"Remember that one time I sang for the president?” asks Sia, the global pop superstar, singer, and songwriter who has famously hidden most of her face under a wig whenever she has appeared in public over the past four years. Early on a Monday morning in Los Angeles, she takes a seat in a director’s chair. Unmasked and natural, she’s relaxed and looking radiantly moisturized, recognizable only by her bold red lips, which are at this moment speaking to the designer Christian Siriano.
“That was my fiercest moment,” she says. “I’ve never looked hotter.” “Never! Never!” Siriano shouts. “You laid it down! It was so amazing!”
“It was a black fishtail...” Sia remembers, describing the dress she wore while performing at the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Gala in New York on June 17, 2014, which was attended by President Obama.
“... bustier, like sexy, tight,” adds Siriano. “I felt more beautiful singing for the president than I did on my wedding day,” Sia says. That day happened two months later, when, she says in a quick aside, “I married someone I didn’t know,” referring to flimmaker Erik Anders Lang. The bride wore Siriano on that occasion too.
“That was a fun phone call,” Siriano deadpans.
“You’ve got two days to make me a wedding dress!” Sia says, retelling the story. “We’re getting married, like, tomorrow! So he whipped me up two, which I wore. It was a great wedding. I felt amazing. I felt really gorgeous. It was such a whirlwind!”
Sia and Lang divorced two years later.
“Whoops!” she screams, and Sia and Siriano break out laughing.
The most important thing to know about Siriano, who has styled himself as the designer for every woman since the day he started his company, is that for better or worse, he will be there. For richer, for poorer, for thinner, for fatter, for older, for younger, for cisgender, for transgender, for famous, for not so famous, for just might be famous someday, he will be there. For 10 years he has been there, designing gowns that make women feel beautiful, or better about themselves, or at least not completely overlooked, insulted, or otherwise ignored by the fashion industry. When Leslie Jones called out designers for re- fusing to dress her for the premiere of Ghostbusters in 2016, Siriano was the first to raise his hand — literally, in emoji format on Twitter. He has done this for hundreds of celebrities who have come to rely on him to deliver a bit of glamorous armor that will help steel them against the hypercritical, image-obsessed environment of today’s what-are-you-wearing world.
“Christian has dressed me in every permutation my body has ever gone through,” Sia says. “Even when I wasn’t very successful or overweight and nobody else would dress me, he has always been there saying, ‘I’ve got something for you.’”
During the past few years, there has been a remarkable, if painfully slow, awakening among designers to the importance of promoting more diverse representations of beauty. This has been especially noticeable on the red carpet since the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements inspired a backlash against the same old bitchy discourse of best-dressed lists of yore. But Siriano made inclusiveness the cornerstone of his company long before it was considered fashionable or cool, and while it is tempting to describe him as prescient, well, the fact is that it never would have occurred to him to turn a customer away.
“I just started doing what I thought was right,” he says. “I can’t imagine saying no.”
All young designers face challenges in this business, which often rewards hype over talent, but Siriano, who began his label in 2008 after a star-making turn on the fourth season of Project Runway, has had to work much harder than most to be taken seriously. Never mind that he had studied design at the American InterContinental University in London, where he interned for Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, and could sketch and sew a dress with great agility. The fashion elites, at least at the beginning, snubbed him as a byproduct of reality television. Critics saw only a caricature and questioned why Siriano concocted so much frothy, fantasy eveningwear rather than aspiring to create something either more practical or edgy — or ... directional. This always struck the designer as funny since his clothes were selling so well.
Now 32, Siriano wears tight jeans, a black blazer, and a black T-shirt that says “Legalize Dreams,” a not-so-subtle rejoinder to anyone who has ever doubted him. Indeed, it could be his motto. His second book, published last year by Rizzoli, is called Dresses to Dream About ($28; amazon.com) and features page after page of pastel ombré tulle ball skirts and sparkling crystal-embroidered gowns that are inspired by wedding bouquets, sunsets, exotic orchids, pearls, and citrus — the ethereal visions of a designer with his head in the clouds.
“I love this T-shirt,” he says. “It’s from Forever 21. It’s the most hilarious, stupid phrase. As a little kid, I wanted to dress all the Disney princesses. That was my dream. And now I feel like I do get to do that. So.”
It is fair to say that Siriano is having the last laugh.
“We dressed 17 women at the Oscars,” he says. “Dior didn’t do that.”
Besides his countless dressing coups (Jones at the Emmys, Cardi B for her pregnancy reveal on SNL, Michelle Obama for her 2016 DNC speech), he has disproved the old rules of fashion time and again. He took a big risk by selling fancy dresses at Neiman Marcus and making inexpensive shoes for Payless at the same time, “and I’m so glad I did,” he says. “Ten years later I would definitely be bankrupt without Payless.” This year he has designed another collection of clothes and home goods for the discount store TJ Maxx and opened The Curated NYC, his own multibrand luxury store in a posh brownstone across the street from the Museum of Modern Art (his friend Alicia Silverstone wants to open a vegan bakery on the roof). Although he has always offered a large range of sizes, he now designs dresses up to a 28. And he is finally being recognized for his efforts, having been included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people for 2018, a rare distinction for any designer.
“Nobody will ever be able to take that away from me,” he says. “Every artist feels at some point that their work isn’t good enough, so to get something like that makes me realize that somebody out there sees what I’m doing and thinks it’s good. So at least there’s that person.”
