Style & Fashion

TV Interview

Christian Siriano on celebrity friends, living hard—and not designing for Melania Trump

The Daily Beast

September 4, 2018

In an exclusive interview, Christian Siriano reveals his NYFW show’s theme, why their politics means he won’t design for a Trump, and why he’d scale back work to raise children.

Christian Siriano only slowed once in his gallopingly fast speech flow when asked if he could ever imagine a life away from fashion.

The slim, handsome 32-year-old designer looked up and very quietly, slowly stated, “Yes, that would be nice one day.”

But not one day soon.

On a recent afternoon in The Curated, the eight-story, rented midtown Manhattan townhouse where Siriano works and sells his clothes, models sat waiting to be seen by the designer. Siriano was casting his New York Fashion Week show, which takes place this Saturday, and controlled chaos reigned.

He was midway through making “40 or 50” outfits, the staging at Gotham Hall would be (naturally) dramatic, and “fabric mills close for the whole of August,” he said, sighing. “I wish Fashion Week was a week or two later. It would make it all easier.”

Siriano, who vaulted to fame after winning Season 4 of Project Runway and who has multiple famous clients wearing his gowns at premieres and award shows, is a focused ball of energy, thoughts, and campy wit.

As he spoke fast, the designer also smiled to himself. He was dressed in black-and-patterned shirt and combat trousers, tattoos winding their way down his toned arms. He joked a lot, and is also “controlling” (his self-description) and very serious about what he does.

Siriano’s Fashion Week shows are notably vibrant, starry affairs, and as boldface-populated as his past client list (including Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, Heidi Klum, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Janet Mock) would suggest. Leslie Jones famously, enthusiastically, cheered on one runway show like she was at a Yankees game, the actor and SNL comedian later wrote in a testimonial for Siriano when he was named in the Time 100 list.

At the 10th anniversary show for his label in February, Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black wore the most show-stopping dress, while Laverne Cox, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, and Cardi B were guests. He dressed 17 women at this year’s Oscars, and 10 at the Golden Globes, all in black to mark the Time’s Up campaign against sexual abuse and harassment.

He also designed the simple blue dress Mrs. Obama wore when she delivered her commanding, much-praised “when they go low, we go high speech” at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“I didn’t know she was going to wear it,” said Siriano. “It’s awesome, such a great thing. Obviously that was an amazing public speech she ever gave. I’m glad the dress was so simple that it didn’t overpower her words. I think for any designer it’s a dream to be part of history in some way or another. You have to leave your little thing behind one day. If that’s the thing I leave behind, that’s great. She’s a great person. She stands for all the things I stand for, which is also why I think she wore the dress.”

Would Siriano like to see Mrs. Obama return to public life? “Yes, so much. I think most people would.”

Siriano said he wishes he was “more political” as a fashion designer. “I definitely do as much as I can. I try and support people who need to be supported and not support people who themselves who do not support, say, women of color and LGBT people.”

So he wouldn’t dress anyone in the Trump family?

“No, it wouldn’t make sense. I always find it funny when people ask that. I’m a young gay fashion designer. Why would I work with them if they don’t support me? If they think I shouldn’t be able to get married, why would I dress their wife or whatever?”

Melania Trump, Siriano said, was “super-chic,” but he couldn’t design for her. It would be a violation of his political principles.

Siriano designed Jones’ red dress for the Ghostbusters film premiere, after she had challenged designers online to do so after she had been the victim of a vicious, racist trolling campaign.

Fashion, dominated historically by white ideals of beauty and tiny sizes, meant “people were led to think if they were a certain size or a certain kind of person, that they couldn’t wear something glamorous. That’s just not true. I would like to think, if I was done tomorrow and closed the business, that part of my legacy would be to change the mind-set of what is ‘beautiful.’”

Siriano has always designed clothes for women not of typical sample size. He grew up with a sister who danced and was a size zero, and a mother who was size 16.

