When he first popped up on Project Runway, Christian Siriano was an elfin jester who wasn’t expected to last the run of the show. Eight years after he won the whole damn thing, he sits at the helm of a multimillion-dollar company with a presence in 120 countries, shaking fashion’s skeptical oligarchy by its ruffled collars at every turn.
The 31-year-old Siriano now designs special lines for Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus and owns dozens of freestanding boutiques across the globe. Along the way, he’s attracted an eclectic and high-powered stable of celebrity admirers. Last summer, weeks after she wore a Siriano dress to the funeral of eight slain police officers in Dallas, Michelle Obama sported another of his designs for her all-important speech at the Democratic National Convention. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Pamela Anderson are all loyal clients. And in September, Siriano dressed nine—yes, nine—women for the red carpet at the Emmy Awards.
He’s also moving the needle when it comes to fashion’s influence on body image. When Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones complained on Twitter that designers were unwilling to dress her for the film’s premiere because of her size, Siriano jumped in, designing a custom off-the-shoulder piece for the actress that commanded the night and earned kudos from critics across the spectrum.
Siriano is now building on that conversation, establishing himself as a fashionable refuge for women other designers have spurned. When no leading label would think to create a line with plus-size brands, Siriano penned a million-dollar deal with Lane Bryant to do just that. And at his New York City show last fall, he sent a half-dozen plus-size models sauntering down the runway, earning approving headlines around the world. How did fashion’s pint-size parvenu become the belle of the ball? We camped out with him at LA’s London Hotel to find out.
Maer Roshan: What were you like when you were growing up in Baltimore? Were you a quirky kid?
Christian Siriano: Not so quirky. I was into everything. I was into art and sports. I got creative as I older. My sister was a ballet dancer, so I spent a lot of time around costumes and hair and makeup. At fourteen, I started working at this cool salon. It was my first taste of fashion—everybody was super-eccentric and weird. But they were all very serious about hair. As a teenager, I thought that the salon was the coolest place. I was obsessed.
MR: So that was your first taste of haute couture? [laughs]
CS: Yeah, I got bit by that fashion bug in high school. I actually knew nothing about fashion at the time, but it seemed fun. So I applied to FIT and was rejected.
MR: I imagine FIT feels a bit awkward about rejecting you now.
CS: I think it was an oversight. But I love when they ask me to do things now.
MR: How did you end up studying fashion in London?
CS: It was an accident. I just followed a friend there. I was eighteen. I didn’t even have a passport. But my friend was accepted by American University to study theater, and I thought it would be cool to go there too. I was very good at pretending like I belonged. That’s how I got my jobs at Westwood and then at McQueen. I just pretended I knew what I was doing.
MR: You just wandered into Vivienne Westwood and scored a job?
CS: Well, one of my teachers asked me, “Do you want to go work for Westwood?” And I was, like, “I don’t know who that is, but I’d love to.” Vivienne was there every day. She wasn’t particularly chatty with most people, but I talked to her almost every morning because I made sure to get there early. McQueen was not as social. [laughs]
MR: But you were really taken with him, right?
CS: Yeah, the creative process there was amazing. Even though Westwood and McQueen were both big brands, their creative teams were quite small. So that was cool to see. Lee [McQueen] wasn’t there very much toward the end, so I only saw him a few times. One was a fitting for Naomi and one was a fitting for Sarah Jessica for the Met Ball. I still was pretty naive at the time. I didn’t know who Naomi was!
MR: Tell me about Project Runway. How did you go from London to this crazy reality show?
CS: When I moved to New York, I was a freelance makeup artist. I had a friend who worked at Bravo, and she said I should audition. I showed up at a casting the next day. I had never even seen the show before.
MR: And what do they make you do?
CS: You audition with portfolio and work. It’s a process. I did one interview. They just thought I looked funny, I think. I had crazy hair and they were, like, “Oh, he’ll be fine; he’ll be out by episode 3.”
MR: Do you have mixed feelings about doing it?
CS: No. I think It’s cool that Project Runway showcases creators. On that show, you really have to create something from nothing. It’s just flat pieces of nothingness that people turn into three-dimensional pieces in a very short time.
MR: Is it as competitive as it seems?
CS: For sure. That part is definitely real. You sit in a room and make whatever you want. I wish I could do that now. Now, if I make something, there’s $10 million riding on it. If it doesn’t sell, it’s a problem. People are, like, “Oh, it’s so stressful,” and I’m, like, “Not really. I’m running a business with more money than I’ve ever seen in my whole life—that’s stressful!”
MR: Do you watch the show now?
CS: No. I watch drama shows—escape shows where I’m in another world. I don’t watch Bravo at all actually. Sadly. [laughs]
MR: You’re one of the few people who emerged from that show as a bona fide star. Amy Poehler even played you on SNL. That must have been a mind fuck.
CS: I didn’t know who Amy Poehler was at the time. Or Lady Gaga, who was one of the earliest people I dressed. I dressed Gaga for her first TV appearance ever. We both happened at the same time.
MR: Was she famous yet?
CS: Her first album had just been released, but nobody knew who she was. It was her first Today show appearance. I still dress her now, and she just wears whatever we send.
MR: It’s not like a huge production?
CS: No, she’s very easy. Some of the biggest stars in the world are the easiest to work with. It’s the little ones that are brand new that are the hardest. There are times when a young actress or musician will be throwing a tantrum, and I tell her, “Listen, darling, see you later. Michelle Obama is less work than you!”
MR: You want to name names?
CS: No, I can’t. But if you bought me a few cocktails, you’d be getting all the dirt!
MR: Michelle Obama wore your dresses to her speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most important appearances in her life. How did that happen?