Obviously, there are others. Many, many others.
Christina Hendricks was one of his first major champions and has spoken out against anyone who dared dismiss him. When her 2010 Golden Globes dress, a peach strapless gown with a cascade of ruffles slashed across the front, drew the ire of the fashion police, she responded that she felt like a goddess.
“When I wear his dresses, I don’t feel like I’m being manipulated or made to fit into someone else’s idea of what is beautiful,” she says. “I don’t want to be critiqued or ridiculed. I don’t want to have to think about the dress but the occasion and go to the party and have people talk about the work I did this year.”
She remembers distinctly what Siriano told her the first time she visited his studio: Let’s play. “There’s just no ego,” she says. “It’s really not about him. It’s about the dress and the woman.
“We’re Christian’s girls,” she says. “We find each other on the red carpet and say, ‘Oh my god, are you wearing Christian? It looks amazing.’ We feel like we’re a part of something, and we all support each other.”
Another regular is Whoopi Goldberg, whose adventurous fashion spirit is a perfect match for some of Siriano’s zanier creations, like a fuchsia pantsuit she wore to the CFDA Fashion Awards in June with a matching wide-brimmed hat. Describing his 10th-anniversary runway show in a review for Interview, she wrote that there was something there for every woman in the room, including “the girl with the butt and the breasts.”
“This is what fashion should be,” she wrote. “It should be inclusive and make everybody feel like they could look like a million bucks.”
Once Jones connected with Siriano on Twitter, she says she imagined that in person he would be a diva from the Zoolander school of outlandish behavior. “I thought I was going to come in and assistants were going to be flying around like birds, but he was just normal,” she says. “He actually gets it. That’s what I call a real designer, someone who designs for everyone, you know, skinny, fat, tall, short, which I would think all designers would do anyway. Don’t you want to make a lot of money? That’s why I like him, because he’s smart.”
“He can do anything for anyone,” says Kate Mara, “and make anyone feel beautiful.”
“Christian has more design ideas than he has paper in his house to fill,” says Debra Messing. “I know that anything I wear of his will fit perfectly, and that goes a long way to making women feel beautiful.”
“He’s presented as the friendly, funny, adorable guy people remember from TV,” says Selma Blair, who became close with the designer after exchanging pleasantries on social media. “But, no — he’s a powerhouse. When he is putting on a show or even taking an Instagram photo, he is so aware of his surroundings that nothing that is happening is by happenstance. He’s in charge.”
VIDEO: Christian Siriano Draws Celebs' Dream Dresses
Growing up — Siriano was born in Annapolis, Md., and went to high school in Baltimore — he was surrounded by women. He often notes how his mother, a reading teacher who is curvy and has a taste for bright clothes and bold red and pink décor, and his sister, who danced ballet and was always focused on her body, shaped his vision. He thinks of them when he designs, which is pretty much all the time. He sketches hundreds of dresses every couple of days and still does everything the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper, pinning fabrics on a dress form. He thinks of his role as that of a “transformer,” asking himself, “If she puts this on, what is she going to feel in this shape?”
Part of what makes Siriano so special is his natural empathy, which he attributes to his own experiences of facing rejection. Much like stepping out onto a red carpet, showing clothes on a runway is an open invitation for judgment.
“I try to keep my original love of an ethereal, magic, sugarplum-fairy dream world, because that’s what I remember as a kid,” he says. “I want to play make-believe, but there is always the balance of ‘How do I make fantasy clothes that work in real life?’ I think it turns out to be a good thing, making sure that people feel good about what they’re wearing, so even if other people aren’t into it, I know that the person wearing the dress is.”
In real life dreams don’t always come true. Relationships don’t always last. (This summer, Siriano and his husband, artist and musician Brad Walsh, split after two years of marriage.) Dresses don’t always fit. Critics don’t always love them.
But sometimes they do.
People like Siriano should keep on dreaming, shouldn’t they?
“Right now I’m going to dream about hanging on,” he says. “We’re competing with massive companies, and it’s not just hard; it’s almost impossible. But I feel a little more accomplished today, and I can say, if it all ended tomorrow, I would still be proud.”
Photographer: Alexander Neumann/Shotview. Styling: Andreas Kokkino/The Wall Group. Sia: Hair and makeup: Tonya Brewer/Dew Beauty Agency. Leslie Jones: Hair: Dennis Bailey. Makeup: Lola Okalawon. Selma Blair: Hair: Marcus Francis/Starworks Artists. Makeup: Fiona Stiles/Starworks Artists. Laverne Cox: Hair: César Deleön Ramirêz/Crowd Management. Makeup: Deja Smith/Criterion Group. Christina Hendricks: Hair: Enzo Angileri/Cloutier Remix. Makeup: Rachel Goodwin/Streeters. Alicia Silverstone: Hair: John D/Forward Artists. Makeup: Rachel Goodwin/Streeters. Kate Mara: Hair: Mara Roszak/Starworks artists. Makeup: Coleen Campbell-Olwell/Exclusive Artists Management. Debra Messing: Hair: Marcus Francis/Starworks Artists. Makeup: Elaine Offers/Exclusive Artists Management. Manicure: Mazz Hanna and Hang Nguyen/Nailing Hollywood. Set design: Gille Mills/The Magnet Agency. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 14.