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How Gay Designer Christian Siriano Became an 'Accidental Activist'

Christian Siriano

Christian Siriano is proud to be a Stonewall Day Ambassador — and he hopes the community will travel to the Stonewall Inn in spirit, in lieu of the physical gathering originally planned.

The gay fashion designer is among those championing the now-annual event marking the anniversary of the New York City uprising, with proceeds benefiting groups like the Brave Space Alliance, TransLatin Coalition, the Trans Lifeline, and the Ally Coalition.

Due to the health crisis, this year’s celebration of LGBTQ+ resilience will take place Friday online, instead of in person. But that hasn’t stopped luminaries like President Barack Obama, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Katy Perry, Chelsea Clinton, and Siriano from making appearances in a livestream to help make a difference. Launched by the nonprofit Pride Live in 2018, Stonewall Day will be hosted this year by trans activist Geena Rocero.

“It feels great,” the Project Runway mentor said about being an ambassador. “I think it's nice to just be a part of something that is trying make a difference or educate.”

“We all won't be able to be together fully, but at least hopefully, in this way, people are leaving more passionate than ever.”

In addition to participating in Stonewall Day, Siriano has created a limited-edition T-shirt to help raise funds. “It was a nice way to somewhat be involved and hopefully raise money for so many different types of people that need it,” he said.

The rainbow design is inspired by a “falling firework” and includes the racially and trans-inclusive Pride flag emblem. The goal was to create a garment that was “elevated,” inclusive, and comfortable for all.

“I also really just wanted to it be quite graphic and bold and simple and powerful,” he said. He also wanted to find a “middle ground" for consumers, which “is sometimes a challenge in a T-shirt.”

“Everybody has their tastes and opinions, let me tell ya,” he added with a laugh.

As America confronts the current moment of protests, Stonewall can also be a guiding light for those in the present, Siriano said. The uprising against police brutality decades ago has come “full circle” as protesters take to the street and demand defunding of law enforcement.

“It took such an intense, horrible thing to create a community, which is interesting to see now," he said. "But I think in a way, it's a helpful guide to show that the world can come together and figure it out.”

“Without that kind of historic moment, we wouldn't have what we have now,” said Siriano, referring to the progress of the LGBTQ+ movement in the past 51 years. “Hopefully, even more change is coming, which is why this whole come-together moment that Stonewall is putting together is really important,” he added.

Siriano considers himself an “accidental activist.” In his career since being a contestant on Project Runway, he has pushed the fashion industry to be more inclusive by designing clothes for a diversity of bodies. In 2016, he made headlines for making a dress for Leslie Jones after other designers refused to do so for the 6-foot-tall Ghostbusters actress. He also worked with Lane Bryant to stage a plus-size fashion show at the United Nations.  

“I'm a pretty passionate person, pretty passionate believer, pretty intense thinker," Siriano said. "But I also have no fears. I'm a very decisive [person] — just like, let's do it. And we'll deal with what happens afterward."

“I'm like, why not put curvy girls on a runway? Or why [not] have half the show be Black beautiful models? Whatever it may be," he added. "I just don't think about that judgment in the same way [as others]. I think about the judgment as like a push to something else.”

(Related: In Praise of Gay Designer Christian Siriano)

It was that boundary-pushing spirit that ultimately inspired Siriano to volunteer his talents and team to produce masks for health care workers in March. He did so after hospitals experienced a shortage and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged businesses to “get creative” in helping. To date, his studio has produced around 150,000 facial coverings as personal protection equipment.

“I wish more people would approach things like that too sometimes, because I think we overthink things and [that] makes us judge people and judge things too harshly,” he said.

As calls for systemic change to address racism echo throughout every industry, Siriano also sees “so much to do” to make room for marginalized people in fashion. The industry has deep-rooted problems with inequality due to it being “an establishment type of business," Siriano observed. But now he is witnessing change from the ground up through the diverse pool of creative people that the industry relies upon.

“Nobody exists without creative talent — magazines don't exist, retailers don't exist, stores don’t exist,” Siriano said. “If you don't have the creative talent, the designer, the creator, to put something in those stores, to put something in those magazines, then literally, none of those other people have a job. Literally, a full reversal of power just happened. Completely 180. The creators, the talent — all cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, everybody — they now have the voice.”

Siriano is also the new advisor on Project Runway, stepping into the shoes of his former mentor Tim Gunn. There, he sees the platform of the reality competition as “a great place for young talent to thrive" and find that voice — as it once provided for him. Siriano, the winner of season 4, praised how Gunn was “always helpful and supportive” during his time on the show and afterward in his career.

“I think he did a great job,” Siriano said of the former educator. “But I think now it's very helpful for a young generation to get advice from somebody who's in the business right now. I think I'm able to give them a little bit more real, realistic advice.”

“We have a red carpet challenge, and they're like, oh, this dress is inspired by Beyoncé. And I'm like, oh, well, I dressed Beyoncé last week. I know something about it. So it's a very different way of mentoring," he noted.

As the world of politics has become even more divisive, however, even Project Runway isn’t immune from the fallout. The show made headlines last season for a confrontation in which a contestant criticized host Karlie Kloss over her marriage to Joshua Kushner, Jared’s brother.

“I think in a way, it’s good” that politics and fashion intersect, said Siriano, but he noted how harmful such divisions can be. “Our world is so split. But I think hopefully, more and more now, we can like somewhat get along. It’s such a simple concept, but oh, so far away.”

Now even masks, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, are now in the cross hairs of a polarized America. Many conservatives, including President Trump, have politicized the act of wearing one. “People are so funny,” Siriano said. “They do not like to be told what to do, even if it saves their life.”

Although Siriano made headlines for creating masks for health workers, he has not expanded his designs in this area significantly yet for consumers. He’s hesitant to push a necessary item into the world of luxury goods.  

“I'm not there politically yet with a statement of masks, that it has to be a certain way. I just want people to like have something that they can feel comfortable going to the grocery store [in],” he said.

“Somebody was saying, ‘It's social status, the mask that you wear.’ And I'm like, why, because if one is not as fabulous as the other? Are you kidding me?”

Yet the pandemic has changed the present and future of the fashion industry. Siriano’s namesake studio responded to the health crisis with “a full change” in operations. “We have turned my entire studio into a mask factory,” said Siriano, who also noted the changed political climate as well. “Our store is off Fifth Avenue. We are one block away from Trump Tower. So that's been exciting for our street.” Although the future of Fashion Week this fall is uncertain, Siriano is still planning to find some way to “showcase my work and my world, and then we'll see what happens.”

In the meantime, Siriano is excited to see the LGBTQ+ community and its allies gather virtually on Stonewall Day. “We all want everyone to still feel like we can all come together,” Siriano concluded. “I think that that's what is exciting about this … and hopefully, we can inspire a new generation.”

Stonewall Day will stream Friday at 12:45 p.m. Eastern on Logo TV's YouTube and Facebook. Text REBEL to 243725 to donate, and watch a message from President Obama below.

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