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By Ana Colon
The latest chapter in the discourse about red carpet options for celebs of all sizes started, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a single tweet. Comedian Leslie Jones was gearing up for the Ghostbusters press tour, but ran into a frustrating problem: Apparently, there weren’t any fashion brands wanting to outfit her for her big movie premiere. Unfortunately, this situation isn’t unique. Many actresses, including Jones’ Ghostbusters co-star Melissa McCarthy, have spoken out about designers not being able to accommodate (sometimes even refusing to dress) women who don’t fit into a sample size for red carpet events.
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So, Jones tweeted about it. One designer was quick to throw his name in the ring: Christian Siriano. His speedy response ignited a flurry of follow-up tweets (to the tune of “YAAAS”), and even a few think pieces. Jones and Siriano then met IRL and promised they were “up to no good” in his New York studio.
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On Saturday, Jones stepped out — and straight-up slayed — at the Ghostbusters premiere in a custom, bright-red, off-the-shoulder gown. This wasn’t your typical step-and-repeat reveal. Aside from the unconventional way Jones and Siriano met, the comedian’s tweet — and the designer’s quick replies — continue the conversation about the issues non-sample sized celebrities face when dressing for high-profile events.
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Siriano has been dressing celebrities of all body types (and making them look fierce) for years — in fact he’s made that accessibility an integral part of his business. So, we spoke to the (newlywed!) designer about that tweet and, in a broader sense, the economics of red carpet dressing.
Why did you respond to Leslie’s tweet?
“It was actually super random; I was just like: ‘Hey, I’m here. If you want something I’m available.’ She must not have thought of me, so that’s why I threw myself in there — because I love her, I follow her, and I would love to dress her. Then, it started becoming such a thing. Honestly, it was just as simple as I’m a fan of hers.”
In your follow-up tweet, you addressed how it shouldn’t be exceptional to work with non-sample sized celebrities. Tell us more.
“We dress every size there is — we dress girls who are size 0, and girls who are a size 20. It’s always been super important for my brand to have such a mix, but we never really think about sizes that much. There are designers that have a hard time with samples, because they don’t have the infrastructure to make things in two days; maybe that’s why some of them said no.
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"I’m sure Leslie felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in this movie and I’m having a hard time [with a dress], and people aren’t able to loan.’ I didn’t want anybody to think that we would ever say no to Leslie just because she’s a different size, or because she’s not a red carpet maven. It’s more exciting for me to have moments with people that are different, or that shock, or are newer names. I was one of the first people to dress Lady Gaga [in 2008]. It’s fun to have such a huge moment with Leslie on the red carpet, because she hasn’t really had that.”
Were you surprised by any of the responses to your Twitter conversation with Leslie?
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, dressing different women of all different sizes…finally people are [starting to] notice. When Leslie tweeted that she didn’t have anything, a lot of people suggested me, which is really nice. I want everyone to think that my brand is for everyone. I wasn’t that shocked with the responses — except people saying, 'Well, she can afford it. Why can’t she buy something?’ Because that isn’t the issue.”
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What was it like when you met with Leslie in your studio?
“We didn’t make it as big of a moment as everybody else did. It’s always shocking what people care about and what they don’t care about. I’m sure she is frustrated, because she’s in this amazing movie and this [dress] is all everybody wants to talk about; I’m kind of frustrated, because I have dressed some of the biggest [names] in the world and done all of these cool things, and this is what everybody writes now.”
You’ve been dressing a range of body types for a while. Has that always been a focus of yours?
“I don’t necessarily think it was a goal; It just started happening more and more. If a woman like Oprah called you, what would you make for her? There are so many amazing people out there that are sizes 6 and 8, and I’d never [want to not] have something for them. So, that’s super important. We just made a ton of clothes for Michelle Obama — imagine if I never designed for [her size] before; I wouldn’t want to be figuring that out for the first time.”
Other celebs have lamented red carpet dressing issues: Bryce Dallas Howard bought her own Golden Globes dress to have more choices than stylists or designers have available for a size 6, for example. Have customers come to you frustrated by the lack of options?
“Yeah, totally. We definitely have customers that are just average [non-celebrity] women, who know that we can make any size. The other day, a bride said she had a body really similar to Christina Hendricks, and really wanted me to make the wedding dress. That is exactly what you want — for customers to feel comfortable in your clothes.”
Why does the fashion industry still not offer more variety for non-sample sized women?
