Christian Siriano, 33, is a fashion designer who launched his eponymous collection in 2008 after winning the fourth season of Bravo’s “Project Runway.” This season, he has taken over for Tim Gunn as mentor on the show. Originally from Annapolis, Md., Siriano now lives in New York.
Q: I suspect that winning “Project Runway” could cut both ways. On the one hand, it helped launch you and make people aware of you. On the other, it’s not the typical fashion path, and snobbier elements of the industry might say, “That’s reality TV; that’s not real fashion.” What was your experience?
A: I definitely think there can be that stigma behind it. But right now, in our world, with what’s happening in our culture and everything, I feel like you just have to find new ways to support your company and your brand. Young designers and young businesses are going under every single day. Everyone’s filing bankruptcy. Everyone’s closing stores. You know? So I really treated it as, “I can show the world what I can do — and maybe bring a new generation of customer to us.” And I mean, obviously, when I was on that show, I was 21 years old — an actual child! And now, having a business, 40 employees, a real company, people can see what you start with and what you can turn it into.
Q: Your tux-gown that Billy Porter wore at the Oscars clearly made some waves — did you expect that reaction?
A: I’ve been doing red-carpet dressing for a really long time, and I’ve seen some wild things over the years. You never know what people are going to react to. With Billy, everything happened so quickly. Like, he came to my show at Fashion Week, and then we had a fitting three days later. It was just such an organic thing. And I really just forgot that having a man in a gown on such a big stage was really, you know, an important thing. Because for us, we’re just doing what I love, like, “Oh, let’s play dress-up.” Just having fun. The response was unreal. I think especially in our political world right now, people are looking for a little bit of hope and a little bit of light for those people who are maybe a little different. So seeing Billy on the Oscars carpet in a gown was really special for a lot of people. It’s funny: You never know what’s going to turn into something, so I think that you have to be open in this business.
Q: That’s interesting because it’s not a business that’s known for being overly open, right?
A: Yeah. But my experience is the total opposite. I’ve been available and open to other people, and that’s how I found success in fashion. I didn’t find it the traditional way. Like when we first decided to put curvy girls on the runway, nobody was doing it; it was so weird. I’m like, well, my customer really is interested in seeing different bodies; let’s just try. I want to show people that you can still wear the fabulous clothes, but you can be a size. And that’s why this season I closed the show with [plus-size model] Ashley Graham in that completely nude crystal dress. Because I didn’t want people thinking, “Oh, he puts those on the other girls,” or whatever. It’s about changing people’s mind a little bit. And sometimes you have to put it in their face.
Q: You have dresses in Neiman Marcus, and shoes in Payless — that’s an interesting business model. Can you talk about the thinking behind it?
A: Some of the clothes that I want to make that I love as a little dreamer, not everyone’s going to buy. And they are super expensive to do. So the way that I supplement that is by partnering with other brands and doing other projects that can help fund that part of the business. And all of those things have opened doors. Like when I partnered with Lane Bryant, that was something that everybody thought was a bit different and interesting, and they were, like, “Oh, OK.” But for me, my mom used to shop there, and then that turned into this amazing relationship with that customer. And that’s how I met Ashley Graham. And now she’s closing my show.
Q: How are you different than what people tend to expect when they meet you?
A: Probably they expect me to be a little more eccentric than I am. Because I’m actually pretty calm and kind of shy. I think the biggest thing also is that I’m still young, but I definitely know how to run a business. Which always is shocking to people. Like, I know what EBITDA [earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization]. I contribute to my collaboration, which is probably different than most designers.
Q: And what brings you the most pleasure from your work?
A: It’s the feel-good moments, the stories. Getting the messages or the responses or, you know, the tears. Even if it’s just a woman at her son’s wedding. And she’s like, “I just felt like the most amazing person in the room.” Things like that. Or when I dressed [SNL’s] Leslie Jones when she couldn’t find a dress. And it became this huge thing because women of a size couldn’t get a red-carpet dress. That was a really great moment, honestly. Hopefully, that showed people there’s hope there. That’s the reason to do it — the stories. Because otherwise, it’s just clothes on a hanger in a store.