You Cannot Be… Siriano!

dsc 0088 You Cannot Be... Siriano!“I don’t mind doing two girls at a time,” said Christian Siriano, dripping with irony as he gave the once-over to a group of comely models amid racks of clothes in his midtown showroom on a recent morning.

Mr. Siriano, 24, is the openly gay winner of Lifetime’s Project Runway, season four: famous for wearing his hair in a flat-ironed, bi-level “fashion hawk” and for popularizing the phrase “hot tranny mess.” He was discussing fittings for his Fashion Week runway show, which takes place Thursday, Sept. 9, on the stage at Lincoln Center. And although it was days away and he still hadn’t toured the space, Mr. Siriano appeared totally calm. “I’m very organized,” he explained. “And this season, because it’s spring, feels more lighthearted–you don’t have to take it so seriously.”

‘Ugh, they’re all so fucking pretty,’ he groaned during a lull in casting models. ‘How do people deal? I get catcalls on Eighth Avenue. Guys think I’m an Asian lesbian. How do these girls even walk around?’

Being taken seriously, though, is the biggest obstacle facing Mr. Siriano these days. Yes, hordes of fans clamor to score invites to his shows, and celebs like Rihanna and Lady Gaga get photographed in his dresses. But while he interned for Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood and won raves for his first collection from the famously unforgiving Women’s Wear Daily–possibly the first time the trade bible has used the word “fierce”–he is recognized most for his telegenic turn on Runway and, four seasons later, remains the franchise’s biggest breakout star (in the past year alone, he’s written a book on style and starred in an hour-long Bravo special, Christian Siriano: Having a Moment.)

Apart from show judges Michael Kors and Tim Gunn (who has called Mr. Siriano “this generation’s Marc Jacobs”), few industry insiders have gone on record in support of the diminutive designer, so it’s hard to tell if Mr. Siriano has been truly embraced by the fashion elite. (When Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks, one of the hottest stars of the moment, wore a strapless peach frock to the 2010 Golden Globes, it provoked eye rolls rather than huzzahs. “Not pretty,” wrote The Times‘ Cathy Horyn, suggesting that the over-the-top ruffles, er, expanded Ms. Hendricks’ already buxom figure. Ms. Hendricks recently wore another of Mr. Siriano’s gowns to the Creative Arts Emmys, which can be seen as either a vote of confidence or a repeat offense.)

Then again, we now live in an age in which Anna Wintour allowed a documentary film crew into the hallowed halls of Vogue; Elle has gone slumming on the CW with 2008’s cringe-worthy Stylista; and Kim Kardashian–whose design experience seems limited to finding pants with atypical waist-to-hip ratios–has presented a collection at Fashion Week.

“I absolutely think people take him seriously,” stylist Phillip Bloch wrote in an email. “We all know that in this pop media frenzy we live in, it’s all about the hype, and Christian has had more than his share of that. He’s definitely taking all the right steps to brand himself, and half the battle in retail is creating a consumer awareness. With his high-profile premiere on Project Runway, he’s been a reality tv darling, so half the world already knows who he is… and he’s quite a quirky and adorable character, which is always appealing.”

Indeed, watching Mr. Siriano cast models, it was hard not to root for him: Full of camera-ready bon mots, he’s a one-man stitch ‘n’ bitch.

“Now, she is fabulous,” he drawled as his design partner and childhood friend, Sam Bennett, arrived bearing a huge bundle of curly beige crinoline resembling the scalp of Phil Spector.

“It’s like you had a wind machine!” he said excitedly to a particularly bouncy-hipped Japanese model. “To make your hair move like that is a talent.”

To a full-lipped, androgynous model named Snow, he sighed, “I wish that were my name.”

“Ugh, they’re all so fucking pretty,” he groaned during a lull. “How do people deal? I get catcalls on Eighth Avenue. Guys think I’m an Asian lesbian. How do these girls even walk around?”

