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Rubbing Elbows,
Making Art

Rubbing Elbows,
Making Art


Project Runway winner Christian Siriano captivated audiences across the country with his cutting bluntness and unquestionable talent. Love him or hate him, the young designer is certainly, to use his own word, "fierce."

Christian Siriano is frustrated.

On the day before the world saw him win the fourth season of Project Runway, the 22-year-old has been commissioned to design an outfit for Extra host Dayna Devon. He hasn't the slightest idea who she is -- or at least pretends he doesn't. "Do you know who she is?" he asks me, in his typically dramatic way. "What does she look like? What channel is her show on?"

He slumps down in a plum-colored easy chair in his apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side and reaches for the TV's remote control. After two minutes of channel surfing, he's failed to locate Devon. He gives up, settling for TMZ. "I think she just had a baby. She wants something conservative. What am I going to do, send her out in this?" he asks, grabbing and violently shaking a two-tone ruffle dress on a nearby garment rack, a facsimile of a piece he sent down the runway at Bryant Park one month earlier. The look had visibly impressed judges Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Siriano's celebrity crush, guest judge Victoria Beckham. "You don't come to me for conservative, honey."

One of 15 contestants on Bravo's latest search for America's next great fashion designer, Siriano was easily the most compelling, even though he polarized viewers with his overflowing confidence and his propensity to critique his peers, sometimes harshly. (In one of many memorably nasty --and unsolicited -- comments, he told fellow competitor Sweet P that one of the outfits she designed was suitable for a "tranny ice queen.")

But as the season progressed Siriano showed he had the raw talent to back up his attitude, winning the most challenges (three) and ultimately defeating Ralph Lauren designer Jillian Lewis and Rami Kashou, who had already dressed the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. And with his unvarnished wit and obsession with his hair, which he frequently flatironed, not to mention his amusing catchphrases -- "hot mess," "tranny mess," and, most famously, "fierce" -- delivered with Valley Girl inflections, he won a ton of fans.

As a genre, reality television distills personalities, editing them into easily digestible caricatures --the crybaby, the drama queen, the virgin. So I didn't know what to expect from Siriano on meeting him. In person, though, he's every bit as passionate, entertaining, and eccentric -- no different from his on-screen persona. Wearing his uniform of vest, T-shirt, and jeans, his hair immaculately groomed as always, he says he has no complaints with the way he was portrayed on the show -- he says it captured him as he is. And I believe him.

"The only episode that bothered me was the first part of the finale," he says, referring to mentor Tim Gunn's visits to the designers' homes to critique the progress of their collections. "They showed all of the other designers with their friends and family, but not me. I had a bunch of friends over, and they cut it out of the episode. I'm not alone out here."

Indeed, sitting in the front row at Bryant Park was his excited family, who clearly added pressure to his breakout moment: At the final judging, the usually composed, self-assured Siriano was visibly nervous, his chin quivering as he fought back tears before the big decision. When he won, he broke into sobs of relief.

I asked him about the stark contrast with his otherwise catty, carefree attitude. "A lot of my confidence was for fun and making a good show," he says. "But I really am sassy like that. I just wanted it so much. It was a humbling experience." Adopting a cutting personality and a distinctive attitude served as a form of personal branding, he says. Judging from the parody of Siriano on last weekend's Saturday Night Live -- with a bespectacled Amy Poehler playing Siriano as the host of Fierce, his own "hot mess" makeover show -- it appears to be working.

Fifteen minutes after I arrive at his place, Lisa Nargi, Siriano's model for most of Project Runway --including the final show, when she won a spread in Elle along with his victory -- enters, dressed completely in black except for a brown fur hat. Nargi, at 5 foot 10, has to bend down to give Siriano, a good six inches shorter, a kiss on the cheek. The two have remained friends since the show's taping, despite Siriano's impossibly tight schedule of 30-minute interviews and meetings with potential buyers. "He's someone I'm always texting or sending messages to on MySpace," she says. "When things calm down for him, we'll definitely see a lot of each other."

