Last week, an exhibition of nearly 70 stunning looks by fashion designer Christian Siriano opened to much fanfare at SCAD’s Midtown Museum, SCADFASHfeaturing a rainbow of color-coded dresses, gender-bender costumes and cascades of tulle and billowing velvet.
Siriano, 36, may look a little fresh for a career retrospective (no, he’s not retiring, joked model Coco Rocha, who was in attendance wearing a statuesque column dress resembling a raven), but it’s the diversity of her work that makes her clothes very relevant and important right now. Siriano, a rare success story from Bravo reality TV Project track (he now serves as a mentor on the show), has become the go-to designer label for dressing people (especially famous ones) who either don’t fit the runway sample size or have been overlooked in the heavy world of haute couture. – people of all ages, genders, colors, shapes and sizes.
The exhibition, people are people, reads like a modern history of pop culture moments. There’s Michelle Obama’s cobalt blue cap sleeve dress for the 2016 Democratic National Convention (Jill Biden wore Siriano to the 2020 DNC). The shimmering centerpiece rapper Lizzo wore to accept a 2020 Grammy. Jane Fonda’s mint tuxedo dress in the April 2022 issue of She. Rainbow tulle dress actor and LGBTQ+ activist Billy Porter wore to the 2019 WorldPride celebration. Curator Rafael Gomes scoured the world for models of all sizes to reflect the real bodies he clothes adorned; the alabaster faces were covered with matching tulle.
Porter, who arrived at the opening in a black and gold striped suit with a plunging neckline, told a story over a toast about his difficulty finding a look for the 2019 Oscars. Then, while he was sitting at a Christian Siriano show, he had a vision of the look he wanted: a velvet tuxedo on top and a circled bubble skirt on the bottom. “I sit fashion week at the Christian Siriano show, and all types, all shapes, all sizes, all beliefs descend on the runway,” Porter says. “He always did that; it’s in his DNA. I had already started trying to play with the binary and my figure. I received a lot of reluctance from big fashion houses telling me what to do. [I was thinking] I need something for the Oscars, I need something high end, I need a nameAnd here I am sitting at the fashion show and I’m like, Oh my God. If the plan is close, and it looks like a tuxedo and when it pulls back, it’s a pre-war dress, everyone will gag. The whole world will gag. And I’m sitting at this fashion show and I realize that he’s the only person who will. He’s the only person who will say yes to me.
Porter’s story isn’t unique, and Siriano stepped in to dress people — pregnant, plus size, non-binary and more — for major events when other labels wouldn’t. “I think that’s so silly,” he said. “No one should have trouble finding a dress.” We sat down with Siriano to learn more about her groundbreaking fashion.
If there was one look you wouldn’t want to miss because you think it’s crucial to the story of this exhibit, what would it be?
It’s hard. I guess I would say the pieces a bit asexual, like the things worn by Billy Porter or this Michael Urie look [a half dress, half suit for the 2019 Met Gala], and to make sure they notice the size of the bodies in the room. We have size 0-26 in this piece which is pretty cool.
Did you participate in the models and their style?
For sure. Everything in this piece was worn by someone, probably someone people know and recognize. So we wanted to make sure it was their body as best we could. We had to make sure that [plus-size supermodel] Ashley Graham in her runway look was different from Ashley Graham in her look when she was pregnant. Oprah is Oprah in Oprah’s body. I think it’s very important to see, especially the younger generation, I think it will inspire them.
You have been called the designer for people that other designers have rejected. Do you have specific stories about this?
that’s why [actor and comedian] Leslie Jones’ dress is right in front! I think Leslie is probably the best example of that. Leslie struggled to find a dress for her big girl ghost hunters first moment, it was his first major film. We kind of stepped in to dress it up. I think it’s so silly – no one should have trouble finding a dress – it’s the dumbest thing. Clothes should be fun – we don’t cure cancer here, we dress bodies. It should be very easy and accessible, and I’ve always felt that way, and I hope it becomes more of a thing.
On that note, clothes are fun – you don’t cure cancer –
My worst quote ever. But I hate that sometimes people take it so seriously, and in the end it’s just another form of art – it’s like hanging a picture on a wall, it’s hanging a beautiful piece in your closet – there are no rules.
But fashion can also be an agent of change. Is it something you are consciously working towards?
I think so now. I want to make sure that we create non-binary pieces, that we show that you can be in a fabulous work of art of any size, any age, any gender.
Does the message of inclusiveness resonate with you personally?
I mean, not necessarily. Obviously, being a young gay boy growing up hasn’t always been the easiest. So that’s for sure.
I just wonder how you came to be “the guy” for all the different body types.
I think I just started doing it. I do, and I don’t care. I’m not necessarily looking for it. We just do. If I’m a fan of you and I love you, like Leslie Jones – I was a big fan of Leslie Jones – why would I say no to dressing him?
Is there someone you didn’t design for that you would love?
You know what’s so funny, I actually started working with almost everyone that was on my to-do list, but there are always new people. There is always a new actress, a new musician who arrives. Nobody even knew who Lizzo was a few years ago. I love her and have worked with her for years. Gaga was the same. I was one of the first people to dress Gaga on television. No one even knew who she was. And I love that.
So do you have your finger on the pulse of who this next person is?
Occasionally. Every once in a while I feel like I catch a person very early in their career. Billy Porter was a prime example. When I started dressing Billy, especially around the time of the Oscars, I think that was a game changer. I have to dress Regina King, it was her first Oscar, isn’t it crazy? Hannah Wattingham from Ted Lasso, his very first Emmy. And she won in this dress, so cool. These are my favorite moments – I’m part of their story too.
Is there anything about this exhibit that is not in the museum literature that you would like to tell people about?
I think what’s cool is that every piece, except two, is the actual piece that was worn by each person. It’s very rare that you get every piece back. It was hard. Gaga keeps her own archives, a lot of people do. Oprah keeps her own stuff. The First Ladies are the only two who are not original pieces because they buy their clothes, they are theirs. And they’re all still fairly intact. These clothes were worn all night, on stage, I don’t know how alive they are. Lizzo starred in it, Gaga starred in it, it’s crazy to think.
On view until October 9 scadfash.org.