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Christian Siriano shows why he's a fierce competitor

'Project Runway' finalist is a hit at his alma mater, the Baltimore School for the Arts

By Abigail Tucker

Sun reporter

March 5, 2008

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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."

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