Christian Siriano on Remaking Fashion for Our New Normal

From championing diversity to producing masks, stepping up is nothing new for this designer.

Christian Siriano
Photo: Courtesy Christian Siriano

If you had told Christian Siriano that he’d still be manufacturing face masks months into the coronavirus pandemic, he wouldn’t have believed you. In mid-March, when the country faced dire shortages of vital medical equipment for frontline healthcare workers, the idea that we’d still be attempting to curb the spread of COVID-19 would have seemed unimaginable to most — with the possible exception of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who pleaded for protective gear during his daily press briefings. “I never ever thought that I’d be doing this for very long,” Siriano says. “But we still get requests every day from the public, doctors, and hospitals asking for masks.”

The mask-making origin story has been well documented: After Siriano tweeted at the governor that he had a full sewing team working from home and free to help, a representative from Cuomo’s office responded within an hour and a partnership was born. As of press time, Siriano and his staff have sewn more than 30,000 masks, sometimes producing as many as 2,000 per day. “It’s turned into a business,” he says. Indeed, by transforming his atelier into a makeshift mask factory, Siriano serendipitously helped his company, which has been recognized as an essential workplace when many of his competitors were forced to close their businesses. “Fashion is in a really dark place. No one’s buying clothes, because they have nowhere to wear them.”

Christian Siriano
A sketch of model Coco Rocha in a look from his fall show, plus a mask. "This will be the future," he said. Courtesy Christian Siriano.

Siriano has made a career of outfitting women of all ages, races, and body types, discrimination be damned. Since being thrust into the public consciousness on Project Runway, the 34-year-old designer has been a champion of the odd person out, in part because he’s always felt like one himself. Raised in Annapolis, Md., Siriano harbored big creative dreams but opted for a nontraditional route: Forgoing fashion school, he assembled diverse runway shows and created affordable lines for Payless.

His positive attitude and unrivaled empathy have earned Siriano a devoted legion of celebrity supporters, including Billy Eichner, Heidi Klum, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julianne Moore, Amy Poehler, and Sia, all of whom gave generous donations to fund this endeavor after Siriano personally reached out to them. “People wrote back in minutes,” he says. “Sia transferred money the next day.”

Siriano’s friends show up for him because he shows up for them. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, actress Selma Blair requested he dress her for last year’s Race to Erase MS gala in L.A. The resulting look, a tailored, satin-detailed tuxedo pantsuit paired with a cane, channeled the night’s themes of strength and perseverance. The two even hatched a plan to design an entire line of adaptive clothing for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Siriano has reimagined his approach to fashion after living through the pandemic and watching people he cares about fall ill. “I don’t think I’ll need or want the same recognition in the future because, as we’ve all seen, it can go away in a second,” he says. “It won’t mean as much to dress someone when others are sick and dying.”

One day we’ll get back to regularly scheduled programming, but what will our new normal feel like? “I think our whole world is going to change,” Siriano says. “I’m not opposed to [making PPE] for a longer time. Even if it’s not super profitable, it feels really good to come to work every day.”

For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 12.

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