Fresh from back-to-back red carpet wins at the 2021 Primetime Emmy Awards, the prestigious Met Gala and New York’s highly anticipated Fashion Week, it’s hard to imagine that Christian Siriano found the time to catch his breath, let alone speak to us before catching a plane bound for his solo exhibition at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) in Savannah. But as is evidenced by everything he undertakes, he did it with a genuine graciousness and generosity that speak volumes about the world as he sees it.
Christian Siriano is uniquely blessed with a vision that transcends color, size, race and gender to create a community that embraces it all. That he hails from Maryland, nicknamed “America in Miniature” for its scenic and cultural diversity and distinctly progressive views, hints at his inclusive nature. He spent his childhood in the idyllic boating enclave of Annapolis, a buttoned-up bastion of rich maritime traditions that define the historic waterfront and its illustrious Naval Academy. “We literally lived on the water. We were always on boats and at the marinas and docks and we ate crab just about every weekend, that was the thing.” But it was his sister’s ballet performances, visually transformative, that influenced his sensibilities the most.
“She would be in dazzling ballet costumes with her hair and make-up all done up and then she and the other dancers would turn into these amazing creatures. It was mesmerizing to watch,” he remembers, the wonder still pirouetting in his voice. “I was a very curious kid, interested in everything, finding the beautiful and the romantic everywhere.” Being around her and seeing all the ballets she was in inspired him endlessly.
Did he know then what he wanted to be when he grew up, that his interest in those diaphanous ballet costumes would prove to be the catalyst for a career that would not only skyrocket him to fame and fortune in fashion, but that would dress everything he touched in a glamorous glow?
“I was more interested in being an artist. I really didn’t know what fashion was necessarily or what that kind of career would even look like back then because I was a bit naïve about it all. I did know what painters and sculptors did and I wanted to do that too. That’s why I went to art school in Baltimore.”
I was in the moment with him, connecting with him from a tugboat that was harbored in Baltimore, the city skyline glittering in the background with a necklace of celestial lights, hoping to channel his brand of creativity and dreaminess for our conversation.
He attended Baltimore’s edgy high school for the arts, one of the nation’s finest, where all the school’s a stage and its students rightfully earn starring roles for their future. He studied fine arts at first, taking drawing and painting classes every day. But as he became interested in sculpture and the multifaceted three dimensional aspects of art, his genius for dressing the world in happiness came to light. As he describes it, he began to build clothes instead of building sculptures.
He went on to study fashion design at the industry-focused American InterContinental University in the multicultural city of London, a tireless innovator of art and culture full of ideas and imagination. He apprenticed with rebellious English designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, a maverick of risqué punk, art and sustainability inspired collections, and later joined four-time winner of the British Fashion Council’s British Designer of Year Award, Alexander McQueen, his all-time favorite designer. Relocating to New York, his passion for fashion ran away on the runways, starting with his industry-rocking win on Project Runway and the debut of his first couture collection in 2008.
He had the critics and celebrities clamoring for his dresses after that, enchanting them with old world glamour in his ballerina-inspired gowns. “I still love ballet and I think my collections have a ballerina-like element to them. I believe they always will because that’s how I learned about fashion,” he told me.
A romantic at heart, Christian is joy incarnate. I tell him so as I describe the Christian Siriano I imagine after getting to know him via the public eye. When I look at Christian’s work, there is an ethereal softness to it. Beautifully gentle renditions of life come alive in his dream dresses, and his cotton tail furniture designs. The women who wear his clothes exude confidence, and are fearlessly feminine without apology or attitude, radiating beauty inside and out. They feel pretty and it shows.
Through Christian’s eyes, life is beautiful. He finds people of all shapes and sizes flawless, and makes fashions that flatter each and every one. And while the world applauds his indefatigable desire to dress models other’s won’t, he finds it difficult to understand why they don’t.
“People are people,” he explains, famously breaking the fashion model in his mission to design dresses every woman can wear. “When a person feels really great about what they wear, that’s more rewarding than anything.”
