Fashion & Style

Siriano's most fabulous self

It's noon, and Christian Siriano has already accomplished a lion's share of work on what he calls his "laundry list."

With his spring collection fashion show a little more than a week away, he started the day with a quick trip to his Manhattan boutique, which he opened less than a month ago. Then shoes for his spring show arrived a few hours ago and needed to be matched with garments. Also on the day's list: shipping out his fall collection to international retailers and getting ready for the looming awards season — the Emmys, to be exact. Siriano said he had a number of starlets he's dressing for the event

"It's not the most glamorous of days," the 26-year-old said by phone from his New York studio.

Siriano's tempered response might come as a surprise to "Project Runway" fans who remember the Annapolis native as an extremely colorful, larger-than-life personality. But that was almost five years ago. And a lot has happened.

Siriano has become a popular designer — and, more important, an accomplished businessman. His clothes are carried by retailers such as Neiman Marcus and specialty boutiques throughout the country. They are also sold across the globe.

In 2009, his "Fierce Style: How To Be Your Most Fabulous Self" was published, which led to a national book tour and an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." His shoe collections for Payless have made him the retailer's top-selling design collaborator ever. In March 2010, he became the youngest person ever to be named to Crain's New York Business "40 Under 40." He co-founded accessories e-commerce retailer Send the Trend and served as chief curator until 2011. In addition to creating a makeup line for Victoria's Secret, he also collaborated on projects with Starbucks, Puma and Spiegel. And in August, he opened Christian Siriano, a 1,000-square-foot boutique where he sells his frocks, shoes and purses.

"No one going into this apparel business realizes that it's going to be this much work," he said. "There are so many little things that go into a dress — it's insane. We ship all around the world. All of those countries have different shipping formats. I really am running the business — the day-to-day is me. It is hard. Ask any young designer — there are so many things that you don't think about."

He has built his burgeoning empire with hard work, a measured aggressiveness, smart decisions and calculated risks.

Ruben Cruz, professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, calls Siriano the total package. "He's an original," Cruz said. "He has an aesthetic. He has a sense of style. He's made his persona and his brand trademark. It's the way he looks and comes across. But most of all, he is talented. He's what people think of when they imagine a designer."

Siriano says his tenacity is what has made him so successful. For example, after his fourth-season "Project Runway" win, he acknowledges "stalking" the show's producers to take advantage of all the prizes and resources available to him.

"When you're done, it's over," he said. "Everyone is on to the next season. I wasn't afraid to email and ask questions. Part of winning was having a management agency to work with you. I was constantly emailing the assistants. I took initiative. That is why I was able to do a little more. You have to stalk them."

Siriano says he's not afraid take a similar approach when it comes to reaching out to a celebrity and offering his services.

"Heidi [Klum] says she loves that I reach out to her," he said. (Klum wore one of his dresses to the 2011 Emmys.) "She can get clothes from any designer she wants. I have to put it in their head to think about me."

Siriano has been known to follow up with celebrities he has met at parties or spotted in the pages of magazines. He has also used social media to reach out to celebs he has wanted to work with — especially up-and-comers.

His approach landed him a gig dressing Lady Gaga for her first television appearance on the "Today" show in 2008. "That is something I am proud of," he said.

Most recently, Siriano reached out to young starlet and former ballerina Nicole LaLiberte, an actress he predicts will have a tremendous future. "She was just shot by Drew Barrymore," he explained, refering to a photo shoot Barrymore did for V magazine. "I love her personal style and red hair. I love new talent. I love finding the new, quirky girl."

But celebrity endorsements are not enough — as Siriano soon discovered. In order to better court fashion editors, Siriano grudgingly hired a stylist to help him with the presentation of his seasonal collections.

"I didn't want a stylist," he said. "Every designer loves putting a look together."

But Siriano soon discovered the benefits of having another set of eyes on his work.

For two years, Siriano has been collaborating with Danielle Nachmani, who work has included campaigns for Van Cleef & Arpels, Old Navy, Intermix and Theory. The working relationship is beneficial, but it can be challenging at times, he said.

"I love Danielle," he said. "She'll really listen to me. But she's tough on me. There can be so much tension. She might pass over my favorite dress. My job is to convince her that it is such a great piece."

The decision was a smart one — especially when it comes to Fashion Week, which began Wednesday and, Cruz said, can make or break a designer.

"Fashion Week is where the trendsetters are," Cruz said. "It's very important. Your life is on the line essentially. If your line is not well received or not mentioned, it can break you. You'll be replaced."

But on this busy, unglamorous day, Siriano didn't appear to be worried about his coming show. He believes in maintaining a stress-free, confident demeanor that he hopes carries over to his employees. He says it is important to set a positive tone for his team.

"I try to keep as calm as possible," he said, adding that he winds down on the weekends, which allows him to start the week off in a relaxed manner. "If I'm stressed, then they are stressed. I don't like that."

The approach shows a lot of maturity and growth for the "Project Runway" alum, whose intense gushing on the show over guest judge and style maven Sarah Jessica Parker now makes him cringe.

"That was embarrassing," he said. (Even though Siriano didn't win the challenge the actress judged, the two have worked together since the show.)

Now when Siriano deals with celebrities, he plays it cool.

"I'm a little different now," he said. "I try to be a little more professional. I was overly intense [back then].) Actresses and musicians are already so nervous. It is better to be real and like a friend."

Siriano says the key to avoiding stress is being organized. He started preparing for his spring collection early in the year, which allowed him to have a launch of his boutique so close to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

Stephen Kent is not surprised by the success of his former student. The head of the visual arts department at the Baltimore School for the Arts knew Siriano would be special more than a decade ago, when he first spotted the then-13-year-old, who was interviewing for a spot in the school.

"We've auditioned hundreds of children over the year, but I remember him clearly," Kent said. "He arrived in a very tailored black suit — appropriately accessorized, of course. And a matching portfolio. He looked very professional. And he was tiny! I was fascinated and sat in on the interview. He was very methodical about the way he presented his work."

Siriano's fashion sketches blew away all of the instructors — including Kent. He summoned Siriano's mother. "I told her that he had so much talent, and he needed to come here," he said.

The school remains an important part of Siriano's life.

When Siriano makes it back home -— he estimates about two to three times a year — he makes time to visit the school.

It was at the BSA that Siriano produced his first fashion show, which was a part of his senior project, Kent recalled. "He made all the arrangements — the clothes, models, hair, makeup"

Kent said Siriano customized a fashion design curriculum for himself, even though the school did not offer such a thing.

"He figured out how to get fashion into every class he took," Kent said. "He was very adept and persuasive and reasonable. He knew how to negotiate with adults. He kind of tailored our programs to his needs."

Kent and the other staff members at the BSA monitored Siriano's advancements after he graduated and went on to study under design legends such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. So it was to no one's surprise that Siriano made it to "Project Runway."

Siriano continues to support the school. He welcomes BSA students at his New York City studio for annual field trips. He's also co-chairing the school's "Expressions" gala, an annual fundraiser.

Kent considers Siriano to be the most successful of any BSA visual arts students in the school's history.

"I've been at the school since 1980 when it opened and department head for most of that time. He's the only art star we've ever had," he said. "We have a lot of successful students who are making a good living, but no one in the limelight like he is."

Siriano also invites a group of teachers — including Kent — to his Fashion Week shows.

It's all just part of his laundry list.

A couple of hours after his interview for this article, he posted a picture on Instagram, showing his beading work on a bridal gown.

Just another successful project on another most fabulous day.

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