“Some small brands and young designers can’t physically have samples in every single size always available — it’s just not possible [when] you have [so many] pieces in every collection. But then, there are the big brands: What is Dior doing? What are all those brands doing? I’m not sure, because they have sizes readily available. If I’m a very small brand, and we’re able to do it, a big house can make something very easily — it’s just whether they choose to or not.
"Also, when designers make samples to be shown in a runway show, it’s the first time we’ve ever made the clothes. I’ve made pieces that make me realize, ‘You know what, actually, in a size 10 this isn’t going to look good.’ But I don’t know that yet [when designing]. If Leslie came in with a very specific dress in mind, I might say to her: ‘Honestly, it’s not going to look good in every size.’ That happens all the time.”
Creating custom pieces is expensive, especially for a wider range of sizes. When were you finally able to afford to do that?
“It wasn’t possible my first few seasons. Obviously, if Oprah called and needed something, you’ll figure it out — even if we are scraping to pay for it, we make it happen. I’ve built into my business that whatever we do in terms of PR, we always make the exception to make it work [financially] if it’s going to be a big moment. I remember I made some things for Whoopi Goldberg for the Tony Awards [in 2008]: It was one of my first projects, but Whoopi paid for some of it, so that helped. That happens, too — sometimes an actress or a stylist would be like, 'We have a little budget.’ But it’s a challenge. Not every brand can make something custom all the time.”
The fact that celebs typically borrow, or get a custom piece for free, from designers has been controversial. Are celebs entitled do this — and how much does it cost you as a designer?
“Brands use marketing dollars to pay for ads; dressing an actress for red carpet is very similar. I never think of it as 'getting free clothes.’ It’s a trade. Actresses know that in this world, a great dress at the Emmys could be a great moment for that designer in sales. That’s the balance. I feel like I’m sometimes getting the better end of the deal: Usually they send the dress back, and I still get all the marketing.
"The challenge is figuring out what works. When we dress some people, it results in sales; others are just great publicity; and sometimes, it’s both. It also is about brand recognition, because if everybody is running photos of this [celebrity], it’s just more eyes on the brand. That’s the whole point of this industry: If you don’t see people wearing the clothes, how do you know they exist? We’ve had a lot of red carpet moments, but that isn’t the be all, end all. If someone doesn’t wear something, we’re still running a great business; people are still buying the clothes. Some designers have dressed thousands of people, but are really struggling. You can dress Gwyneth Paltrow all the time, but if people aren’t buying that dress [you’ve designed for her], it doesn’t matter.”
What are your thoughts on celebrities, like Leslie, being criticized for not being respectful of the great cost of a custom dress for a fashion brands both in terms of money and time?
“Leslie and a lot of actresses think about it like a trade. Maybe she reached out to a few brands, and they all said, ‘We don’t have your size. We can’t send them to you,’ and none offered up the custom option. I think that’s probably what happened, but I don’t know… I’m sure her stylist was reaching out to people weeks and months before, once they finally got the premiere date, but it takes time. And some designers just don’t have larger sizes, and they literally don’t have time to re-cut them.”
Do you have a wider range of sample sizes to accommodate the size-inclusive variety of clients you work with?
“I sometimes have sizes available, not in every dress, but I can pull sizes from my store."
Is that an unusual practice, to pull pieces from the retail selling floor?
"Some brands don’t want to pull from their stores because if they send 15 options to an actress and she doesn’t wear any, and they get dirty or there’s makeup on them from trying them on — then you can’t sell those dresses. You can lose money; I totally get that. For a big brand, [the cost is] very minimal. [Labels with] 200 retailers, or 200 stores — it wouldn’t really affect them that much. Younger designers — I’m talking about everyone from Prabal [Gurung], to Alexander Wang, to Proenza [Schouler] — they’re not hundred-billion dollar companies, so it’s a challenge.”
Back to dressing Leslie: What’s your takeaway from this whole situation?
“I don’t think it should’ve become such a thing: Leslie had a hard time finding a dress; we’re going to make something, and it’s going to be amazing. I’m sure now there would be lots of other brands that will also want to work with her. I really don’t know what the takeaway is except for that we should celebrate everybody. This is just a frivolous thing — it’s just dresses on a red carpet, and then everybody will write about a new dress the next day. We should just try to make every woman feel great about themselves, because there’s a enough crazy hate going on in the world.”