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How Christian Siriano transformed from TV star to a red-carpet staple—and back again

The CFDA fashion designer discusses mistakes, body positivity, brand partnerships, and his return to Bravo’s Project Runway.

How Christian Siriano transformed from TV star to a red-carpet staple—and back again
[Photo: David Williams/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

In the decade since Christian Siriano became Project Runway‘s youngest-ever winning designer, he’s been reinventing the red-carpet experience. Recently, plus-size model Ashley Graham closed Siriano’s fall 2019 show at New York Fashion Week swathed in a glittering, curves-hugging couture gown—and wearing heels from his Payless line of shoes. A few weeks later, at the Oscars, Pose star Billy Porter arrived in a Siriano creation that melded a black velvet tuxedo blazer with a ball-gown skirt. The recurrent message of the 33-year-old CFDA designer’s work? Fashion belongs to everybody. He’s dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, Oscar winners Angelina Jolie and Kathy Bates, and hip-hop icon Nicki Minaj. He produces his designs in sizes 2 through 28, unheard of in an otherwise hip-bone-loving indus­try, and partners with afford­able brands such as Home Shopping Network and TJ Maxx. This spring, Siriano returns to Bravo’s Project Runway to take over for Tim Gunn in the role of mentor—a sign that he’s definitely made it work. Here’s how.

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Push boundaries

In 2016, actress and comedian Leslie Jones took to Twitter to call out the lack of designers interested in dressing her for the Ghostbusters premiere. Within the hour Siriano volunteered, and he’s been a staple on red carpets ever since. While other designers often conceptualize their clothes for a specific body type or form, Siriano says his curvy mother and “tiny ballerina” of a sister have inspired him to take a more inclusive approach. Before he even begins constructing a dress, he envisions how it would work in different sizes. “I’m not just thinking about one body anymore,” he says. “I’m thinking about the range of people.” This helps him create looks that women of all sizes are eager to wear, in and out of the spotlight.

Find out what excites customers

Last year, Siriano opened the Curated NYC, a concept store nestled in a multi-story brownstone in Midtown Manhattan, with pink velvet couches, a sweeping staircase, and colorful artwork lining the walls. Here, his $30,000 couture gowns hang alongside $20 T-shirts from ready-to-wear company Universal Standard, accessories from Objectifs, and luxury shoes from Brother Vellies. The experience is meant to feel at once familial and frothy, and available to everybody–the opposite of what Siriano felt as a student, when he was too intimidated to set foot in Bergdorf’s or Barneys. “The traditional way of selling clothes doesn’t really work anymore,” he says. By stocking products at low and high price points, he can draw in more customers and, he says, “learn what people want, what they’re interested in, and what is exciting today.”

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Cultivate fans everywhere

Almost immediately after winning Project Runway, Siriano began forming lucrative partnerships with a range of brands, some obvious (Lane Bryant) and some not (Starbucks, for which he designed a gift card). At the time, he says, these types of collaborations were considered risky for a young designer with couture aspirations–all the more so if they were with lower-end brands. (His Payless partnership began in 2008, though its future is uncertain given the company’s recent bankruptcy filing and impending liquidation, which Siriano declined to comment on.) Siriano embraced the opportunities, believing that having his name out in the world would build brand recognition and, ultimately, a better fan base. “You never know where your customer comes from,” he says. “Maybe she’s a Payless customer right now, but in six months she could get a job that changes her whole life and become your Neiman Marcus customer.” Siriano is also drawn to partnerships that resonate personally. In 2018 he began working with TJ Maxx to design clothes, accessories, and more, because his mother shops there. Last summer, he became a spokesperson for Transitions Lenses, because, he says, “I wear glasses every single day. I actually live that life.”

Listen to critics–when they’re right

Siriano insists that the only way to make it work in fashion is to tune out the naysayers. “It’s such a hard business. You dress somebody on the red carpet, and somebody says in an instant whether they love it or hate it.” Sometimes, though, it pays to listen. In February, the popular Instagram account Diet Prada, which polices copycat moments in fashion, called out two dresses from Siriano’s latest collection, comparing them to older Maison Valentino gowns. Siriano responded by immediately pulling the pieces and apologizing on Instagram. “We move so fast and you have to be on it, and own it when you’re not,” he says. “Everybody makes mistakes in this business. But if you don’t own up to them, what are you even doing?”

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