The bold and colorful dresses he debuted this fall at New York’s highly anticipated Fashion Week, where the best-dressed strut designers’ dreams, reflected his desire to give women something to smile about when they stepped out into a brave new post-COVID-lockdown world. During fashion’s biggest night out at the incomparable Met Gala, critics wrote that he “broke a Met Gala record with three separate pieces going on display at the Costume Institute’s new exhibit, “In America: A Lexicon,” along with his poetic ode to America in a fairy-tale gown worn by Lili Reinhart.
His inspiration came right from his heart, taking his floral cue from Lili’s name. “My idea was to create a meaningful montage to America by celebrating all the flowers in each of the 50 states in a gossamer dress worn by a beautiful girl named Lili. It just all went together perfectly.”
The joy of looking continued during the Emmy Awards a few nights later. He had four award-worthy outfits under the spotlight there, each an eye-candy study in elegance and glamour.
Ted Lasso star Hannah Waddingham looked amazing in a one-shouldered confection described by Christian as old Hollywood glamour. “She’s so fabulous and I’m so proud of her. She won Best Supporting Actress for her first time. It was really wonderful.”
He gushed over Nicole Byer, who was dressed in a sheer, off the shoulder delicately ruffled purple gown, disarming me with his honest adoration. “I love her. She is really funny and crazy on her show, Nailed It. She’s such a bright personality but I think she still wanted to be beautiful and elegant.”
Christian “loves what we did for Jennifer Coolidge. She’s a good friend. She looked like she was old Hollywood, and very much the glamorous star that she is.” He shared that she chose a dress they brought in as an “extra,” noting that when a dress works perfectly in the moment, it is an awesome feeling for him. Does he prefer dressing a star in a preconceived custom creation just for them or do the clothes he has already designed speak to them first?
“It’s a mix,” he explained, adding that Jennifer Coolidge’s elegant off-the-rack choice was actually one of his best moments. “I’ve had the pleasure of dressing so many amazing people, but I get excited about everyone. I think my proudest moments really honestly come from the fact that I’m still doing what I love to do and people seem to love what I do too. Every day I get to wake up and I get to create what I want. I like being my own boss. It feels really good. I get to dress First Ladies and some of the biggest stars in the world. I also get to dress people like my mom and I love that it’s just all these different types of people. It’s men and women and non-binary and they’re all of the things I like to do and they all make me feel proud.”
For the Emmys, he designed a custom ensemble in support of the non-binary for Hacks actor Carl Clemons-Hopkins, nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. It evoked memories of his Oscar winning moment with Billy Porter’s tuxedo gown, still talked about today as a defining moment for a star “to play between the masculine and the feminine.” No judgement, all joy.
Over the years, he’s dressed the best for any number of high-profile functions, from the Golden Globes to the Grammys and every A-list gala in between, turning heads and bidding smiles from his diverse, always rapt audiences. They include Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Lopez and many more too numerous to mention here, each a vision in a fabulous gown that played to their desire to be demure or daring or dreamy, celebrating self-expression for every body at every age.
Is there anyone he would like to dress that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do so yet? He hesitated for a brief moment before mentioning such classic stars as Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. “I would be honored to design for them.”
That humility is also signature Siriano. Without exception, Christian basks in the glow of someone else’s spotlight. Whether it is the celebrities he dresses, the first responders who don his masks or the women who wear his fragrances, he is genuinely happy to make them feel happy.
Even when the world was shut down in a fearful pause from everyday life, Christian found a way to bring joy to those who faced the unfathomable on the front lines of a deadly disease. He turned his fashion atelier into a veritable mask brigade, charitably churning out some 2,000 masks a day to hand out to those who selflessly gave a hand up to people who needed it most. The COVID quarantine also gave rise to another of Christian’s expressive artistic endeavors, interior design, including custom furniture – think simple seating, modernistic yet whimsical, with a nod to his fashion sensibilities – and paintings that dress up homes with original Siriano style.
Taking risks is not new for someone as innovative as Christian. In addition to launching his career-defining gowns at age 26, he mixed it up with fragrances, creating a line of scented silhouettes that soothed and seduced the senses with inspired memories of summertime, his sister, his mom.
