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Photo by Sara Kerens 
Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

Fashion Designer Christian Siriano Talks Art, Style, and the Importance of Inclusivity

In September 2017, a runway show at New York Fashion Week caught our attention. Women of all shapes and sizes walked the catwalk with confidence, wearing a collection that was both glamorous and empowering—somewhat of an anomaly. The fashion world finally noticed and is slowly catching up, proving that at last inclusivity is in.

The fashion designer who made that refreshing choice was Christian Siriano. For his Spring/Summer 2017 collection, he sought to intentionally select real-life-sized models—they weren’t “non-sample-size” or “plus-size.” They were and still are the women of today. They are us.

Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

But inclusivity doesn’t stop at sizes for women; it encompasses men and their choices, too. At the Oscars ceremony this year, Siriano dressed the actor Billy Porter in a black-velvet tuxedo gown—a first for a man to wear a dress on the red carpet. And for the rest of the public who won’t fuss with size or style, he tagged each garment in his Fall/Winter 2020 collection with a SAP microchip—allowing anyone with the app to get pinged an image of whatever in the collection their heart desired, just moments after it passed by.

Last year, Siriano celebrated the tenth anniversary of his label and opened a new flagship store and atelier named The Curated in New York. Throughout the bottom two floors, the flagship features ready-to-wear, accessories, and home collections, as well as a rotating selection of other hand-picked artist and designer objects. In the courtyard there’s a café, and on the third floor is his atelier.

Whitewall spoke with Siriano there over the summer about his past decade in fashion, his love for art, and why inclusivity has been important from the beginning.

WHITEWALL: You’re originally from Maryland and went to the Baltimore School for the Arts before attending American InterContinental University in London. We heard that from an early age you were interested in costume design, and that led to you being a designer. Was it the beauty of costuming that got you into fashion?

Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

CS: It’s two things. One, it was this idea of transformation. It wasn’t that they were costumes, but I loved to see a ballet dancer in her warm-up clothes for every day and all of the sudden at dress rehearsal she comes out in the show and is completely transformed into this fairy creature. I always thought that was really amazing to watch, and very beautiful. My sister was a dancer.

Two, growing up in Maryland, there was no fashion. There were no references. The only references were films and musicals. That, to me, was fashion in a way, because that’s what I knew.

Photo by Victor Castro
Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

WW: You then went on to study under Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. What did you take away most from those experiences?

CS: Being at both British houses, in a very iconic English world, I definitely learned about this idea of a small team creating big things. The teams were so small and so hands-on. That’s what was really so inspiring—being in the studio next to Sarah [Burton] and Lee [McQueen] and this designer named Caroline, who basically did everything. Three people were creating the whole collection, and I thought that was pretty amazing. It was a really hands-on experience.

Photo by Sara Kerens
Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

I knew that when I started my business, I really wanted to have the same thing.

WW: In 2007–2008, you were the youngest winner of Project Runway at 21 years old. How do
you think that impacted your career?

Courtesy of Christian Siriano.

CS: All these years later, I still don’t know. For me, it was great to have a brand. You basically are a brand without being a brand yet. I figured it out really quickly. I want to be able to make what I want to make. And now, 12 years later, it’s still kickin’.

WW: Let’s talk about your return to Project Runway. What are you teaching your mentees now?

CS: I basically go in as someone from my team. I treat it like my studio upstairs. I’m very real with them and try to give them real-world fashion experience, which I think the show is missing.

If the designers have a red carpet challenge and one of them says to me, “This look is for Beyoncé,” I say, “Well I just dressed Beyoncé last week and she’s not really wearing that.” I give them actual insider direction. And I think that’s helpful and very different from what they were used to. I’ve been in the business now. I’m a very hands-on designer. I work with clients in a custom-type process. So I do the same thing.

WW: The way in which we buy and sell clothing is changing. In a world split between fast fashion and couture, where do you see the future of custom-made clothing going?

CS: The idea of custom or one-of-a-kind creations will last forever. As long as the man or woman is looking for something that other people don’t have, there is a need for it. I think that will always be there. I think about bridal in that way; I think about event dressing in that way.

I think what it really means is changing, though. But this idea of couture, and the idea of one or two pieces ever, is interesting. Obviously, I’m not a couture designer, but we do tons of one-off custom things all the time. It’s the biggest part of our business, and it’s growing.

