The designer discusses why Michelle Obama is easier to work with than a D-list actress, the unpredictability of the fashion industry, and why he loves museums.
Photos by Emily Berl
Fashion designer Christian Siriano walks through the corridor of Los Angeles County Museum of Art past a Frankenstein figure and a shelf stacked with dead babies. He's examining the new Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters exhibit, and he fits in with the items on display: Hundreds of eyeballs stare out from his shirt, and a large avant-garde black Tom Ford bag the size of a child hangs from his shoulder.
"Every city, you have to go see what's curated," Siriano says. "I just went to Barcelona and went to every [museum]—we saw so much art. It was amazing."
Siriano based his most recent collection on a trip to Capri, but unlike many New York fashion designers, he aims for his work to be accessible. He's collaborated with commercial brands like Puma, Payless, and Lane Bryant, making sure his clothes reach different classes and sizes of people. He wasn't being woke to fit in with the new trendy wave of progressiveness; Siriano was just doing what comes naturally. "Everything has to be super organic or else it doesn't work," he says. It's worked very well in 2016, attracting the likes of Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones and First Lady Michelle Obama, and going viral in the process.
"[The White House] just reached out," Siriano says. "Hopefully they were fans of the collection. We made her a bunch of options, and that was it. It was like a very smooth, easy process... Same with Leslie [Jones]."
In June, Jones tweeted about how stylists had refused to dress her for the premiere of Ghostbusters. Ever the accessible, social media-savvy designer, Siriano tweeted at her, offering to design her a look. They exchanged direct messages, and then he started crafting her a headline-making gown. "It's funny that two kind of major moments that have happened were actually quite easy and organic," Siriano says. "I've had fittings with other people that are, like, not even anything, and are way more difficult. It's these young little actresses and singers—they really drive me crazy."
Since his viral summer, stars like Beyonce have reached out to him. "The First Lady helps a little bit because people look up to her as a style icon, and they will forever," Siriano explains. "Who she wears is a great thing—that's a nice thing to be a part of."
Siriano credits his progressive fashion to his upbringing. He grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, where his sister's ballet recitals introduced him fashion. "It was mostly being backstage in costumes and hair and makeup and seeing this fantasy world of make believe, basically," he says. Both his parents worked as teachers. They were middle-class, but his mother wore a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress to her wedding.
"My mom's a size 16," Siriano says. "That's why I do so many [of the things that I do and I think women should be celebrated."
Siriano learned the basics of design at the for-profit American InterContinental University in London. "Being in Europe in general was such an inspiring place," he says. "I think especially for a kid that grew up in Annapolis, it was nice to get out and do something." Siriano refrained from becoming a fashion nerd in college. When he scored a job at Vivienne Westwood, he didn't even know who she was.
He followed the gig with a job for Rosetta Getty in Los Angeles, as the heiress launched her first line. In 2004, he moved to New York and worked for Marc Jacobs and as a freelance makeup designer. During these years, he struggled to create his own business. "Listen, I'm not Rosetta Getty," he says. "I [couldn't] launch a collection tomorrow, at the time. Young and struggling, I couldn't just throw it out there."
In 2006, a family friend encouraged Siriano to audition for a Bravo reality show called Project Runway to make a break. He had never even heard of the program, but decided to give the show a shot. He scored a spot and went on to become a fan favorite. He was also the show's best designer, winning the $100,000 cash prize and a spread in Elle magazine.
His reality show background, though, haunted him for several years. "People think that going on that show was a calculated thing," Siriano says. "I just went in there fully blind." In the past decade, e-commerce and social media has completely transformed fashion. Time predicts a third of malls will close as consumers shop more online, and the fashion-conscious now make their purchasing decisions on social media. Kendall Jenner once lamented that her reality TV history would prevent her from becoming a model. Now we live in a world where that career trajectory—and its accompanying social media fame—has made her one of the highest paid models in the world
For Siriano, sticking to his roots has been similarly lucrative. He has become the perfect designer for today's progressive Internet world. He's dressing everyone from Michelle Obama to Kate Hudson, and his client list is growing at a breakneck pace. His New York office now occupies two floors, employing 20 to 21 people on any given day. Siriano has refrained from hiring many designers, instead continuing to craft most of the designs himself.
"I got to dress Kathy Bates for the Emmys," he explains. "It was really amazing because she said not a lot of brands make clothes for her, but she's an icon to me, and that's better to me than dressing the new it-girl. It's not a challenge to dress a perfect beautiful new it-girl."