design things, because you're dealing with everything else. That's a challenge.
What do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned over the last 10 years?
I actually stopped taking advice from a lot of people. That was my lesson, which I know is a contradiction. But I think as a designer that is putting themselves out there so much, we're putting work out there like artists, but we're saying to judge it immediately and in a second. That's a big part for red carpet designers, as well; we're immediately putting out work and say, "Judge me."
I stopped listening to all that and just let it happen, and I think that that's worked in our advantage.
How do you balance everything that you do?
I will say it's balanced because I'm really interested in a lot of things, and I'm always inspired. I think that helps a lot that I'm able to: one minute be working on a shoe collection and then the next minute back to what I'm doing or getting a call for a dress or a red carpet. I'm pretty good at multitasking.
I will say I'm getting better at saying no to things. It's really tough. This red carpet season has been so intense and we did 10 women at the Golden Globes. It was so much work and it was amazing, but I'm like, "We can't do that all the time, because it's not physically possible."
What was it like to be a vanguard in size diversity?
It took time for people to get up to that place. Obviously, we've been dressing women of shape since day one. Some of my early red carpet moments were Whoopi and Oprah, and we were always getting requests for all these different types of people, so that is awesome that now people are noticing that we want to champion that.
The collections have always come in those sizes, people just didn't know. I'm proud that we were able to get retailers like Moda Operandi — who is a very fashion-industry brand — our collection is up to size 26 there. Not every brand is doing that. We got them to change that. We're really proud.
Why is diversity so important to you as a designer?
It started becoming more important because the customer couldn't envision themselves in the clothes. We were getting a response like, "I don't know if that will look good on me," from the women shopping. But only three years ago were there agencies that had girls who were curvy; there were more agencies with women of color that just didn't exist before, which is crazy.
I'm really happy that it does now, and I can't imagine going back to what it was. It just wouldn't work for us. It's changed our entire everything. I love that some of the highest-selling volume of sizes is over a size 10; that's really cool to see.
How do you approach design in a way that you're thinking of so many diverse customers?
It's mainly because we sell [globally], and our retailers are literally all around the world. I have a huge Middle East business. We have a lot of Orthodox Jewish clients. We have everything. To be honest, there are clothing restrictions for those people; that's a factual thing. That was very important to portray on the runway.
It's also why we included men in dresses and suits that were women's; I think that is also important, to show that it really doesn't matter if you're shopping men's or women's anymore. It should just matter if you like your outfit. I'm trying to get people to understand that clothes and fashion shows and all of that, it isn't such a serious thing. Getting dressed should be a fun thing in the morning.
What have been the most meaningful moments for the brand so far?
I have so many things. I think when we opened our first retail store, it was very exciting; we're getting ready to open a new, bigger one. Getting into the CFDA was great; dressing amazing women on the carpet, Michelle Obama, all of those things.
I've been in this studio, this office, this building for 10 years, and it's nice, because we have two floors, and two small offices. Where our two small offices are, downstairs — my original first studio was one of those... I walk past my first office every day. The really hard days, you have to step back and be like, "Okay, but remember [how] it was at one point when you were still developing and growing."
What are most proud of?
I'm happy that we were able to get people's attention on the idea of not being so exclusive in the world of fashion. I'm proud that we were able to push that in people's face and say, fashion should be for more people, whether it's size or whatever it is. That's something that if I was gone tomorrow and the company was bankrupt, I'd feel good about what we did.
Not every designer can feel that way, because they're not doing that. I was just reading a thing from a very important stylist; he was very upset at couture week, because there were no women of color and it was all the same girl. I think that's just so sad for those big houses. It's such a strange thing, because that girl is not their customer. Their customer isn't half those people.
Do you have a favorite part of the business?
Still, my favorite part is just making what I want to make. That's really nice, that there's no one telling me. I get to still be the boss.
I still do love red-carpet dressing. I'm still a fan of it, but it's getting harder, so I think it's not my number one anymore. There's so much that goes into it — the stylist, the people, it's so much. It's annoying work, sometimes, that not worth it. Sometimes — not always! — things are, to be super honest, not always appreciated. That's really hard to get through.
How have you seen the industry evolve over the last 10 years?
It's insanely evolved, because when I first started, one, it was like a joke to do any collaboration deal with a Payless or anything like that. Now people are begging for them, because it's such a big part of what people want to do, collaborations. I don't know one designer that would turn one down at this point, so that's really interesting that that has changed.
I think also, just in general, social media has played such a huge role, because in early 2008 it just wasn't a thing. It was so new; Twitter was new, Instagram didn't exist. That's a crazy thing to think about, and that's put fashion in front of people — it's put everything in front of everybody. It's given people a voice, good and bad. It's really interesting that the industry has turned completely upside down; designers now don't need as much from the people they used to need everything from. If you can't get into a retailer, that doesn't mean you can't sell clothes. I think that's really great, because it's really tough to hear no all the time.
How has social media impacted the way you approach design?
Everything! Oh my god, it sadly, weirdly impacts everything, because people see clothes so quickly. They're looking in an instant, they're flipping through and judging it in a second, so you have to think about that a little bit. Also, it's a great business, because women in other countries now can see something — they're across the globe, and they can shop in a second something you post. It's just so different that I think we all take it for granted a little bit right now, because it's such a special thing.
There's bad things to it too, because then they judge me: "I hate that dress." And I'm like, "Oh, great. That's my favorite piece," or whatever. [laughs] For the most part, it's great.
How have you approached planning this 10th anniversary show?
We're trying to plan. We want to do interesting fun things. I want just great clothes on great people. I think that will be very important, that it's not super crazy, and I think that will be the goal, but we'll see. We might have a few actresses on the runway, but it's all up in the air. The best part is, I think that the collection feels special and new, but also includes pieces from the past that are my favorite things from over time. Some cool people, people that I've dressed for years, I think will be coming and that will be really fun.
What's the plan for the next 10 years?
If I keep going for 10 years. [laughs] I might be done. We're going to focus on building and growing what the customers want. We're opening this new store, which is really exciting; it's actually like a concept store. It'll be a big flagship kind of vibe, almost like a mini department store, in a way. That will probably turn into other cities.
That's our next big plan, to just kind of take [our business] back. We love working with retailers, but it's really getting more and more challenging as the years go on; there's more and more rules. I think people are forgetting that without us, there are no retailers. It's the same thing with red carpet, it's everything: Without what we do, and what we create, none of that exists. Customers are going to shop our collections; they're not going there to hang out at the store.
I just think as designers, we need to take back a little more control, because we're spending so much time and energy and money, and our whole lives on putting this work out, and then it's being tossed aside — and that's on every level of the business. I just don't think that's worth it anymore for everyone. I'm sure if we all sat in a room, we'd all have the same opinions, because we're all dealing with the same things. It's the same with red carpet: If there's no appreciation, then why are we doing it? If we're not going to talk about brands anymore on the red carpets, then maybe there are no more red carpets anymore. Maybe no one attends. It's like, come on, we have to have a balance. That's my vibe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images