Siriano marches her into his bedroom-studio, a cozy but impressively organized 60-square-foot space, to have her try on a dress he made for her, for Bravo's finale party the following evening. The black short polyester-cotton dress, simple by Siriano's standards, glows on the dress form. On his work table rests a stack of papers -- photocopies of his looks that have appeared in Us Weekly,In Touch, and Star. "My mom is at Kinko's every day," he says.

Then the gossip begins.

"These are my gays," he says, pointing, above his worktable, to a photo of him and four significantly taller friends at a bar. "This is the one," he whispers to Nargi suggestively, pointing to a man on the left.

"Ooh, that's him?" she asks. "He's hot."

"I know. Tranny mess," he says, waving his hand dismissively at the photo and turning away.

"She's going to try on her dress, so you need to step," he says to me, prodding me out and closing the door.

Siriano's severe, high-fashion women's wear brought a new level of art to Project Runway. Among the stunning looks he crafted for various challenges: a chic dress made from Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrappers, an androgynous three-piece ensemble inspired by a Romantic Spanish painting, and a shockingly voluminous couture dress that he and fellow contestant Chris March constructed from 45 yards of cream-colored fabric. The avant-garde design yielded a smile from judge Nina Garcia, the icy fashion director for Elle. Siriano takes inspiration from -- but doesn't plagiarize -- Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, the two directional designers he interned with while studying fashion at the American InterContinental University in London.

His runway show, assembled over five months, was an elegant summation of his refined aesthetic. Siriano sent 12 models stomping down the runway to heavy techno music, wearing detailed black jackets, ruffled shirts, evening wear, and -- unforgettably -- a couture caramel-and-chocolate-colored feather dress, which sparked applause from the crowd. As always, exaggerated shoulders and cinched waists abounded.

"Previous winners have gone the commercial, ready-to-wear route," he says. "I'm not looking to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. I want to brand myself as well, but I want my clothes to be high fashion, avant-garde. It's easier to take inspiration from something that's creative than to build on something that's not. I don't want to do QVC," he says, a dig at previous contestants, including first season winner Jay McCarroll and second season winner Chloe Dao, who are developing lines for the down-market shopping network.

QVC certainly isn't the place for Siriano -- not with the prices he expects his clothes to fetch. Dresses will be marked at about $3,000; jackets between $1,500 and $2,000; his pants, slightly more reasonable, cost between $600 and $800. He's already started showing pieces to upscale retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Jeffrey, and Barneys as well as a few small boutiques. Siriano's designs, Nargi says, are well worth the price, and she expects him, within as little as five years, to become an icon in the fashion world. "His clothes are going to be up there with the top designers. They're going to be the clothes that everyone wants to have." She compares him to John Galliano. "He'll be a designer like that."

Winning $100,000 and nabbing a year of top agency representation, Siriano says, will make all the difference with jump-starting his career. After graduating from college, he had little capital to work with and, more crippling, no reputation within the industry. "I was actually pretty surprised I won," he tells me after the finale aired, calling from Los Angeles, where he was whisked off to do more press. "I wanted it so badly, but I needed it more than I wanted it. I'm just getting started."

The day I visited him, Siriano and Nargi bantered for a good two hours, during which time he uttered his new catchphrase, "I'm gonna stab you," his humorous substitute for "shut up," no less than eight times. Strangely enough, he doesn't say "fierce," his trademark, even once.

"I can hardly go out anymore," he says toward the end of our time together. "Everyone wants to touch me or carry me, which gets really annoying after the first few times. You'd think I was naked the way people look at me."

Of course he enjoys all the attention. Beckham proudly told Siriano she would wear his clothing, and "a few Hollywood A-listers," he says, have personally offered him praise. He receives hundreds of messages daily on MySpace -- how I contacted him in the first place -- from admirers and "people who want to have my babies," not to mention countless invitations to random New York parties.

"But I get paid to do parties now, people," he says with a grin. "Let's talk about it."

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