WW: Let’s talk about your Resort 2020 collection, inspired by Constantin Brancusi sculptures and work by Gee Gee Collins, and about how your collections are often inspired by artists.

CS: I’ve always been really interested in artists. They have inspired a lot of collections. Even in my store, we sell a lot of different artists here. I like that outlet. It obviously has visual stimulation and is a very different way of creating, so I love that.

I have some of Gee Gee Collins’s pieces; she does these weird kinds of figures and faces. They’re kind of quirky. But her work is a little more serious, so I made it more playful. I love her stuff.

WW: Do you work from an idea, a sketch, a fabric? What’s your process like?

CS: Mostly, there’s an idea at the beginning—and it’s usually art, architecture, or something in that world. Then I go straight into what the fabrications are that I love for that season. And that kind of dictates everything. So, for the most part, it’s fabrics first. And then I really go into sketching silhouettes. I sketch everything old school—pencil and paper. Then I hand it out to the team, we make patterns, et cetera. That part of the biz, actually, is like a machine. That’s the good part. Then the fittings, the tweaking . . . That’s the fun part.

WW: Tell us about collecting art. You have art at both of your homes—in Manhattan and in Connecticut.

CS: I’m a big art collector—young artists, old artists. Usually, every big city that I go to, that’s somewhat the reason. I’m not doing it like I’m going to write a book, it’s more just that I love it. It’s what I’m drawn to. Even if I never remember the artist’s name ever, it’s not really about that. It’s really just about the work.

WW: Do your homes hold different types of works?

CS: It’s a mix. I like different things. In the city, everything is quite modern and pretty abstract—almost even a little bit like early nineties minimalistic. I’m definitely really into sculptures in my city apartment—weird Italian busts and faces. More like weird seventies, Beetlejuice-y, postmodern design.

My apartment in Connecticut is like Palm Beach meets Miami meets the sixties. It’s crazy colorful and wild. It’s mostly painting—it can be of people, flowers, anything. I have works from old-school painters from the fifties to super-modern, abstract, weird things.

I’m also obsessed with weird furniture pieces right now.

WW: Where do you find the art you collect?

CS: I’m not a big art fair person. Galleries, online, and artists directly. I’m a big, “Let me message an artist” person. I also go through a lot of dealers who travel around the world and handpick these things. And there’s this really cool place in Chicago I love called South Loop Loft, and they curate from all around the world. They have the most amazing taste.

WW: Like art, fashion for a lot of patrons is about the work, too.

CS: It is. Fashion is very visual. But at the end of the day, I know that people are very brand loyal, which is important. If you walk into a store, however, you don’t see a label on clothes. If the hanger is not identified, you’re just attracted to the work. And I love that.

WW: Tell us about the artists you have presented here at The Curated.

CS: These are by the Polish artist Ewa Budka. She’s unbelievable. She’s had shows all around the world. Hers are the biggest abstracts, which I love because I love her use of color. We have another artist, Rebecca Russo, who’s kind of an abstract illustrator. I love her use of line. It’s really beautiful. Those are our two main artists here right now.

Everything is for sale. And we’ve sold so much! We’ve had some days where I’m like, “I love how we can sell a $10,000 piece of art, but we haven’t sold any clothes.” But I love that. That’s why I really wanted to open this store, because I wanted to see what people were interested in.

WW: There’s art, there’s fashion, there’s a café. What was your idea for The Curated?

CS: The first two floors are curated retail, and then my office is above. It’s really amazing because we’re able to have this mini-department-store type of feel. Sometimes people come in and they only buy a piece of Stephanie Kantis jewelry, or they’ll buy a Universal Standard piece. Sometimes they’re not buying any Christian Siriano, which is fine. I love it. I like that people are shopping in different ways and that’s what I wanted—to be my own retailer.

I try to kind of curate who the brand is, who’s coming in. And that has changed. It evolves every six months to a year. Some people are staying; some people are leaving. But I don’t curate what they put in. I really let the designers put in what they feel is successful for their brand. And that, I’ve found, is the problem with retail—a buyer telling us what to sell, which I don’t always think makes sense.

WW: What’s a day upstairs in the studio like?

CS: Every day is a new day. Honestly, as much as we try to plan and focus, it is really hard. We come in, we’re working with clients, we’re doing production, we’re dealing with the retailers, we’re working with celebs. Literally, Karlie [Kloss] is always like, “I need this look tomorrow.” That’s what happens every day. I rarely say no because we know that it could be a moment.

