“I just did it out of the blue,” Siriano says. “Maybe it was naive.”
Thirty-nine minutes later, the governor’s office tweeted back, taking him up on his offer.
What began as an impulsive can-do gesture helped set off a chain reaction of good Samaritans, transformed Siriano’s fashion atelier from a nonessential business into an essential one and put his small staff of sewers back to work.
“That day, all [Cuomo] kept saying was, ‘We’re really low on supplies,’ ” Siriano recalls. “And I thought, well, we can make things.”
Siriano is a fashion designer like no other, which makes him especially suited to lead during this moment of crisis. His skill is more a matter of temperament than anything else. He has happily embraced a form of mass-market fame that gives so many in the fashion industry the willies. He is comfortable being a celebrity in the eyes of regular folks rather than the insiders, the cool kids and the hipsters. There are other designers of his generation who are deemed more influential within the industry. Most of them are unknown beyond the earshot of the one percent. Siriano is part of popular culture and that’s far more powerful than fashion alone.
Siriano is one of us. He’s collaborated with Payless and Lane Bryant. He regularly casts plus-size women in his runway shows and dresses actors who can’t squeeze into the tiny runway “sample” sizes for the red carpet. He’s a champion of the vast middle. Siriano stars as a mentor in the recast edition of “Project Runway,” the design competition reality show that he won more than a decade ago and that launched him into a fashion industry that didn’t quite know what to make of him.
“I remember sitting down with him. He was a TV star; he was better known as a TV star than a designer,” says Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “I asked him, ‘What do you want to be?’ ”
Despite making a guest appearance on “Ugly Betty,” being parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and minting a go-to descriptor, “fierce,” Siriano wanted to be a serious fashion designer — with all of the unglamorous, grunt work that involved. But he has evolved into much more.
His broad appeal has made him the public face of an industry that he represents in his relatable, unpretentious and jovial way. Siriano isn’t the only designer who can be down-to-earth. The dominant backstory of folks in the fashion industry is that of a middle-class kid from the hinterlands who dreamed of glamour and the big city. But Siriano is particularly skilled at communicating through the people’s media — Twitter and Instagram.
His official Instagram account, which has 1.5 million followers, is filled with images of his ballgowns and pretty dresses and of the designer at work. But it’s not a photo log of a perfectly curated life. He has used Twitter to extend a hand across the void, not just humblebrag about himself. And in return, the trolls have mostly held their tongue in the face of his authenticity.
“Honestly, I feel like my followers are pretty positive people,” he says.
Because he has never felt like he was part of the fashion system, Siriano says, he doesn’t worry about breaking its rules about image-making, its yearning for exclusivity or its suffocating cautiousness. He simply acts. At a time when inaction is the enemy.
Siriano employs about 10 seamstresses at his studio on West 54th Street a few blocks south of Trump Tower. All of them, he says, are older women — or at least older compared to Siriano, who is 34. Being able to produce face masks is a feat of tenacity and bravery — one accomplished in large part thanks to his blissful ignorance of the legal and logistical tangle he was stepping into.
Initially, Siriano thought everyone could work from home. He thought they’d make their own pattern. He thought it would be easy. But the state wanted the standard hospital mask, so officials supplied a pattern.
“My legal team was on the phone with the governor’s legal team. We had to get a special label made that says it’s not a medical grade mask. It’s a precaution,” he says. Apparently, even in a pandemic, people can get litigious with do-gooders.
Working from home was inefficient, so the state designated the studio an essential workspace. Employees who feel comfortable coming in to sew have their temperature checked twice during the workday.
“We had this amazing fabric that’s a poly-blend with a cotton base. We had a few thousand yards,” Siriano says. “At first we used all white and gray. Now we’ve gotten to the pink and yellow. In my studio, everything was so white and sterile. Now that we’re working in color, everyone’s mood changed a little bit.”
They complete 500 to 600 masks a day. They’ve produced upward of 7,000 of them by working four days a week. “We’re open to whatever they need now: hospital gowns, another kind of mask with a filter in it.”
The cost of making the face coverings, which includes materials as well as the seamstress’ labor, has come from personal donations. “Luckily, I have a lot of famous friends,” Siriano says.
Other designers are now making masks. Larger companies, too. But Siriano was out front: one man, sitting at home with a Twitter account.
“My experience with other designers who wanted to do masks, they had trouble getting connected to the right people, getting organized. He tweeted the governor of New York and boom,” Kolb says. “Nobody has used that platform like he has.”
As a designer from an unconventional background, Siriano really didn’t have any other choice. When he launched his business 13 years ago, he had the advantage of a high profile, but his fame was suspect. He’d interned at various design houses but he hadn’t graduated from a prestigious fashion school.
“He really had to fight for his place at the table,” his friend, model and entrepreneur Coco Rocha, says in an email. “For a long time it felt like the ‘insiders’ looked down on his pop culture launch and did not embrace him as early as they could have.”
“I think because [he] doesn’t owe his fame or his success to the ambiguous ‘powers that be’ he forges his own path,” Rocha says. “That to me, makes him a real leader.”
Siriano refuses to treat his designs like precious hothouse flowers. When he shows his collection to store buyers, he absorbs their feedback and, unlike some of his colleagues, makes changes without complaint — whether it’s to stitch up a high slit, raise a plunging neckline or add a longer sleeve, says Andrea Riggins, former general manager of Rizik’s in Washington.
“Whenever he would come to the store, after the event, he was down on his knees pinning dresses, which is very rare for a designer,” says Riggins, now a fashion and retail consultant. “People will always remember that. Anyone who was in the store will remember that.”
Siriano has always worked in service to the customer rather than the critics, the influencers or fashion editors. “If I have the customer on my side, nothing else matters,” he says. “Now it’s the same way — but just a little different.”
He was on the side of plus-size women — and non-sample-size actors — before inclusivity became a fashion buzzword.
“He saw a real lack of representation on the runway for women of different body types and he didn’t wait for a mandate to come down from on high,” Rocha says. “He just did what was necessary to make his runways diverse and respectful to beauty in all its forms.”
In 2016, when comedian Leslie Jones complained on Twitter that no designer would collaborate with her on a dress for the premiere of the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters,” Siriano tweeted back.
Jones has said that at the time she didn’t realize the industry hesitation was because of her size; she thought it was because she wasn’t an A-list celebrity. Siriano customized a red, body-hugging gown for her and received an avalanche of public praise for his inclusive form of glamour. He has become a go-to designer for the red carpet, with his zenith surely the tuxedo ballgown he created for actor Billy Porter for the 2019 Oscars.
“I feel like at this point in my life and career, I have no fear anymore,” he says. “Just being judged for so long, I just do my own thing.”
As the whole of the fashion industry struggles to stay afloat, the outlook is especially grim for medium-size labels feeling the effects of imploding department stores, unpaid invoices and stacks of bills. But Siriano, the outsider, the atypical designer, has an edge.
“I’m my own boss. I pay the bills. I still control my business. That can be a scary thing,” he says. “But when I see what’s happening with department stores, I’m so glad I make money in other ways.”
The nimble outsider is not only well-positioned to lead, but also to survive.
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