Mr. Siriano’s spring 2011 collection–his fifth since winning Runway–is somewhat of a departure from the heavy-handed glamour that marked his earlier work. “My first season, I was doing more show pieces,” he said (an understatement–the voluminous ruffled and feathered gowns he has sent down runways past make most black-tie fare look like bib overalls). And sure enough, this season’s offerings are softer–heavy satins with gravity-defying flourishes have been traded in for flowing chiffon columns, while shiny silk blazers have given way to tailored trench coats. His textiles show more  maturity as well–Mr. Siriano fell in love with a book on China and its Buddhist temples, but, not wanting to appear overly religious, he manipulated a photograph of temple artwork into an abstract print, which pops up in pieces throughout the collection. “I love it,” he said, fingering a bright teal jersey dress. “Then again, they may tar and feather me. We’ll have to see.”

Asked if the Runway crown has been a hindrance, Mr. Siriano diplomatically replied: “The show is great and totally helped me.” He cited partnerships with Payless and Victoria’s Secret, and pointed out that his fall 2010 collection got play on Style.com, which is more or less an extension of Vogue. Then again, he said, after the show ends, “you find that not everybody supports it. And it’s the fashion industry, you know? I have no idea what they really think.”

He primped in a full-length mirror and plucked a Flip video camera from his bag. “I’m supposed to be filming myself for New York magazine, but I don’t really feel like it,” he said. Nevertheless, he turned the camera on himself and put on a grin. “Hi, New York mag! We’re at my studio and we’re gonna do a little casting.” Mr. Siriano then filmed his staff in the office before returning to the casting room, where a blond model from Serbia waited, wearing a wife beater and oversize black-framed glasses. “Ooh, I love them,” he cooed. “Are they prescription?”

“No, I just want to look smart,” she giggled. As she left, Mr. Siriano made a brief but decisive cutting motion across his throat.

An assistant, the very fashionably-named Micole, rushed in–a front-row attendee on the list for the show had just called asking to bring a guest. “Is she a famous guest or a regular guest?” Mr. Siriano wanted to know.

“It’s between Brooke Shields and Hailey Duff,” Micole said. Mr. Siriano was disappointed. “Brooke Shields is old,” he said. “Hailey Duff is trashy.”

“You have a lot of younger fans, and they all look up to the Duffs,” Micole offered brightly.

“They do not look up to the Duffs,” Mr. Siriano said, laughing.

It may sound cruel, but for Mr. Siriano, insults often double as terms of endearment. “Listen, I love everyone,” he said. “I’m a huge fan of the worst, trashiest people. But frankly, I’d rather have buyers from Bergdorf come to my show.” He turned to Micole. “Tell him, ‘Christian’s not sure if the show’s right for Hailey.'”

Mr. Siriano does a lot of business with private clients–particularly brides–but as of right now his eponymous label is sold in New York exclusively at Saks Fifth Avenue (after his debut collection in 2008, Bloomingdale’s reportedly placed an order that later fell through). “At my very first show, I had everyone,” he said. “I had amazing editors, I had Nina Garcia’s entire staff at Elle, I had Saks, Neimans, Bergdorf.” By comparison, Mr. Siriano’s fall 2010 front row included America’s Next Top Model winner CariDee English, Mena Suvari and Leigh Lezark.

“Listen, actresses get paid if they’re big,” he said. “And I am not paying $30K for you to sit for 10 minutes.” He paused, reconsidering. “Maybe if Rihanna called me,” he said.

His phone vibrated. “No, he is not,” he exclaimed before announcing to the room that Kanye West was dating the model Selita Ebanks. Mr. Siriano said he had spent time with Mr. West’s former girlfriend, Amber Rose (also a model), who he deemed “ghetto, but the sweetest person.”

When the casting call ended and the models had trotted back to Eighth Avenue in their 6-inch heels, Mr. Siriano pinned head shots of his favorites to a wall and stepped back. Remembering his New York assignment, he grabbed his Flip camera. “This is our wall of girls we like and are going to get,” he narrated. “Amazing!” He turned off the camera and started to laugh. “They’re gonna be like, ‘What the fuck is this fag doing?'” he said, imagining editors reviewing the tapes. “‘Who is this fairy princess?'”

ulamarche@observer.com