Breaking Big


Christian Siriano

Learn how sartorial savant Siriano parlayed confidence and a singular vision into a “Project Runway” victory. See how he surmounted rejection from FIT and created one of the most socially conscious and successful fashion lines in the industry.

AIRED: September 07, 2018 | 0:26:03

- [Carlos] From a young age, Christian Siriano

knew exactly who he was and what he wanted to be.

A fashion designer.

But after winning Project Runway,

Christian didn't just become a successful designer.

He became an influencer.

- Every person has their little things

that bother them about their bodies

and fashion should be the easiest part of the process.

- [Carlos] And his clothes didn't just glorify models.

They celebrated women of every size.

So how did this young man with a dream of making clothes

end up at the forefront of a body-positive movement

and on a path towards breaking big.

(crowds cheering)

What makes people successful?

What are the unexpected turns in life

that propel people to greatness?

I'm Carlos Watson, editor of OZY.

I'm out to uncover the real secrets behind breaking big.

- You look beautiful. - Hello.

- Hi.

- We're at The Pierre Hotel in New York City

for the NEDA Gala where we're honoring Christian Siriano.

- How are you?

I have been a huge fan of Christian Siriano's

for many, many years.

I love how I feel in them.

It's just shaped for a woman.

It just flows.

(glasses clinking)

- Christian knows that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes

and that the skin we live in and love

deserves to be seen and celebrated.

His work is making an indelible mark and impact

on people who struggle with body image

or are affected by an eating disorder

and for this, I am so honored to present

the Inspires Award to Christian Siriano.


- Although I appreciate this award dearly,

I wish that it wasn't a need for celebration,

having all these different shapes and sizes on the runway.

I'm just trying to make it the norm.

- (cheering) - Thank you guys so much. Have a great dinner.

This is our world of dreams.

This is where everything comes together.

- Oh, I like that.

- We take a sketch from the wall,

it gets put on a pattern piece that the team's working on.

This is like a jacket that's literally like in process.

You can see it's like the lining's not attached yet,

one sleeve's on, one sleeve's off.

This is my dress up world.

This is like me living my, like, childhood fantasy.

I mean listen, this is from our newest collection.

That could not be more ballerina inspired

from when I was a little boy watching my sister,

even though I didn't think about that, it just is.

It just comes out.

- Does she know that she helped inspire all this?

- Oh yeah and trust me, she gets everything.

I mean, my sister, she probably has every pair of shoe

from every collection I've ever done,

she gets clothes every season.

Her and my mom are livin' life.

- Oh is that right? - Let me tell ya, yeah.

- I found it interesting that you bring up

your mom and sister, 'cause people have told me before

that that had an impact. - Well no, that's what it is.

Yeah, I mean, of course.

I mean, I just loved the world of this kind of

idea of transformation, I think.

I liked to see if my mother and my sister

was getting ready to go somewhere and they changed

their look from what they would wear every day,

I thought that was always really interesting.

So I think that that's what jumped everything off.

I was kind of a little bit eccentric as a kid.

I dabbled in more of a theater type world.

My sister was a ballet dancer.

- She danced at the Annapolis Ballet

and he always got drug along, so he was sitting backstage.

I'd be sewing costumes, watching the girls get dressed,

and he'd just start sketching.

Just sketching the costumes.

- [Christian] I loved that world, seeing

these clothes come to life from nothing.

At the time, I didn't understand

why I cared about it, but I did.

- I read that although you grew up

in Annapolis, Maryland, which doesn't sound a lot like

New York or San Francisco. - Yeah, yeah.

- That being gay and being open about that

was never really a big issue.

- Obviously Maryland is quite, quite...

Yeah, it's an interesting place.

- Annapolis is a old historic town famous for sailing.

It's a state capital, so we have a lot of politicians

and of course the Naval Academy.

- [Christian] Maryland is quite strict.

But for some reason, I found this little pocket of people

that were also creative, eccentric, and interesting,

and I think that was super helpful.

- [Carlos] With the invaluable support of his friends

and family, Christian attended the prestigious

Baltimore School for the Arts, over an hour away from home.

