Christian Siriano Is Building The Next Great American Fashion Empire

At a time when fashion is in a state of flux, we're looking to the industry's next generation of influencers as a guiding light. This New York Fashion Week, Refinery29's Future of American Fashion series is highlighting the designers, brands, and retailers we're betting on big. The future starts here.

If you think about who the Christian Siriano woman is, she might be a little hard to describe. First, there is former First Lady Michelle Obama, who wore the designer’s cobalt crepe silk dress at the Democratic National Convention last year. Then there is Janet Mock, the transgender rights activist and journalist, who appeared at the National Eating Disorder Association's Benefit Gala this past summer in a gold metallic sheath. There's also Oprah Winfrey, Julianne Moore, Coco Rocha, Pamela Anderson, Meg Ryan, and Leslie Jones, whose prayers were answered when no other designers would dress her for the 2016 Ghostbusters premiere, and Siriano stepped in.

"It’s random,” he jokes on a summer afternoon from his Garment District studio. “My publicist is always like ‘Who do you want to take?’ and I’m like, ‘Grace Jones!’ I love that we dress all these very different types of people, and my point is, isn’t it great to make them all look amazing in the same brand?”

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Fashion For All

The 31-year-old isn’t promoting inclusivity or diversity, seemingly current and “on-trend” fashion buzz words, for notoriety's sake — though he certainly is getting attention. “Our thing has been that it’s more exciting to have someone that I’m a fan of wear the clothes, like Kathy Bates — I’ve been obsessed with her my whole life,” he says of dressing the legendary actress for the 2016 Emmy Awards in a white cinched wrap top and flowing black skirt. “I wanted to dress her for the Emmys, and I was just like, ‘I want to dress you, I love you,’ and she was like ‘Well, you know, Vogue’s not going to write about this.’ I said I didn’t care. For me, that’s not what’s selling our clothes.”

Siriano’s catchall approach to style started showing up shortly after his epic turn on Project Runway’s fourth season, when he officially launched his business nearly 10 years ago. After building his first collection, he noticed his mother, Joye, and sister, Shannon, as well as many of his colleagues weren’t able to wear his designs. “My mom and my team couldn’t buy anything in the collection, and that would bother me,” he remembers. “I was like, Oh that doesn’t make sense, why is my mom not wanting to wear my clothes all the time? To her, she was seeing skinny girls wearing the clothes and that’s what she thought fashion was. I didn’t like that.”

Since that early epiphany, he has practically made plus part of his DNA. Other luxury designers ignore that 67% of American women wear a size 14 or larger, which has shoved the door wide open for Siriano. He mentions his deal with online retailer Moda Operandi, which until recently only sold up to a size 12. “People tell you not to brag, but I will brag about one thing,” he says. “Moda Operandi: it’s Vogue girls, they’re tough, but we got them to go up to a size 26 now because of me. We sold out of almost all plus!” A similar plan of attack is on deck for London-based e-commerce site Farfetch, which at the moment stops at size 14.

As for his own retail plans, Siriano explains that not one, but two Manhattan locations are in the works, aiming to open by the end of the year (his Nolita outpost recently closed). “Hopefully, by holiday we’ll be up and running,” he smiles. “We have such a big private-client driven business and we get requests every day, all day for clothes that aren’t available in retailers because [buyers] don’t buy them. I’m a little bit over certain retailers being like ‘This isn’t going to work’... It’s not true anymore. I want to go directly to my woman.”

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The Outsider

Catering to all women goes beyond size or age or race for Siriano, who has blown out his business to include not only ready-to-wear and bridal, but a bevy of other categories, too: shoes and bags for Payless, a plus collection with Lane Bryant, bedding with Bed Bath & Beyond, and, naturally, a fragrance. “It’s mind blowing, I’m like, Wow, that’s cool, who knew that I could sell 100,000 units of a sheet!"

"It’s strange,” he says. “It is different, and people for a long time said different is not right.” Different has certainly proven otherwise in this case, which Siriano credits to not immediately being welcomed into fashion’s elite inner circle a decade ago. “For the first six years, nobody gave a shit. I didn’t have the industry on my side in the beginning,” he says. “When I started, so did a lot of other people. Jason [Wu], Prabal [Gurung], early on I thought I have to be like them and doing what they’re doing and getting what they’re getting. You compare. I used to take it so personal, but it’s not always about this fabulous It person in fashion that’s changing the game.”

As once-darling businesses flounder under the pressure to perform (think: Thakoon and Wes Gordon), and more and more celebrated young American labels are fleeing New York for Paris (e.g. Proenza Schouler, Joseph Altuzarra, and Rodarte), his words are prophetic if a bit pointed. “If people aren’t buying the clothes, no one cares,” he says. Plain and simple.

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