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Originally published Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Siriano: Moving past 'fierce'

Thanks to "Project Runway," Christian Siriano is a star in the eyes of the broader public, but now he's trying to appeal to the fashion crowd.

The New York Times

Fashion Week Plus

MERCEDES-BENZ FASHION WEEK / FALL 2012, Feb. 9-16, New York: http://www.mbfashionweek.com/home

CHRISTIAN SIRIANO'S DESIGNS: http://www.christianvsiriano.com/

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Though it made him famous, Christian Siriano hardly ever uses the word "fierce" anymore.

He is more likely to say something is "fine," as in "Sometimes I think the critics don't like me personally, which is fine." Or "Fashion is subjective, which is fine." Or "There are people in the business who will never support me in the way they would a Wang or a Wu or any of those boys, which is fine."

Unless he is subverting the meaning of the word, Siriano is just fine with the way he has been perceived in the fashion industry since he opened his doors four years ago after a star turn on "Project Runway."

To be frank, the perception of Siriano, who was just 20 years old when he was cast on the show, was that he was another sassy and silly byproduct of reality television. He was the designer who once used the word "fierce" to describe a pair of chaps, made "hot tranny mess" a catchphrase and wore his hair in a style that looked like a result of electroshock therapy.

"I started noticing pretty quickly that it was going to be hard to convince the critics in the industry," he said at his showroom on West 35th Street. "Sometimes the media — well, the whole world — cannot move past something."

And he's fine with that. Siriano, at 26, is not the darling of New York fashion, and he probably never will be. But his collection is carried at Neiman Marcus alongside big names in evening wear, like Oscar de la Renta and Monique Lhuillier, and he makes money, probably more than many young designers will see in their careers.

His ready-to-wear sales last year were estimated to have reached $5 million, though Siriano, whose company is privately held, would not confirm that number. About a third of his income comes from endorsements and projects like his popular line for Payless ShoeSource. On websites that compile photographs of runway shows, his are often among the most popular.

He is a star in the eyes of the broader public, if not at all in the eyes of the industry establishment. Last year, when he applied for membership in the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the influential trade group, he was turned down.

"That is the hardest struggle," Siriano said. "I have all these women telling me, 'We love your clothes,' and 'You are wonderful,' and then I have full 180 degrees the opposite. What do you do?"

What he did was set out to change the perception.

About a year ago, Siriano hired a new stylist, Danielle Nachmani, whose clean and simple approach to fashion was the polar opposite of his flamboyancy, to help decide what designs to put on his runway.

Nachmani, who had mainly dressed celebrities, like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Maggie Gyllenhaal, was apprehensive about working with Siriano, but she thought he needed a push in a more streamlined direction to appeal to fashion editors, and she wanted to move into runway work. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Siriano's publicist, who thought their antithetical aesthetics could create the kind of tension that appeals to the fashion crowd.

"I remember telling him, 'I think you should just do a T-shirt with this ball-gown skirt,' and he said, 'You are insane,"' Nachmani said. "I took out everything that was synonymous with this hot mess persona."

They clicked. The reviews for Siriano's fall 2011 show last February noted that the designer was suddenly on trend, with floor-length translucent skirts and peplum-tipped blouses in a collection that was by and large black. As the Fashionista blog wrote, "nary a huge pouf or exaggerated ruffle was to be seen." Pieces from the collection were featured in the September issues of Italian Vogue and Marie Claire, the latter showing a look with a long ruffled skirt on Sarah Jessica Parker.

"There's been more of a response in the fashion world, which really is why I came in," Nachmani said. Appealing to editors, she told Siriano, was imperative. "Whether or not you want to," she said, "you need to."

During a series of interviews over the last few weeks, Siriano was unfailingly diplomatic when discussing the role of the stylist and the perceived changes in his collection, which, he noted, he still designed, after all. He has not abandoned his poufy ruffled gowns in sunny citrus colors, but he has expanded with pared-down cocktail dresses, gently draped blouses and untricky coats and capes.

He did seem amused, however, by the underlying absurdity that it takes a product of reality television to point out that in the real world, what critics love so much "would never sell, ever."