And we have a lot of people now! It’s a good 25 people upstairs working and creating. It’s a lot. And we’re working on two seasons at a time in advance . . .

WW: How are you thinking about sustainability when you’re designing?

CS: Our carbon footprint is so small because we make everything in New York. We produce tons of pieces in-house, so our waste is so low.

None of the fabrics are dyed in Asia. They’re not made in a vat of water, so that helps. For the most part, we only buy from Spain, France, and Italy because they don’t dye in the same water system. They still use water, but it’s not the same quantity as China or Korea. In Italy, they won’t make 100,000 yards at the same time; they’ll make like 10,000 yards. In China, they’re making 400,000 yards, so that takes triple the water.

But I wish there were more evening fabrications available, because we don’t make our fabrics. That would be amazing. Now that sustainability is becoming so popular, hopefully that’s what will happen. Right now, we buy them from mills. It’s amazing, but what’s hard is that most of them are not sustainable. They’re not organic. How are they made? Where are they made? Who is making them? And we never know, so it’s really hard. That’s what I’m trying to figure out as a brand. Where are these things coming from? Who is physically dyeing these fabrics? What is happening?

WW: Do you think the transparency is going to increase in the future?

CS: I think that it will have to. I think there will be regulations soon, more and more, as our world is dying. And as the consumer is like, “What does the label say? I want to know where this is coming from or I’m not buying it.”

We have that sometimes. And to be honest, sometimes people buy the clothes just because they’re made in New York and in the United States.

WW: Tell us about inclusivity in your brand—something that’s been present in your collections and shows nearly since the beginning.

CS: It’s about celebrating people. It’s a super-simple idea. We always had customers that were very diverse—from all walks of life, from all over the world. I grew up with a family that was different shapes and sizes. I went to high school in Baltimore where I was a minority.

All of those things helped. It wasn’t different to me, so that’s how I approached it. And I actually didn’t realize how different it was until it started to get pointed out. It still is different. I’m one of the only brands to do a show with 12 or 14 curvy girls on the runway or 15 black women, boys, trans . . . I’m still one of the only ones doing that, which is even weirder. For instance, in Paris, why are there no curvy girls on the runway? It’s really strange.

WW: Especially since that’s really the majority . . .

CS: It’s such a funny thing. I understand the idea of sampling for a smaller size, in a way. I get it. You’re making the first sample; you don’t know if it’s going to work. But I think there’s a way to go about it a little differently. We’ve figured out that you just have to work a little harder and you have to try things to see if they work out. Be smart, figure out who your customer is. Take the time.

WW: As a society, do you feel we’re starting to really celebrate people for who they are?

CS: Yes, and people are not interested in brands that aren’t getting there either. I think people are definitely like, “Well, I’m not shopping there anymore.” And that is what’s fabulous.

WW: What was fabulous was Billy Porter in your tuxedo gown on the red carpet for this year’s Oscars award ceremony—a big statement for him, but also for an awards event, for celebrities, for fashion, for equality. What was putting that together like?

CS: Amazing, fabulous, easy, nothing. For real, it was super-organic. He came in and I was so busy that day. I was like, “Okay, let’s do this. I’m going to put this jacket on. What about this? We’re going to do it in velvet.” And he was like, “Okay, great!” Literally, that was it. We didn’t think about it, which is why I think it was so successful. I didn’t even realize no man had ever worn a gown on the red carpet before. I just didn’t think about it, and it was amazing.

I think, in the end, it stood for so many things. The best is seeing that the younger generation is comfortable wearing what they want to wear to school every day because they saw Billy at the Oscars in a dress.

It was very masculine and feminine. It was him. It wasn’t a woman wearing this, it was a man wearing this, but how he wanted to portray it. Billy is not nonbinary; he’s still a gay man. He just wants to wear what he wants to wear. And he felt amazing in it.

WW: Has the idea of people wearing whatever they want to wear for whatever occasion impacted the way you design?

CS: I don’t really say “womenswear” anymore because I don’t really care who wears the clothes. Everybody buys this stuff. We’re doing gowns for men for their wedding. Gowns for both of them! It’s fabulous. For a long time, I think people thought that at weddings, you’re on display. Yes, you’re on display, but you’re on display for people that you know—it’s your family and friends there. So why not? It’s new and exciting. And I think it’s because of people like Billy that other people are feeling confident.




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