Customers, he said, come in differing shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and genders. “Why alienate a customer? If someone walks in the door, I don’t care what or who you are. If you want to spend $10,000 on a dress, why am I telling you no? Why is anyone better than the next person?” Fashion can exclude because of cost, Siriano accepts, but should not because of someone’s shape, color, or gender identity.

Siriano said wasn’t aware of fashion’s exclusionary practices until people made such a big deal out of what he did. His inclusivity felt normal and natural, he said. Their barriers to women seemed alien.

“I always thought it was strange. I thought, ‘Why isn’t Dior doing this? Why isn’t Calvin Klein?’ Their budgets are triple mine, so they can do anything they want.”

Fashion is changing now, he said. It has had to become more “accessible and relevant” because if people aren’t buying, brands are going out of business, harder and faster than ever before. “There are no rules anymore. Every brand is out for themselves. Everybody has finally realized that consumers are dictating your business. If you’re not giving the consumer what they want, you’re out of business.”

Siriano designs so many dresses for his shows, he said, because unlike other designers, he doesn’t just focus on sportswear (versus evening wear, or the other way around), and so has a lot to show of himself. This year, Hawaii will provide the over-arching theme to the show. “It will be ‘islandy,’ maybe tropical, a ‘jungly’ feel but still very ladylike and elegant,” Siriano said.

He had been to Hawaii years ago, but this, like his other shows, is intended to be both story and fantasy.

As for the celebrities we can expect, that oft-repeated phrase of his: “No names.”

The famous women who come to his shows and wear his clothes on red carpets are women Siriano himself finds fascinating and admires, like Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Angelina Jolie, Celine Dion, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Ashley Graham, Coco Rocha, and Christina Hendricks.

“I’m telling you, the young, new actresses are the most ‘diva,’” Siriano said. “No names! But Julianne Moore, one of the most amazing actresses in the world, sends flowers. I invited Kathy Bates to a show one season. She couldn’t come. She sent me flowers just for asking her. A young actress’ team needs to know everything. They’re demanding.”

He loves that Jones became, literally, his biggest cheerleader. “She thought she was at a baseball game,” Siriano said, laughing. “She said, ‘Baby, I just thought they were your friends.’”

It seemed odd at the time—backstage, Siriano didn’t know if there had been a runway accident—but was overjoyed when he found out about Jones’ spontaneous cheering. “If you go and see a Broadway show, you get into it, and it’s great to appreciate a fashion show in the same way: It’s a show.”

Siriano said he does so much—including designing lines for Lane Bryant, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Payless—to avoid boredom. He can’t stay still. Even when he’s relaxing, he’s watching TV or a film, getting inspiration. “It’s even harder watching TV now, because I know that such-and-such an actress is annoying in real life. No names!” Debra Messing is an honorable exception, he said. “She’s amazing. She’s just Debra Messing.

Growing up in Annapolis, Maryland, Siriano was “a sassy little thing,” he said. “I was a wild child, super-theatrical, loved musical theater. I played dress-up a lot. My sister was a ballet dancer. I was always with her. She worked at a couture hat shop and was wearing big, feathered hats at 17. It’s probably why I loved hats so much. My mom wore a DVF wrap dress to get married in. Not traditional. I grew up with two special women.”

His mother was a reading teacher at an elementary school for 40 years. “She was a normal mom. She’s such a normal mom it’s funny. I send her on cruises around the world.”

At a Good Morning America appearance, she told Siriano she had secured the skills of co-anchor Robin Roberts’ stylist and makeup artist.

“OK, Madonna,” Siriano replied.

His parents were divorced, and supportive of whatever their children wanted to do. Siriano said he “formed my own path,” insisting he go Baltimore School for the Arts and working in an Annapolis hair salon for years as a washer and styling assistant before heading to university. “It was very inspiring to see them work, and it’s an art we sometimes overlook because there are so many hairdressers.”

Siriano made his first gown, a lace crochet full-length dress, he thinks, when he was 11 or 12.

