Christian Siriano checks off many of the boxes of a typical fashion designer: the studio in Manhattan's Garment District, the celebrity clientele, the well-attended bi-annual fashion shows. But his story is vastly different in a couple of ways: First off, he's one of the few fashion reality television stars who has achieved mainstream success well after his season aired. He counts both Saks Fifth Avenue and Payless Shoesource as stockists. His designs may not have Demna Gvasalia notoriety, but they're generally well-liked by editors and customers. Over the past few years especially, Siriano has enjoyed widespread praise for his commitment to designing for all women, regardless of shape, size, or race (for the red carpet and beyond), which is somehow still considered revolutionary in 2016. Plus, he's deviated from the conventional It designer journey at almost every chance — without cannibalizing his business, which is expected to rake in between $6 and $8 million in revenue this year.
Siriano's unusual path to success dates back to his Project Runway days. “We started at a place where the world knew me as a designer and as a brand,” Siriano tells Refinery29 of building a business on small-screen fame. This presented a unique challenge, though: “People wanted products — and I had none. When I finished Project Runway and had my first collection, it was interesting having retailers want to buy the collection, because I didn’t really know how to go to market yet.” In 2008, when Siriano won Project Runway at age 22, he was still deciding where to take Christian Siriano the Brand, and he had to crank out ready-to-sell merchandise. In 2009, he signed on Saks Fifth Avenue and Intermix as his first-ever retailers.
His career start may have seemed unconventional at the time, but he thinks a designer’s trajectory is even less linear in 2016. Nowadays, you can build a brand on social media to an extent that wouldn't have been possible nearly a decade ago. “I had social media accounts...but I remember when I was in design school and I didn’t know what Vera Wang looked like," he said. "I didn’t know who the people were behind brands — now, you really fall in love with the brand as a whole.” This has played to his advantage, since Siriano already had a built-in following because of his Project Runway legacy.
And then, there was The Tweet. When Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones took to Twitter to discuss her frustration about not being able to find a designer to dress her for the film's premiere, Siriano chimed in, which spurred a discussion about how access and privilege factor in to red carpet dressing. Siriano found himself in the headlines, and he issued another virtual statement about whether he should be congratulated for stepping up in the first place. The show-stopping gown that came out of the back-and-forth went viral, too. He still doesn’t really get how or why the whole situation became such a thing. "I guess it’s because not every brand is [accessible] that way— I don’t think that’s because they don’t want to be, but it just isn’t happening," he theorized.
Red carpet dressing is a huge part of his business, and he’s been dressing actresses and musicians of all sizes for years. Plus, Siriano would never want to exclude anyone from being able to wear his brand. “We just don’t think about it that way,” the designer said when asked about his reputation as a champion of inclusivity, whether or not it's cultivated. He insists it's totally organic: “In my office, all of my employees are different sizes and ages... I don’t even think about it.”
Whether Christian Siriano has been totally accepted by the fashion institution is up for debate: A 2012 New York Times profile chronicled the dichotomy between having the public’s support and an established consumer base, and not being recognized (being iced out, even) by the industry. “Sometimes it would be nice to be judged the way other young brands are... It’s very tough for anyone to move forward, because you don’t know if you are good," Siriano acknowledged to The Times of the slight disadvantage his brand's well-publicized, highly-watched early days.
“I wasn’t supported by everyone in the industry at the beginning, but I was becoming successful without them — and that was probably annoying,” Siriano reflected. He doesn’t fully grasp why his background in reality television would be met with condescension in the first place, though: “It’s funny, because why? If anything, it should be exciting because there are millions of people that want clothes from me. Isn’t that strange?”
Siriano did get some very traditional validation when he became a CFDA member in 2013. This summer, he’s dressed first lady Michelle Obama twice — once for a somber memorial service for the officers killed in Dallas, and then for the Democratic National Convention. “It’s the best compliment you can have, really,” Siriano said of seeing FLOTUS wearing his designs. “The world watches her.” He thinks it's strange how the fashion choices made by someone as accomplished as the first lady are scrutinized, but it’s an extremely important coup nonetheless. "Well, that’s what I do,” he explains plainly of high-profile opportunities like those presented by Obama, and why they matter to his success. “That’s why I have a job; that's how I give jobs to people.”
He does think his commitment to dressing women of all sizes put him on FLOTUS’ radar, and his brand's inclusive M.O. applies to his red carpet dressing plus his more financially accessible ranges, be it at Payless or Lane Bryant or even Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Some designers might scoff at these kinds of mass partnerships, however lucrative. But Siriano is savvy about what a pair-up with a chain like Payless means for his business. “I’m a young designer, but we’ve launched into so many categories: We have beauty, we have eyewear, we have all these different tiers of products now — some at mass price points,” he explained. Siriano began working with Payless in 2008, putting out four collections of shoes and accessories ranging between $19.99 and $59.99 a year. (The starting price for his ready-to-wear is around a few hundred dollars, for context.) He thinks people are drawn to his Payless line because they "aspire to have a piece of my brand; they know we make fantasy evening clothes for women around the world, and that’s nice.”
Aside from providing a financial cushion to create the much more expensive world we see on the runway, mass collabs build a wider customer base for the designer. Siriano simply doesn’t get why a designer wouldn't want to be as accessible as possible: “Once you see the customers who are so excited to buy your bag from Payless, you can’t go back to just designing for It Girls — you just can’t," he said. "I like selling a few hundred million pairs of shoes, rather than excluding customers.” There are certain boundaries when it comes to collaborations; you won’t see Christian Siriano-branded products at a grocery store, for instance. But at the end of the day, “I don’t think anybody wants to say no to customers that are buying product," he said.
The fact that people are willing to spend money on items he’s created signifies a healthy business to Siriano. “I think we make good clothes — I don’t think they’re the best, I don’t think they’re the worst in the world,” he said. “But the clothes look great on women, and that’s what it is. If clothing doesn’t fit women, if they’re not into it, companies go bankrupt.”
As for the whole conversation of why there aren't more red carpet dressing options for non-sample-sized women, it's nuanced, Siriano explained. A designer builds a collection for the runway with samples, because he doesn't know how it’ll grade for all the sizes the brand caters to (“I always liken it to an architect that makes a model before they build a 200-story building”). But because those are often the dresses that are requested, oftentimes a range of these test-designs won’t be readily available.
Still, people are wanting — and asking — to be represented in the fashion world, and it’s something the industry is only now starting to respond to, whether on the red carpet, in editorials, and at Fashion Week (which has shifted rapidly in recent seasons). This coming season should be particularly fascinating, as the "see now, buy now" hoopla is markedly changing the traditional show schedule. Still, Siriano sees the value of showing where your label stands on a twice-yearly basis, if anything, “to show the world that you’re capable of creating an interesting, conceptual story.”
Siriano's inclusive approach to business applies to his invite list: Siriano has long opened his runway presentations to customers and retail partners, another topic of conversation amid the Fashion Week changes chatter. He will be examining the traditional attendees (editors, buyers, et al.) a little bit more closely this season, though. “It will be interesting to see who comes to support and who doesn’t,” he said. “If you don’t support and you’re not ready for change, then it’s clear. I want to see who comes, and if they’re not on board after everything that’s been going on, then goodbye. I’m uninterested. If I’m never in that magazine or if I’m never in that store, then I’m fully okay with that. That’s my new motto.”
September is typically a time when fashion publications definitively tell you what’s in, and what’s out. Fuck that. We’re dedicating the next couple of weeks to celebrating all the iconoclasts, independent thinkers, and individuals with unique personal styles who’d rather say Fuck the Fashion Rules than follow them.