Baltimore's divas were dressed in Helmut Lang and their highest heels Saturday night -- a display of cocktail party plumage intended to knock Christian Siriano's designer socks off.

Still, they were worried. Would the Project Runway finalist really approve of these shoes? What about this necklace of felt and sterling silver, which less chic individuals had previously compared to a cat toy?

"Mmm-hmm, I love it," Siriano declared, in the center of his circle of glamorous but anxious admirers. "Work it!"

Siriano's own outfit for the Baltimore School for the Arts' "Expressions" fundraiser included skinny black pants and his trademark black vest, metallic Kenneth Cole high tops and a shirt he'd sewn out of a scarf. The fabric was silver lame threaded with purple; he'd picked it because the theme of the event was "Shine On" -- although, already one of the school's most fabulous alumni at the tender age of 22, he could hardly hope to shine any brighter.

Even if he doesn't win the design competition's finale tonight (as he's widely favored to), the

Annapolis-area native has wowed the fashion world and is fast becoming a full-blown pop culture icon. He can't go to the supermarket anymore without getting mobbed, and he's hailed as a hero at the high school he left just a few years ago.

"I'm kind of lapping it up," he confessed.

As he was passed from one socialite to another at the school Saturday night, though, the attention sometimes seemed like it might be too much even for cocky Siriano. The party was packed almost to the point of chaos, but the diminutive designer was still hard to miss with his spiky, asymmetrical hairdo poking up in the crowd. Train ticket stubs, name tags, programs--he autographed them all, listening politely to how his stint on Bravo had "absolutely transformed" someone 's 12-year-old daughter.

One woman, in her haste to meet Siriano, kicked over his wine glass, which he'd placed on the floor while scrawling "Work the runway!" on yet another cocktail napkin. Luckily, it was filled with only water -- anything stronger, he said, might inspire him to blurt out the finale results, which finalists learned weeks ago when the episode was filmed.

His fans, on the other hand, were busy topping off their husband's drinks in anticipation of the after-dinner benefit auction, when they could bid on the chance to have Siriano design something for their wardrobe. As cocktail hour ended and guests filed into the ballroom, several women whispered that they would not be outspent, clutching his hand as though they intended to take it home as a keepsake.

'Runway' finale

Tonight, Siriano will watch the final installment of Project Runway's Season 4 at a swank New York party, while those who knew him way back when -- his co-workers from an Annapolis salon, his high school teachers, his family and friends -- host local galas of their own, to honor a boy who loved to sew, then became a fashion sensation almost overnight.

If he wins, he'll get a new car, an editorial spread in Elle magazine, and, perhaps most importantly, $100,000 to start a personal clothing line. It's the kind of money that could vault Siriano, who's spent the last several years scraping by as a fashion student and an apprentice to various designers, into his own name brand, and observers are saying he deserves it.

"For once, Christian is someone who lives up to his own expectation of himself," said Tom Fitzgerald, of the blog Project Rungay ("Project Runway from a VERY gay perspective"), who saw the finalists' collections being shown during New York's Fashion Week. "All of the collections were beautiful, but his was absolutely stunning coming down that runway."

It was Fitzgerald and his co-blogger who christened Siriano "Princess Puffysleeves," a reference to his imperious on-camera personality and penchant for ruffles. In the competition, Siriano, the youngest contestant, often comes across as a hyper-talented brat who delights in lambasting his opponents' creations.

But the show neglects Siriano's kinder and gentler side, friends say. Sure, he used to tell his female teachers that their sweaters looked like rug remnants and their hair was "a hot mess," but he would always do his best to remedy the situation. He'd take them shopping and shower them with his own hand-me-downs.

And "he would come in every morning and do my hair before class," bringing his own foot-tall cans of hairspray, said Kim Parr, his painting teacher. "It was very sweet."

His own incandescent sense of style blossomed at the Bubbles salon in the Westfield Annapolis Mall, where he started out as a shampoo boy at age 13, working throughout high school. At the salon, he learned the basics of hair and makeup design and started sewing clothes for the annual hair shows.

"At first he was really quiet and shy," said Maria Sung, a Bubbles stylist. "He used to wear button down shirts and khaki pants. We said he needed more personality. Then he started opening up more."