“I’m very ambitious and hardworking and I like to be an innovator. I like to try new things and push myself. I definitely cannot be bored. I always have a project to work on and thrive on stimulation,” he explained, adding that he likes to be involved in anything that’s happening. “I definitely think I’m a risk taker, because everything I do is kind of a risk. I don’t ever stop to think about whether it is going to be successful or not. If it works, how great is that. If it doesn’t, okay, we move on and try something else. That’s really how I approach everything in my life.”
Where does he find the courage to be himself and follow his passion?
“Having courage is my new motto of life. It’s something within yourself that keeps you motivated by your passion. I love every project that I’m working on. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it. That’s very important. I love fashion just as much as I love interiors and art and I love them all in a very similar way. Obviously, I built a much bigger business in the fashion world, but that’s just because that’s the road I took. I think if I dedicated that much time to my art business or interior business I think it could be just as successful. I would just have to give it more time.”
Forced to take a time off from the public eye during 2020 and retreating to his newly purchased Connecticut home, Christian turned his sights inward, establishing a decorating style that he was happy living with. Finding serenity and a full refresh in seclusion were motivating factors in Christian’s desire to open the door to a new inspired incarnation of his talents.
“I’m still learning and developing my palette, but I’m definitely a big lover of vintage and mid-century pieces. I prefer clean, uncluttered looks and I love earth tones and wood. Very natural elements are really inspiring to me,” he said, “That is probably more my world, which is very different than what I do with my clothes.”
His paintings are also very different than his fashions, going from the bold and colorful to black and white abstract designs.
“I actually was a pretty big fan of very classic still life paintings in the beginning and then when I started to manipulate them, I became more interested in abstract work. I also used to use a lot of color and painted things that were really vibrant and electric, but that was probably because I wasn’t doing anything else. Now that I work with bold colors all the time in my clothes, I like my art to be a bit more minimal and abstract.”
Today his painted art is all about feelings, many of which represent introspective works that captured his mood during the pandemic.
“Some of the paintings I did during the pandemic were dark and quite moody, reflecting how I felt during that time. Others were a bit more fashion driven, capturing back-stage images of our fashion shows. There were crazy moments that I would just remember and paint them. You can tell if I was in a chaotic mood or a really calm mood or if I was thinking about a place I wanted to be in many of my pieces. I did a few pieces based on my memories of the Amalfi Coast because I was working on my collection at the same time. So my work really all comes together in a way.”
His life under the spotlight affords him little time for himself. Is painting a relaxing outlet from his busy schedule?
“Yes, it’s the best. For one, living outside of the city is already helpful and relaxing, but painting takes it up a notch. I think if you’re an artist and you’re able to paint what you want, it enables you to get everything out. It’s better than a therapist because you’re really putting it all out there in front of your face, which is by itself pretty great.”
“Fashion is so much about commerce which can be frustrating at times because you know you want to create something original but it has to still be wearable and sellable. I find that art is a nice change of pace because it literally can just hang on a wall, and not have to do the same thing clothes have to do.”
It may not do all the same things that his fashions do, but his art does make an impactful statement wherever it is placed. Venü is especially excited to debut one of Christian’s original paintings on our cover, allowing it to showcase his multi-dimensional talent, vision and dreams just the way he intends it.
We think our cover is pretty spectacular but we had to ask if he would do something different on this cover because, after all, it is dedicated to his world. Again, we were won over by his endearing enthusiasm and humble modesty.
“Oh my god, it looks amazing. When I see a painting of mine hanging on someone’s wall or when someone tells me they like what I did, it always feels amazing. You know, I don’t paint all the time, so it is really great to see it.”
We think it’s pretty great to see it too. Thank you Christian!
About Christian Siriano
A celebrated American fashion designer and a Time100 honoree, Christian Siriano was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine for being a dedicated champion to body positivity in fashion both on the runway and red carpet. His commitment to inclusivity has revolutionized an industry that is often hesitant to change and thus has helped transform the landscape of American fashion. Christian has added interior designer to his impressive list of credits with the debut of his newest venture, Siriano Interiors. With over a decade of fashion experience, the Siriano design studio will create uniquely bold spaces that are modern, playful, warm and luxurious. Due to high demand, Christian will re-release his popular 2017 coffee table book of images called DRESSES TO DREAM ABOUT released by Rizzoli this Fall, it will feature brand new images from his growing, impressive body of work.