It was late 2007 when I first started watching Project Runway. The reality show, which follows fashion designers in weekly elimination challenges, was intriguing, but it was contestant Christian Siriano that kept me watching.
Just 21 years old at the time, Siriano was a firecracker, always telling jokes, donning spiky black hairstyles and ending nearly ever sentence with the words "fierce" and "hot mess." His hilarious commentary was backed up with genius-level design and he won the competition in early 2008.
By the show’s end, Siriano was already a superstar. Victoria Beckham and Heidi Klum were seen wearing his designs within weeks. Amy Poehler satirized him on Saturday Night Live. Before long he was showing at New York Fashion Week and starting his own brand. In 2009, he released his first book Fierce Style: How to Be Your Most Fabulous Self.
Things have only gotten better for Siriano. Today, his designs are favorites of the stars and hang in high-end clothing stores all over the world. He also has a shoe design partnership with Payless ShoeSource.
How did he build such a successful business? I called him up to find out.
OpenForum: When did you realize that you wanted to be a fashion designer?
Siriano: It started when I was really young, watching my sister as a ballet dancer. My mom was always making costumes, so I was really thrown into that world. I started making small things and playing with fabrics and when high school came, I wanted to do something creative, so I attended the Baltimore School for the Arts and focused on fashion design.
From there, I went to the American InterContinental University in London. My teachers had great industry experience, which was key. One of them was head of production for Vivienne Westwood. She recommended that I work for Vivienne, and I ended up interning for her and Alexander McQueen.
OF: How did you pursue your passion after college?
CS: I moved to New York. I had no money and worked as a freelance makeup artist. I also did custom bridal for a few friends. Then I took a paid internship with Marc Jacobs and auditioned for Project Runway. I found out that I’d made it on the show the night before taping started.
OF: Did your career take off immediately after winning Project Runway?
CS: By the end of the show, a lot of people knew who I was, but there was still a problem: They didn’t have product to buy. So I worked really hard and launched my collection six months later. It was a quick rush jolt into the limelight with celebrities wanting my designs and so much publicity because of the show.
OF: What business challenges did you face early on?
CS: Oh, everything. My first day of market appointments was the day Lehman Brothers collapsed. I had a rough first season, which was eye opening. I am surprised that I picked up any clients, but I did get into Intermix, a large retailer that was brand building just like me.
Other challenges were simply putting on a fashion show, getting buyers, getting press. I pretended I knew what I was doing; I was the best BS-er in the business.
OF: What have been some of your biggest business mistakes?
CS: I’ve said no to collaborations that could have been beneficial business-wise. But I try not to look back. I still make mistakes every day; I probably made one five minutes ago (laughs).
OF: How did you get hooked up with Payless?
CS: My first partnership was with LG to make accessories to go with a phone. I loved the idea of offering something accessible to my fans right after the show. When Payless approached me, I’d never designed a bag or shoe in my life, but I thought it would be fun to try. Like the LG products I designed, the Payless products would also be affordable to my family and friends.
It was a very risky jump and I never thought it would be as successful as it is today. To make [highly designed] shoes accessible to every woman is amazing.
OF: How do you stay motivated and focused?
CS: When you are hanging next to Monique [Lhuillier] and Oscar [de la Renta], that is motivation right there. I want to be competitive and as good as they are in 20 years.
OF: How much do you sleep?
CS: I like to work really, really hard and keep normal day hours, leaving the office by 8 p.m. I have a lot of energy at work and then get home and crash. I’m young; I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
OF: What advice can you give to budding fashion designers?
CS: Find one great thing that you do amazingly, be it evening wear, jackets, and then do it to perfection. When you are going into the business, it is all about cold calling, e-mailing and sending special product catalogues to buyers.
When I started, we were calling and e-mailing everyone we could. We would do consignment orders, trunk shows. Do the work for the buyers; it will help get you in the door.
Photo credit: Brad Walsh