Coming out was not too agonizing. “I was always so eccentric, I think it never was a thing that I had to necessarily do. Annapolis was conservative, but I just didn’t care. I was surrounded by interesting people. If you’re a sassy, eccentric boy that likes fashion, you get on the side of all the beautiful, popular girls—and it’s always easy to get through the day with them on your side. It’s the same now. When you’re friends with gorgeous, successful actresses, it’s never difficult to get through ‘the door.’”

Siriano was bullied “a little bit” as a teenager, but said he “made a point” of not being in situations where physical beatings and hassle were a possibility. “I was always going to do something bigger than what those people are doing.”

His mother was accepting. “I had lots of boyfriends and friends growing up. It was never a thing, I don’t know why. We were in a creative world, and every single male at the salon was gay.”

Later, having been rejected by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and himself ruling out Parsons—as he felt he had already studied fine art—Siriano studied in London (“the best place, I hung out with all these cool kids”).

He did internships at Vivienne Westwood (“super-inspiring, all the draping and twisting of that material are really so mathematical”), Alexander McQueen, and Marc Jacobs, the last of which he didn’t enjoy at the time, although now both men are friends.

Siriano did Project Runway on a whim. He was known for saying “fierce,” and for his impish camp and mischief (both still intact, it is clear).

“I was just a kid. I didn’t know anything,” he said of this life-changing sortie into stardom. His asymmetric, distinctive hairdo was a result of hanging with those cool London friends. He started the label after his victory. Yes, the show changed his life, he accepts, but other things did too. Siriano is determined and so self-possessed, one senses a keen desire not to credit Project Runway for all of the success he feels that he himself has earned.

“When I started the label, I just wanted to keep going for the first five years. It’s so hard overcoming the competition. You’re hanging at Neiman Marcus next to Dior. How do you even compare that? It’s not easy to produce as clothes as elaborate as this.” He indicated the racks of brightly colored, dramatically contoured gowns surrounding us on hanging rails.

Siriano “loved what I wanted to do” (designing) and stopped listening to all the advice that he felt bombarded by. “I realized that I can’t be everything to every editor, to every stylist, to every customer, to every retailer.”

There also seemed to be some kind of snobbery aimed at him for winning a TV show. The Council of Fashion Designers of America declined his application to join in 2011 (his application was accepted later).

“It’s so funny, because who knows what that was,” said Siriano today. “But they know now. Please. They beg me for things all the time now. It is what it is.”

Some designers are lucky and immediately feted, he said. “But call me in 10 years. This is a really hard, tough business. It’s hard to stay relevant. I go crazy. And it gets harder as the years go on, as it gets bigger.”

He is “super-decisive” and doesn’t dwell on things, good or bad. Regarding the bad, it means the company moves on from setbacks quickly; for the positive things, Siriano worries it means it moves on too quickly without celebrating them as much as it should.

The strangest thing was to work so hard on something, then say, ‘OK, everyone in the world, judge me and push it aside in some way.’ I’ve watched famous actresses reject my dresses on a rack as not that interesting. Even watching a customer here do the same is strange: You’ve spent months and hundreds and thousands of dollars making these clothes, and they just reject them so quickly.”

Siriano isn’t in therapy, but does imagine a life away from fashion. It may be interior design, his other great passion, “and with someone else’s budget!” he said, laughing. “It’s different with clothes. We bear the whole cost. It’s so annoying.”

Coming next for the brand, he said: jewelry, sportswear, lighting, and more menswear.

A little over two months ago, Siriano announced his separation from husband Brad Walsh. They had been together for 10 years and married for two. He is adjusting to single life.

“Love is super-important, but it’s more about support, because having a job like this is so hard. The partner I had for so long… we still support each other, and I hope that will always be there. Later on, if there are future partners, I hope they are the same way.”

A “million things” led to their breakup, Siriano said. “It’s so hard. I met him when I was 21. I was a kid. It’s more about time, timing. And who knows what it will be like in a year or two? There are no rules: That’s what I think. I’m so busy. It’s hard to have a real life, which is another frustrating thing about this job.”