And once there, he received the encouragement

to explore who he was and push his creative boundaries.

- You have to go before a jury to be accepted

at Baltimore School for the Arts.

He dressed up in his best outfit

and we drove to Baltimore and took his artwork with him.

Head of the department came out and said,

"I really want him in my program."

He didn't want to be a painter or an artist.

He wanted to be a fashion designer.

So he convinced his teachers at Baltimore School

for the Arts to let him do fashion.

- I was around all these different cultures

and people and other young boys who were like me.

It wasn't a strange thing, where I'm sure

there's other kids that grow up and never see that.

- I was treated really badly in high school for being gay.

And thank God he didn't have that.

He spent his high school experience just flourishing

and being able to explore everything

he wanted to explore artistically.

- My mom was always just really supportive.

If something we couldn't do, my mom figured out how to do it

and that always stuck with me.

- Head of department said, "Can you get him here?

Can you get him all the way from Annapolis?"

I would leave work, we'd drive into the city,

wait for the kids, try to get out before rush hour

got really bad, and bring 'em home.

But somehow we did it.

- So you apply to FIT. - Yeah.

- And everyone thought you were gonna get in.

- It was an interesting thing.

I did a summer program at FIT, and it was so celebrated

by teachers there, and I didn't get in,

and I remember I was so heartbroken

and I thought it was the end of the world.

I didn't know where to go to college, what to do.

My mom didn't know, she wasn't sure

what was happening in this world.

- [Joye] But instead of worrying about what didn't happen,

he said, "Let me figure out something else I can do."

- When people mistakenly feel that

there is only one way to be successful,

and then they go down that path and are thwarted.

With Christian, he didn't get into FIT.

If you believe that these rules are somehow

etched in stone, it's very hard then to go forward.

But if you have the understanding

that there are many ways to meet a goal,

it's easier, then, to go forward.

- [Carlos] Christian spent his teenage years

singularly focused on one goal:

becoming a designer.

But after facing rejection, Christian showed

drive and resolve well beyond his years

and carved his own path forward.

- I was so offended that I wasn't accepted

that I was like, "Well, I'm not gonna take this."

And that's why I took the risk to move to Europe.

The choice to go to a college in London

was just very different.

I mean, my mom didn't even have a passport.

That was exciting, it was like a big risk.

Jumping into college and I ended up

working for McQueen and Westwood.

They were like my real obsession early on.

I just was so inspired by what they were doing.

And I didn't know anything about fashion really.

I think I was quite naive in the beginning stages.

I just knew I loved clothes and I loved

seeing women transform and dress.

- The experience in London turned out to be

so much better than if he'd ended up going to New York.

I mean, he got to work with

Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.

He learned how to sew and cut a pattern and do everything.

- Did you work harder?

Did your design eye change in any way?

- I think it was just different.

You were celebrated for being a character,

for being creative, for being eccentric.

You could be anything in London and do whatever you want.

I mean, that's what it was known for.

- [Carlos] While interning for some of the top designers

in the world, Christian picked up skills

that helped him leap forward as a designer.

But once back in the States, he had to find

his own way inside the industry.

- After college, he moved back home,

loaded up the back of his truck, drove to New York.

Moving into this apartment with this girl from high school.

And couldn't get a job. Anywhere.

Worked as an intern at Marc Jacobs for a while.

He did makeup at Bloomingdale's for a while.

And then, a girl from college from London said

they're having auditions for Project Runway on Monday.

Why don't you go try? And he did.

- My name's Christian Siriano and I'm 21 years old.

I'm kind of fierce

and I'm kind of a celebrity in my own head.

It was such an inspiring thing,

I mean, watching these young, creative people

make something from nothing.

A flat piece of fabric and turn it

into a three-dimensional form in a matter of hours.

It really was a beautiful thing to see

especially for me, I was 20 years old.

I was a kid, I knew nothing.

I know I'm the youngest designer, but truthfully, like,

I think I have the most cohesive ideas out of everyone.

- I knew from the first time that I saw him that he was special.

You did a fantastic silhouette, a fantastic design.

- Thank you.

