Siriano's notorious hairdo also traces its roots to Sung's advice. She first taught him to relax, straighten and stylishly snip his coarse curly locks, launching a look that recently earned him another online nickname -- "the cockatiel" (he apparently prefers "bird of paradise").

His fashion sense matured further at the School for the Arts, where he designed a 20-piece fashion show for his senior project.

"Everybody there is really eccentric, really interesting and nobody judges," Siriano said. "It was the best place for me to go, and it really helped me develop."

His teachers remember him as a slave to fashion even then. They still don't know how, out of all their pupils, he alone managed never to drip oil paint on his outfits.

His clothes didn't always treat him as well. Friends recall the time a few years back when Siriano's beloved pony-skin cowboy boots somehow got stuck on the gas pedal of his car, causing a collision. And -- according to 24-year-old Chuck Phipps, a friend from the mall -- when Siriano was studying abroad at London's American InterContinental University after high school, he was sometimes at war with customs officials because of the suspicious amount of women's footwear in his luggage.

Worst of all, the finery Siriano craves is completely unaffordable for the average 20-something. It seemed unfair to friends that a guy who'd interned with the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs couldn't afford the uberexpensive looks himself. Even after he made the cut for Project Runway, Siriano lived in a tiny New York apartment, barely making it. Paula McLoud, a friend from Annapolis, went shopping with him last summer in Los Angeles, after Project Runway filming had started; she finally forced him to accept a pair of gold-lame sneakers as a gift. Nothing makes her happier than to see him prancing in them today.

"He deserves everything he gets," McLoud said. "Fashion is his love."

Of course, not everyone is a supporter. The closest Siriano came to defeat this season was the episode where he had to make a prom dress for a rather obstreperous teenage girl.

"First of all, I wanted to work with Jillian [Lewis]," Maddie Eugene, 17, of Aberdeen, N.J., said, naming Siriano's chief rival. "But someone took Jillian, and I didn't have a choice, so I chose Christian."

The collaboration went south from there.

"A lot of people have thanked me for telling him I hated the dress, because he's so conceited," she said.

Twenty-one-year-old Leanne Bernsten has another word for her friend Siriano's nature. "He's blunt," she said. "But after he says something catty, he will always smile."

Bidding war

The bidding for Siriano's services began at $5,000, but the auctioneer could have started much higher. Siriano had promised to custom-design "a gown, a blouse, a jacket ... whatever you want, by me," and Baltimore's best-dressed women were elbowing their husbands and working themselves into a postprandial frenzy.

Eleven thousand, twelve thousand -- the price shot heavenward. "Now 13, 13, bid it up!" the auctioneer sang as Siriano danced a gleeful jig on stage.

Eighteen thousand, twenty-three thousand. Now the field was down to A.C. Hubbard, whose wife had her heart set on a Siriano original for her 70th birthday present, and Molly Shattuck, wife of the Constellation Energy CEO, who raised her hand like an A-plus student every time the price jumped.

At $25,000, though, she finally bowed her blond head in defeat. Maybe it was the kindness that his friends remember that made Siriano lean over to whisper in the auctioneer's ear, or maybe it was affection for his alma mater, which would collect the money. Or perhaps it was the simple fact that Molly Shattuck was wearing an electric lime leopard print in a sea of little black dresses--an utterly fierce fashion statement. In any event, Siriano announced that for another $25,000, he would make a garment for her, too.

The crowd gave Siriano a standing ovation. Though we won't know until tonight what the final episode holds, he looked like he was used to it.

Project Runway airs at 10 tonight on Bravo.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com