Christian Siriano launched his eponymous line in 2008 at the young age of 22, and in the years since, he's become known for his whimsical designs, as well as his accessible and inclusive approach to fashion. Tim Gunn famously called the spritely designer "this generation's Marc Jacobs" a decade ago, and he's proved to be much more than a sartorial genius with a knack for extravagant eveningwear. Not only did he build his business designing decadent gowns for celebrities to wear on the red carpet, but he's also dabbled in accessible collaborations — including shoes with Payless ShoeSource — because he believes everyone deserves to own something beautiful.
On a similar note, Siriano's become a highlight on the New York Fashion Week schedule, thanks to his enthusiastic front row guests and his championing of diversity on the runway. Furthermore, he knows how to create a fantasy through clothes and has done an impeccable job at making sure everyone — regardless of gender, race or size — feels like a welcome part of this fantasy.
On Tuesday night, Siriano joined Fern Mallis for a discussion at 92Y about everything from why he'd like to separate himself from "Project Runway" to working with Payless and casting plus-size models. Read on for highlights from their conversation.
On getting rejected from FIT
Upon completing a summer program at FIT during high school, an instructor saw potential in Siriano and encouraged him to apply for college. (He ultimately got rejected.) After the personal defeat, Siriano did as any other confused 18-year-old would do and moved to Europe. A quick Google search landed him at the American Intercontinental University in London, where he ultimately chose to study. Despite having no knowledge of British fashion, Siriano's decision to stay in London gave him the opportunity to work with some of the country's most brilliant designers, such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
"The teachers were unbelievable and all worked in the industry," he explained. "The head pattern maker at Vivienne Westwood was my teacher, so she was like, 'you need to go work for Vivienne,' and I did." Following the internship with Westwood, Siriano moved on to a small brand, before getting a coveted internship with McQueen. "McQueen was a very inspiring place, and it was a very creative place," he noted. "I still try to run my studio like that because it was very hands on."
When asked if Siriano is bitter about the rejection, the 32-year-old designer flashed a sassy smile and said, "I have two pieces in their museum, so I think it worked out, and they did ask me to speak at their commencement this year. My opening line would have been: 'I didn't get in, but congratulations to you all.'"
On moving to New York and 'Project Runway'
It didn't take long for Siriano to move past his London phase and take up residence in New York City's Lower East Side. He was 20 at this point and was working as both a freelance makeup artist and at the Stila makeup counter in Bloomingdales — while still making garments on the side.
In 2007, the year of his graduation, a friend told him about the auditions for "Project Runway." Siriano had never watched the show and had a day to prepare, but he brought a rack of clothes, his portfolio and his bold personality to the tryouts and clearly won over the judges.
Siriano went on to win Season Four of "Project Runway," and remains one of the only contestants on the reality competition who's built a continuously successful brand. Despite this, he prefers to keep the show buried in the past. "You've seen it. You sit there, you make a dress, Heidi doesn't know what it is, then you're done." Nevertheless, he admits that the show "is a wonderful idea," because it "was a place to show your creative work." But, at the same time, it was far from real: "We kill ourselves everyday in this business, so I wish I was on that show everyday, because someone paid for my fabric, and I could make whatever I wanted."
Now, he prefers to leave the reality stint off his bio and let his other accomplishments take center stage. "We all make those interesting decisions that shouldn't shape your life or your career," he explained. "It's like an actress: if he or she did one movie, that shouldn't shape their entire history of film."
On mass collaborations
Even though Siriano would like to forget about "Project Runway," the show helped thrust him into our fashion consciousness and gave him a celebrity following before he even had product. The show essentially made him a brand without having a brand, and as such, he had to go "backwards and figure it out very quickly."
Luckily, winning came with a nice little check, which helped Siriano finance his early collections. He also supplemented his rapidly growing label and love for fabrics by collaborating with brands like Puma, LG, Starbucks and Payless ShoeSource. Back then, doing mass collaborations was something that was seen as lowbrow and looked down upon by luxury designers — it wasn't glamorous.
Members of the fashion community couldn't understand Siriano's reasoning for hooking up with Payless, but for him it was a simple: He needed the money and wanted the challenge. The partnership is now going 10 years strong and has sold hundreds of millions of shoes.
"What's great about fashion now, is that it's about celebrating people, whatever price point you are — if you have $20 to buy a pair of shoes, that shouldn't hinder what you're getting," Siriano said. "I was 22 years old and this company was like, 'would you like to be a shoe designer for the next four years? And I was like, 'yes I would.'"
On his commitment to embracing all shapes and sizes
"We've always had customers of different sizes since day one," Siriano said when Mallis asked about his recent runway shows, which have featured a cast of beautiful, full-figured women. "At the beginning of my career, I was doing things that other people would accept more, but as I went on, I was over it," he continued. "It was very frustrating to hear a woman say to us, 'you don't have my size or you don't have something that I can wear.'"
Instead of hiding his plus-size garments behind racks of standard, sample-size pieces and ubiquitously slender models, Siriano decided to put the work he was doing for all types of women on display. "We live in a visual world ... you have to put it in people's faces," he said. He was vocal on social media about dressing everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Leslie Jones, and recruited models like Ashley Graham to walk in his shows.
Clothes made in extended sizes now make up roughly 50 percent of Siriano's collection and have helped to nearly triple his business — especially now that retailers have slowly started hopping on board. In fact, Siriano is responsible for getting Moda Operandi to carrying his line up to a size 26, a first for the retailer. "The whole point of being a designer is making people feel good," Siriano said. "We're not here to cure cancer; we're here to make people look cute in a dress. You want to look cute in a dress and you're a size 26, why not?"