ILLUSTRATION BY AARON RICHTER
For most fashion brands, dressing even one celebrity for the Oscars is considered a major win. For the 2018 event, 17 attendees wore Christian Siriano’s confections—to great fanfare. There was Whoopi Goldberg in a teal floral ball gown, Laurie Metcalf in a sequin-strewn blush dress, Kelly Ripa in a noir ball gown, Lindsey Vonn in a witchy number of sequins, tulle, net, and fringe… Siriano’s democratic approach to dressing everyone—not just size 2 ingenues—even landed him on the Time 100 list of 2018’s most influential people.
But sitting in his frock-festooned Garment District studio in New York a few weeks after the Oscars, contemplating his brand’s 10th anniversary, the 32-year-old designer isn’t especially impressed with himself. “We could have dressed a few more, which is scary,” Siriano claims, taking a swig of water while a late-spring snow swirls silently outside his oversize windows. “We made a few custom pieces that didn’t end up working. But you never know. That’s the thing with awards shows: You can work really hard and do a million things, and sometimes [we dress] only two people.”
It takes a lot to rattle Siriano, a kid from Annapolis, Maryland, who encountered early fame as a contestant (and eventual winner) of the fourth season of Project Runway, which aired in the spring of 2008. He was only months out of fashion school in London at the time of filming, but Siriano’s clear talent and ability to turn his catchphrases, like “fierce” and “hot mess,” into an essential part of the day’s vernacular made him a sort of superstar. And then there were those Amy Poehler impersonations on Saturday Night Live…
But let’s move on, because Siriano certainly did. Just a few months after his winning episode aired, he launched his eponymous brand with a runway show at New York Fashion Week. There were separates, yes, but the fanciful eveningwear was the major message.
“I was always interested in this fantasy world of transformation,” he says. “I love the idea that you’re wearing something super wearable every day, but you put on this piece that kind of transforms your personality, your world, your everything.” By December 2008, Siriano had fortified his business—and his stake in the fashion world—with a mega-deal with Payless ShoeSource to produce shoes and bags for the masses. A contrarian move? More like a prescient one.
“At the time, nobody was doing designer collaborations, really, and now, I think [brands] would die to have a collaboration like that,” says Siriano, who turns out a pretty damn good $24.99 ballet flat. “It’s so accessible for the people I know. My mom and my sister don’t shop my price point. I can never imagine not having something for that type of person. And now, it’s grown into such a big, exciting business. I love to see all these different types of people have it all over the world.”
Siriano’s ready-to-wear collection is more financially intimidating—a lace cold-shoulder cocktail dress fetches upward of $1,000, and an embroidered silk ball gown with a bodice resembling an unfurling rose recently retailed for $10,500 on Moda Operandi. But Siriano’s democratic principles apply to his namesake label as well. One section of his ecommerce site is dedicated to products under $150, and superfans can score an original Siriano sketch for a mere $298. And let’s say you can’t find that silk ball gown in your size, or maybe you’d prefer it in a different color? No problem—just give Siriano HQ a call. “I have two sales directors who funnel requests all day,” he says. “Custom work is a massive part of the business. If somebody really came to us today and was like, ‘I need that dress in a week, we would do it.’”
This service-driven approach has been profitable in unexpected ways—Siriano gained an investor from one of those aforementioned cold calls. “A woman emailed us every day for a month, wanting dresses for her wedding weekend,” he recalls with a smile. “We ignored it; we didn’t want to do wedding party dresses. She said, ‘I have no budget.’ I thought, Oh, no money? But no budget meant no price. So I was like, ‘OK, we’ll trick her.’ We charged her too much—which she knows, so it’s a funny story—and five years later, she ended up investing in the company.”
In February, Siriano toasted his brand’s 10th anniversary with a 72-look show/lovefest at New York Fashion Week that featured Danielle Brooks, Selma Blair, and Ashley Graham on the runway wearing Siriano’s unabashedly opulent creations. The applause—by frontrow guests like Meg Ryan, Molly Shannon, and Coco Rocha—was fervent and authentic. Siriano’s latest project? The Curated NYC, his first retail boutique, in Midtown Manhattan, which showcases his clothing alongside accessories and boasts its own coffee shop and rooftop vegan café, which will sell treats concocted by his friend Alicia Silverstone.
“In the beginning, you dream things that aren’t really real, but I think it’s surpassed what I thought it could be,” Siriano says of his trajectory. “We have to try for things; we have a business plan that we’d like to stick to. But I never say, ‘In five years, we have to be at this place.’” He rolls his eyes. “If it doesn’t work, whatever.”