Siriano would also like to have children one day, “but when I am not doing this,” he said, meaning fashion-designing, at this intensity at least. “Ten, five, who knows? But I won’t want to do this and have children. I don’t think I would want to be full-time designing, every single day, and having kids.”

He smiled again: “I have around 30 children now, and it’s growing.” He means his employees. “Some of them are over 60, and they’re still children.”

Fashion’s influence in a visual culture is an inspirational bedrock for what he does (Siriano did his student thesis on color symbolism in African tribes). This is most visible not just on runways and red carpets but in his coffee-table book of last year, Dresses to Dream About. His cover, featuring a dip-dye, ombre, tulle, big gown is Siriano to the max: dramatic, romantic, fantastic. “I like to get to make whatever I want. I wanted people to see that process.”

Siriano has designed clothes for film and earlier this year signed the lease on The Curated. Designers shouldn’t be perceived by customers as crunching numbers, but selling (and enjoying selling) directly to customers, as he does here, he says. Sometimes he materializes at a fitting, surprising the customer.

He has to be present, because his name really his brand, and his brand is his name. He is “pretty much the same” inside and outside work, and is protective of those who work for him and his friends.

“I’m probably the best friend in the entire world,” Siriano said, smiling. “I do anything, probably too much, for people, a little overly generous. I have money now, and so I just took 15 of my friends to Mexico and paid for everything because I wanted to have fun. I take people out for dinner. I can afford it. I bought 10 tickets for Britney. It was $5,000. Who cares?”

Siriano smiled. “I’m extremely not frugal, that’s my problem. I just took an eight-floor townhouse off Fifth Avenue.” He laughed. “Whose idea was that? I dunno. We’ll go bankrupt next year, but that’s fine.” Another smile.

“I’m not frugal. That’s definitely my problem. That’s why work so hard I can’t function. I have to pay for things. If a chain of hotels needs a new uniform, I do projects like that even if I have no time because I know I want to go to Mexico and take 14 of my friends.”

He works to live? this reporter asked.

“Yes,” Siriano replied. It means he can afford his fabulous apartment and Connecticut home. If one of his employees needs financial support, he will offer it. “The biggest challenge” is the unpaid money owed by retailers and licensees. He thinks he has a five-year-old outstanding invoice out to Neiman Marcus. The bankruptcy of one trunk show meant another $60,000 that Siriano would never see.

Siriano’s determination to be self-sufficient was encouraged by his mom by he was young, and is why, he said, both he and his sister—who works in digital marketing brand development—became entrepreneurs.

Aging is “the worst” and also “actually fine,” he said. Siriano’s friends span wealthy and not, famous and not. He doesn’t consider his fame, he said; it’s only an imposition when people assume he is a certain way that he is not—yes, he said, as he has done with certain actresses on TV who he meets in real life and aren’t as fabulous as hoped. He’s “pretty good at shutting off,” especially in his Connecticut rural retreat, where time seems to stretch.

Of stars he hasn’t dressed-as-yet, he would like to dress Cate Blanchett and Cynthia Nixon. Siriano has been active supporter of Nixon’s campaign to win the governorship of New York.

“She shares so many similar values of mine: She’s for different types of people, ethnicities, and those who have nothing. I think a lot of women make great political people because they’re just more open minded.”

He seems a committed feminist. “Yes. I was raised surrounded by women who were so awesome and who made their lives special and amazing. Women just think about things differently in the political world. I don’t know why, but they just do.”

Nixon’s challenge, said Siriano, is that she is an actress. “It’s sad. It’s hard for people to get past a character. Poor Sarah Jessica [famed as Carrie from Sex and the City]. It’s hard thing for so many actors to get past their characters.”

Still, if Nixon needs Siriano to design a victory or inauguration day dress, he’s ready.

“If she wants it, I’m there for her,” Siriano said, before disappearing to meet the models, tweak his Fashion Week gowns, and keep working as hard as he needs to live as hard as he loves.