"It could be the most basic dress that everybody loves, but still, it sometimes isn't what women want to wear," Siriano said. "What Danielle loves, her favorite pieces every season, are usually what every other fashion industry person loves, and usually we never sell one of them. So think about that a little bit."

Does he think the critics have any clue what they are talking about?

"I do and I don't," he said. "I don't think some fashion critics have been in a Neiman Marcus or a Saks Fifth Avenue in a long time, which is what it is."

Ken Downing, the fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said that Siriano, besides making appearances at trunk shows, attends sales meetings and gets to know the managers of each store.

"He has a highly exuberant and animated personality, which worked well for him on television," Downing said. "I'm not necessarily sure that was favored with the editorial people, but it gave him credibility with customers."

Siriano does not compare himself to Alexander Wang or Jason Wu, but to Michael Kors and Isaac Mizrahi, designers who have leveraged their outsize personalities into marketable platforms.

After winning "Project Runway," Siriano financed his own collection by endorsing products. His first show was sponsored by LG, the electronics company. He signed deals to design clothes for Spiegel, sponges for O-Cel-O and gift cards for Starbucks, and he published a book, called "Fierce Style: How to Be Your Most Fabulous Self."

All of these projects were lucrative, but they did little to dispel what the fashion critic Robin Givhan, in a Washington Post blog, described as "the stench of cheesiness" that clings to anything based in reality television.

Siriano, who grew up in Annapolis, Md., made fashion the subject of his senior course study at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and he went to design school at American InterContinental University in London, interning with Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. But these were not the details that stood out on his résumé. Once a "Project Runway" designer, always a "Project Runway" designer. Fashion Week is littered with its alumni, including Gretchen Jones (season eight), Irina Shabayeva (season six), Malan Breton (season three) and Jason Troisi (season eight).

The problem was not that the reviews of Siriano's initial collections were terrible; it was that major fashion publications largely ignored him.

"It's a really touchy thing to figure out," Siriano said. "I don't want to care, but I kind of do. Sometimes it would be nice to be judged the way other young brands are. It's very tough for anyone to move forward, because you don't know if you are good."

Joining the CFDA, which accepted 33 new members last year, is seen as a mark of validation for a designer, since it signifies acceptance by a peer group. Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the council, said that a lot of well-known designers did not get in on their first or second try and that the council typically considered longevity in business when making its decisions.

Siriano said he would apply again, but he wasn't sure that world is right for him. Just whom is he trying to please?

Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez met Siriano at a trunk show at Joe Brand in Laredo, Texas, in 2008. Gutierrez, an heiress to an oil and gas fortune, is the official dressmaker for the annual pageant and debutante ball organized by the Society of Martha Washington, where young women wear lavishly embroidered Colonial dresses that make Siriano's work look as minimalist as Calvin Klein.

She used to wear Angelo Tarlazzi, but now she comes to New York each season to see Siriano's show and order several pieces directly. There was the creamy chiffon pleated gown with a caramel-colored leather swing jacket and matching 6-inch-wide belt, and the paprika-colored cocktail suit with ruffles around the neck. His clothes typically cost $300 to $4,000.

"I am 69 years old, my daughter is in her 40s and my granddaughter is 15, and we all wear his clothes," Gutierrez said. "He's the best, I thought. Oscar de la Renta, YSL, Versace, Roberto Cavalli — all of them are very popular in this part. But he's so young and fresh on the market."

Siriano's designs can also be seen on the red carpet (Heidi Klum, obviously), on Taylor Swift in her fragrance campaign, and in New York society. Leslie Ziff, 29, who is on the boards of the American Ballet Theatre and Rosie's Theater Kids, approached Siriano to design seven bridesmaid dresses for her 2009 wedding to Daniel Ziff, of the billionaire Ziffs, at the Metropolitan Club. Now she wears Siriano exclusively for black-tie events, "and I attend several a year," she said.

"Being able to go to him and have that relationship, it's great for me," she said. "I know what I'm going to get. It's going to be beautiful and creative, and I'll look great in it."

But what do people say when she tells them she is wearing Christian Siriano?

"They are taken aback, but in a good way," she said.

That is just the reaction Siriano is going for.

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