Christian Siriano Has Diversity All Figured Out
For Christian Siriano, diversity is a no-brainer. So, why is it so confusing for everyone else?
As designer Christian Siriano begins the first day of his spring 2019 model search alongside casting director Hollie Schliftman, girls are seen sitting in the carpeted stairwell of his new space at 5 West 54th Street in Manhattan — most, if not all, in a camisole and skinny jeans. This season, like every other, Siriano is looking for one thing: a really good walk.
“Great! Can you do it one more time, but this time, a little faster?” he says to a girl named Spooner. Siriano feels the second time’s the charm. “Obviously we want to support all of these different types of great people,” he tells Refinery29, “but at the end of the day, the majority of my designs are evening wear, so it does take a certain powerful, great walk — someone who can hold their own in a gown. But that’s probably the only thing I don’t look for.”
On a table nearby sits a laptop and a few stacks of comp cards: The A+ pile for those he “love-love-loves;” the A- pile; the B pile; and a set of wild cards that he’s just unsure of. “I don’t like this pile you’re doing,” Schliftman snaps, pointing to a mounting hodgepodge of asymmetrical faces. “I like this pile. Not this pile.”
Siriano and Schliftman, a brassy New Yorker type who has cast for brands like H&M and Uniqlo, have been working together for 13 seasons, since 2013. “Stop it,” she tells Siriano, taking a card out of an A+ pile and tossing it to the No section. Because of their knack for scouting a spectrum of authentic, varied beauty, Siriano’s show is always one of the most diverse of New York Fashion Week. Black women, trans women, celebrities, and men all walk the same runway.
“I like to see everyone, as many people as possible,” Siriano says of the 200-300 models he meets over the course of two days. “We try to find a great mix of beautiful people from all cultures and walks of life. Obviously, you can’t do everything because it’s only 45 to 50 looks, but my collections usually have a very strong theme or idea. The clothes already make everything cohesive, so even if all of the people in the show are totally different, I’m pretty good at making it still feel like one voice.” Schliftman concurs: “For every designer, it’s their designs and their vision, so whatever they want to do, I respect it. I’m not going to come in and be like, You can’t do this. I’m respectful of their craft just as I’d want someone to be respectful of mine.”
In Schliftman’s experience, it’s more common for contemporary designers to take risks — the “risk” in this case being diversity — than luxury brands. “[Designers] want to show their clothes on the same type of girl, but they’ll never go away from what they know. And that’s fine if that’s what they want to do. But at least with Christian, he’s incorporating girls of all sizes because that’s real.” It’s helpful to bear in mind that Siriano doesn’t have to do any of this. In fact, the common misconception that there isn’t enough plus-size demand has never been an issue.
“That actually was kind of the reason I started casting this way,” he says confidently. “It was important that our customers saw themselves in the clothes. We have such a diverse group of women who shop with us. Before they’d even seen something or tried something on, they would already decide that it wouldn’t work for their size.” But that’s exactly why he decided to test the paradigm. “Not only do we want to sell to all of these beautiful women, but even if I’m showing girls on the runway that are curvy — maybe a size 12 or 14 (U.K. size 14 or 16) — we might be then getting more of a size 8 or 10 woman (U.K. size 10 or 12) because she can envision herself in [our clothes]. It’s changed the whole business for us. Some of my top customers who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on clothes are all over a size 12 (14).”
He’s not finished: “You never want to alienate a customer. I think that’s crazy. If somebody wants to come in and spend $10,000 with us, I don’t care what size they are, where they’re from, etc. I really don’t. We’re in the business of making clothes.” It’s why he began making menswear, too. In the past two years, Siriano has seen a “dramatic increase” of male clients — including male brides. “Yes, I’m considered a womenswear designer, but if a man wanted to buy a ballgown — who cares?”
But even that isn’t enough to please everyone. Siriano still regularly receives hate via social media for his decision to make his runways extremely inclusive. “It is a little sad to see somebody say, ‘Oh, you should cover their arms’ or something. But I really don’t think about it much.” After celebrating his 10-year anniversary last season, which was an explicit ode to diversity, it seemed ripe to ask about what it was like in the beginning. “It’s always hard to just put yourself out there. It was definitely a risk to change everyone’s minds and thoughts. I remember the very first season we did a runway, and even the first time we dressed someone on the red carpet, I didn’t think about it that much. I didn’t think it’d actually be such a big deal to people.”
There are limits, though. When asked if he’d ever cast a differently abled model, for example, Siriano doesn’t recapitulate. “I’m sure there are ways to do it and explore it. But we haven’t had too many come to castings,” he reveals. “We still have to remember that it’s not about them not being needed or wanted, but doing a show and being on the runway is still a talent. It’s still a talent and profession. It’s like if somebody wants to be a singer, but they aren’t a great singer; it just depends.” Despite this, and the fact that just last week transgender model Aaron Philip who lives with quadriplegic cerebral palsy was signed to Elite Model Management, he remains open to the idea. “I think it’d be amazing. I just haven’t had the opportunity to see anyone, necessarily.”
For 10 years, Siriano has proven there is no one he can’t dress. “Christian is the only designer I know of that really, truly believes in [diversity],” Schliftman says. “I just think that people were doing [diversity] to get a reaction while Christian actually believes that it should be something that’s real and exists. That’s why the curve models love him so much.” During the casting, one model brought him a bouquet of untied flowers and another slipped him a thank-you note that read “who writes thank-you cards?” Seynabou Cissé, a model from Senegal, reminded him that when she first walked in his show, she was a receptionist. “He truly believes that girls of every shape and size should be able to choose clothes like that. I just think it was a whole movement but no one stuck to it except for Christian. And maybe there’ve been a few others, and good for them, but he’s pretty much the only one.”
For his spring 2019 show, Siriano did what he does best — this time at the Gotham Theater, to a sold out venue, and to Cynthia Nixon seated in the front row. Yes, there was a “Vote For Cynthia” tee somewhere amongst a jungle of tropical prints, including leopard. There were curvy models, Black models, male models, and more — nothing veering too far toward one customer or the other. Backstage, Schliftman kept her cool and Siriano buzzed from one model to the next, making last-minute tweaks to women he sees as perfect already anyway. Summed up: He made what so many other designers are struggling to own look so easy. Siriano isn’t shy about taking luxury designers to task.
“What’s more shocking are the bigger brands who aren’t even on board, because those have so much more distribution,” Siriano explains. “Take Calvin Klein, for example: It would always, always be beneficial for them. It would never hurt them. You can’t do anything to hurt the Calvin Klein business at this point. They’re Calvin Klein.” His message to smaller designers is just as frank: “You need to get it out of your head that fashion people want you to be a certain thing. ‘Fashion people’ don’t really exist anymore because we’re all in that world now. You have to move on from what you think people might want to see as opposed to what would actually be great for your own world. It’s pretty simple.”
For Siriano, diversity isn’t about taking a risk at all. Much like his runway shows, which aren’t always about fashion anyway — those giant, tulle-infested parties that are open to anyone; all sizes, all ages, all races, and more. “We’re changing people’s lives and making them feel good about themselves. Sometimes fashion can get frivolous. It is fun and it’s supposed to be, but there are emotional things tied to it, as well,” he says, pausing. “Even if my career was over tomorrow, I would be really proud of what we have accomplished because I think it’s for something bigger than fashion. It’s bigger than that.”