Is Christian Siriano the Next Billion Dollar Designer?

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Designer Christian Siriano. Photo: Courtesy

Awards night in Hollywood, any awards, can be daunting for a designer. Unless you have paid a starlet to wear your wares, it’s impossible for even the savviest of celebrity wranglers to guarantee that your dress will make an appearance on the red carpet. It’s commonplace to hear of designers whipping up custom gowns—occasionally couture!—only for an actress and her stylist to swipe it out for something off-the-rack at the last minute.

Sounds like a nightmare only the convergence of the entertainment and fashion worlds could conjure. Yet Christian Siriano has learned to manage his own lofty expectations. “I used to get really, really worked up about it,” he says on a Friday afternoon in New York City. “It used to make me crazy. But now, I understand that it isn’t always personal. If it works out, amazing. If they don’t wear it, you move on.”

Siriano’s eased nerves could also have something to do with the fact that he is closer to being guaranteed a spot on every major red carpet than pretty much any other designer featured on Vogue Runway’s dropdown menu.

For this year’s Emmys, he dressed Orange Is the New Black Stars Laura Prepon and Danielle Brooks in custom gowns. (Prepon wore a red dress with a matching gold lace bolero, while Brooks twirled in a pleated chiffon frock.) Just weeks before, Modern Family’s Sarah Hyland wore a cropped top and shorts set from his Resort 2015 collection. Solange Knowles chose a mock-neck cape top and matching pant for the 2015 Oscars. He has also dressed Jennifer Lopez, Tina Fey, Kate Upton, Christina Hendricks and Gwyneth Paltrow, to name more than a few. “I wouldn’t say he’s having a moment, since Christian has maintained a steady presence on the red carpet over the last several years. But that in itself is a major achievement,” says InStyle fashion news director Eric Wilson. “A lot of designers get one or two hits, but very few manage to keep a reliable presence there, and that is largely because so many stars rely on him for dresses that both make a statement and an entrance.”

At 29 years old, Christian Siriano is a red carpet fixture. But how exactly did he get there?

Gwyneth Paltrow in white Christian Siriano at the J. Paul Getty Awards. Photo: Getty Museum

Born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, Siriano attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, a public high school that specialized in pre-professional arts. (A fun little fact: Other notable alum include Tupac Shakur, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Josh Charles.) A fine arts major, he zeroed in on fashion design by his senior year, inspired by the fanciful designs coming out of Europe. He enrolled at the American InterContinental University in London (which is now a part of Regent’s University). “I liked that my teachers were still actually working,” Siriano says of why he chose AIU. “My pattern making teacher worked in production at Vivienne Westwood. It was an interesting dynamic.” That same teacher helped him secure an internship at Westwood and from there, he moved on to Alexander McQueen, where he worked for a little less than a year. There, he was able to observe McQueen—whose friends and colleagues called him Lee—and Sarah Burton, who is now creative director of the label. “Westwood was a little more technical because their patterns are so… I mean, there are some patterns that have 200 pattern pieces in them, with all the corsets and draping,” he says. “McQueen was more visual: fabric manipulation, print [development]. It was amazing, getting to see Sarah and Lee work on stuff. I mean, obviously no one knew who I was. But I knew who they were, and I was paying attention.”

When Siriano returned to the States after school, he started working as a freelance makeup artist. “I was doing really well, making great money, but I just couldn’t get a job in fashion,” he says. Missed opportunities included a job designing woven tops at Ann Taylor, “which would have been hilarious, but a great start [nonetheless].” An internship at Marc Jacobs lasted “about a week. I was a little too qualified to still be an intern, and I wasn’t doing work that made sense.”

And then, the not so inevitable happened: Project Runway. A friend who worked at Bravo pushed him to audition, even though he had never seen the show. He was cast on Season 4, which aired from November 2007-March 2008, at the age of 21. While Siriano’s talent was clear—he won, of course—the designer is the first to admit that he was also quite the character. “We had this huge, culturally insane thing happen,” he recalls. “Amy Poehler played me on Saturday Night Live.”

Solange Knowles in a red dress by Christian Siriano at the 2014 Academy Awards. Photo: Getty Images

Perhaps savvier than any other Project Runway contestant before or after him, Siriano was able to parlay his newfound celebrity into a business—and a presence on the red carpet—straight away. “Victoria Beckham was my first customer,” he says. “A good customer to have.”

Siriano showed his first full collection during the Fall 2009 season. It was picked up by Intermix, who favored his less dressy fare: cocktail numbers and coats. Saks Fifth Avenue placed an order for Spring 2010, and many stores followed. His clothes are now stocked at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Boutique No. 7 in Moscow and his own boutique in New York City’s Nolita neighborhood. Early on, he funded production by taking advantage of the Project Runway afterglow: making personal appearances and collaborating with companies like LG, Starbucks, and Payless, the latter of which he has been working with since before he launched his ready-to-wear line. “Those things really helped fund my business,” he says. “I could actually make my collection.” In fact, Siriano says that his friends at Payless project that the collaboration will hit $1 billion in sales by the time it turns 10 years old in 2018. “I mean, listen, I wish I got a royalty off that piece,” he (kind of) jokes.

Siriano still loves a good collaboration. (Most recently, he launched iPhone and iPod cases with Best Buy and a bridal collection with famed wedding-dress retailer Kleinfeld. He also partnered with Lane Bryant on a plus-size collection that hits stores in the spring of 2016.) But as the lights from Siriano’s time on reality television have dimmed, one could argue that he has become a more serious designer. Or at least a designer taken more seriously. “Somebody told me a long time ago that there are some brands that people in the industry support in one season, and there are some brands that people support a decade later. I think that maybe that’s what’s happening with me,” he says. “People don’t really care that I was on television anymore. I think they just really like my clothes.”

Christina Hendricks in Christian Siriano at the 65th annual Emmy Awards. Photo: Getty Images

Siriano’s greatest quality may be his belief in his own talents, and his desire to make women feel and look great. “Christian’s approach is unique because at a very young age, he made the decision not to listen to critics. It’s the smartest think any designer can do,” Wilson says. “He recognized that no one needs another designer of basic princess gowns, so he gave the fashion world what it needed, which is a big dose of showmanship and character.”

Siriano’s celebrity placements have certainly helped him communicate his aesthetic—full of color and dramatic silhouettes—to a broader audience. “We dress so many different types of women: musicians, actresses,” he says. But while he must design things that stars actually want to wear, there is a hustle to it all that goes beyond assembling a gown. “Building relationships with stylists takes time. We also ship clothes around the world. I have two people that just deal with getting clothes in and out. We just shipped Florence [Welch] clothes to London, we’ve shipped Angelina [Jolie] clothes to London. You have to get the Chamber of Commerce stamps…it’s so much paperwork. I don’t think every brand can do that. You just have to figure it out, because if you don’t, you miss the opportunity.”

For Siriano, the opportunity lies, at least in part, in expanding his main collection. For the past few seasons, there has been more of an emphasis on daywear. He also introduced handbags, as well as shoes. The designer has also partnered with a manufacturer to launch a more affordable, and relaxed, diffusion line next year. “Great tops, great dresses, great skirts,” he says of the upcoming effort. “I want it to be casual, but, you know, I don’t think I would be the right person to like launch denim.”

To help move all this expansion along, Siriano took on investors in 2012, and now has a staff of 20. Sales have grown every year since 2009, and the company has been profitable for the past two years, a notable accomplishment for a still-fledgling label. Once again, Christian Siriano has managed to go his own way. For the better.