CS: I have no idea! Her people called my people. [laughs]It was almost accidental.
MR: Is it a whole elaborate process to dress a First Lady?
CS: You can’t talk too much about it. They ask for the clothes they want, and you send them if you have them or make it for them. It’s really easy, actually.
MR: I can’t imagine it’s always so easy. Calvin Klein once told me how frustrating it was to dress celebrities. Fashion companies have to spend millions to cater to them.
CS: It’s disgusting. Some celebrities are incredibly difficult. But others have become less obsessive. They just wear what they want. That’s why we were able to dress nine women for the Emmys this year. There wasn’t a ton of back and forth.
MR: Do they all want you to come up with something unique for them?
CS: It’s a mix. Like, Kathy Bates said she wanted to look special because she’s been around a long time. Same with Angela Bassett. Sometimes you have esteemed actresses who still want to look good, even though they’re not competing.
MR: What’s interesting about you is you’ll dress women of any size, whereas someone like Tom Ford won’t dress anyone over size four. Why are designers so skittish about oversize women?
CS: I’m not sure. It was never a thing in our office. The whole Leslie Jones thing really took me by surprise. Afterwards people were, like, “Oh my God, thank you for dressing her.” I was, like, “I dress women like her all the time.” One of my first people I ever dressed was Oprah, who’s not small..
MR: You’ve become the style icon of this almost political movement.
CS: I wasn’t trying to become an icon. I just felt compelled to respond to this issue on a bigger scale. I’m doing a Lane Bryant collection. I I love that someone like Leslie Jones could wear my clothes and then someone like Kate Hudson. That’s how it should be.
MR: Do you worry, as I imagine Karl Lagerfeld would, that if people who aren’t perfect started wearing your clothes, it would hurt your brand?
CS: It’s a fine line I’m walking. It’s not always about body and diversity—it’s more about the person. So I try to dress people who are interesting and elegant and carry themselves well.
MR: Have you ever refused to dress anyone?
CS: Yeah, but it’s always for personal reasons, like, if I disagree with their politics or values.
MR: Like Republicans?
CS: [laughs]Not even that! I’m an animal activist! I have a great team who is always on Twitter, and they pick up everything. Sometimes they’re, like, “Listen, this person who just asked for a dress is spouting racial slurs and gay slurs, why would you send clothes for them?” Those are the people I say no to.
MR: You design special collections for both Payless and Neiman Marcus. Creatively speaking, is it difficult to bridge that gap?
CS: Well, you always adjust to the brand you’re designing for. Payless is a commercial brand, but my clothes are all considered fantasy, dreamlike, red carpet—so it’s easy for me to go down-market. It’s a lot harder for brands considered down-market to go up.
MR: There’s a built-in bias against American designers on the red carpet, and it applies doubly for designers who didn’t come up through the traditional system. Coming up, did you feel that you had more to prove or that your peers were looking down on you?
CS: Yeah, of course. Everybody gets judged in different ways. I just ignored the haters and concentrated on my work. But sometimes it’s hard to pull off. Listen, if I’m sending dresses to Beyoncé, she’s getting 200 other options for the same event. You win some; you lose some. I’m also competing with Dior, so it doesn’t always work out.
MR: Do you have an instinct for which clothes of yours will sell?
CS: It depends. There are certain silhouettes that I’m positive will sell. The fashion editors will drop in and say, “Let’s cut this dress from the collection,” and I’m like, “Hmm, no!” It usually turns out to be the top-selling dress, which is hilarious. Because sometimes you just know.
MR: But social media is rapidly altering that balance, isn’t it? That must reduce the power that critics and magazines have over you.
CS: Yeah, I love it! The Vogues of the world are still important. Lots of women still take their cues from fashion magazines. But the whole system has opened up a lot, and I don’t need them for everything, and that’s OK. If I waited around for all those people to approve of me, I wouldn’t be in business today.
MR: [laughs]Well, fuck ’em.
CS: Yes. Fuck ’em. They are no longer essential to the equation. I love selling a $20,000 dress on my Instagram account. It’s really fun. That one Instagram dress pays for someone’s salary.
MR: Does the fact that you’re a gay guy who grew up outside the New York milieu make you more sensitive to other outsiders?
CS: Definitely. You want to be celebrated because you are a little different. Growing up, my mom was a size sixteen, my sister a zero. But I went to an art school. Everybody was gay. In Annapolis, there definitely were people I needed to avoid. But I surrounded myself with great people, which is the important thing. As long as you’re comfortable in your world, you’re good.
MR: One thing that surprised me was how popular you are in Arab countries. Why are you such a superstar in Qatar and Bahrain?
CS: Because my clothes are evening, fantasy, dream-like. That’s the kind of clothes those Arab women wear.
MR: To breakfast. [laughs]You’ve been with your husband [singer / music producer Brad Walsh]for nine years. Seems like in the fashion world, at the kind of speed you probably travel, it’s hard to keep a relationship going.
CS: Yeah, it’s pretty hard-core. But he was there from day 1. So he was thrown into it. He does all the music for our shows. And he’s super-savvy, which is very helpful. He knew what was happening with Leslie Jones before I did.
MR: Do you ever see yourself leaving fashion and doing something else?
CS: No. I’m going to be in this for a little while and then take a break. I’m still in love with my ’90s actresses. So that’s always exciting.
CS: Yeah, I’m really into Winona. We just sent her clothes. So that was cool. I had Pamela Anderson at my show, which was really, really fun. I just sent her a ton of things. I just love her so much. Fashion is fun right now. I mean it should be. It’s just clothes, after all! It shouldn’t be so serious.