- You have to have talent, obviously,

you have to be creative,

but you also have to have the personality

and the charisma that goes along

with being a renowned designer.

Christian had the entire package.

- How hot are these gonna be?

- I remember the catchphrase "fierce".

Here's a designer on Project Runway

that made that catchphrase the catchphrase

for the entire industry.


- She's like one of the fiercest people I've ever met.

- Christian, to borrow a word from you,

they are fierce indeed.

- Work it out.

- When I met Christian, it was the day before

Tim Gunn was coming to his house to see

his final collection halfway through.

- This is my little room, it's like a little box, Tim.

- Wow.

So this is your studio?

- He was living in a sixth floor walk-up

in what basically amounted to a closet.

- Talk about make it work, you're really do have to make it work.

- And I sleep right here.

- You're kidding. - No, look.

- It was like, "Mom, I don't know where I'm gonna sew."

I just said, "Well pull your mattress up,

"put it against the wall, use your room as a studio

"and then at night, just put your mattress

back down on the floor in your bedroom."

And he did.

- I knew that my work was good

or interesting at least.

I'm really confident.

I think my outfit's one of the best, I really do.

I guess I was quite pushy in a way.

Don't these bitches know that I'm way better than them?

But you have to be, like you have

to be really assertive in fashion.

If you're defeated, you're defeated.

It's over.

- Christian.

You are the winner of Project Runway.


- I was over the moon, like a crazy mama screaming.

My daughter's still embarrassed by it.

- [Heidi] Come on out, family!


- [Carlos] With Christian's TV victory behind him,

he set out to prove to the industry

that he could do everything he said he could.

He had to prove that he was viable

as a designer and as a business.

- He knew this was a pivotal moment.

He knew that it was an opportunity

and he knew that he was coasting

on this wave of pop culture popularity.

- It's been good, it's just busy

and you know, I have two collections

that I've shown at Fashion Week.

- Here you have the opportunity of this incredible platform,

but you have to make something out of it.

You can win, you can have everybody know your name,

but the task is not done.

Now you have to build the brand.

- There's the thought within the fashion industry

that perhaps with Christian, it was pure dumb luck.

Perhaps you don't have the chops.

Maybe you're not really authentic,

you didn't really come from a background

who knows how to make a dress

and to market and target a customer.

- It takes a long time to be known for your work

as opposed to one piece that you've done,

which is like an actress that did one film

and is always known for that movie.

- He came to my office and he said,

"This is hard, Nina.

"I didn't think this was going to be so hard to break out

"and be recognized by the fashion industry."

- I remember meeting with him.

The question I asked him at the time was,

"Well what do you want to do?

"Do you want to be a TV star

or do you want to be a designer?"

- I was not interested in TV

and I wasn't interested in that world.

It was great, it was good for what it was,

but I was really, really interested in

building more of a brand.

- [Carlos] As Christian would quickly learn,

turning ideas into a brand takes

more than a keen design sense.

It takes major financial backing.

- [Commentator] This market is like nothing I've ever seen.

- [Announcer] The complete lack of confidence

in Bear Stearns, that run on the bank...

- 2008 was a tough time for the industry

because you did have this economic crash

and fashion felt it very hard.

So to be starting a business in 2008,

he had another hurdle to get over.

- The day Lehman Brothers crashed

was my very first appointment with Saks, and they canceled.

But it was crazy because other companies

were like so depressed because last year,

they did 10 million and this year they're gonna do two.

Well for me, I didn't do anything last year,

so I could only move up.

- When you're young and you're small,

you're the stock boy, you're the designer,

you're the salesperson, you're everything.

- [Carlos] So when you say this is brutal?

- Listen, it's just brutal!

It's tough, everything is a challenge.

Every part of the business is hard.

You know, shipping to retailers,

making 10,000 units of a dress.

Think about that, 10,000 units, that's a small order.

Some of our product, it's 500,000 units.

Let's say all the zippers on 500,000 units are gold,

but they need to be silver. What happens?

Your order is canceled, you just lost $10 million, you're out.

You can go out of business in one order.

- [Carlos] Not only were the realities

of running a business dawning on Christian,

but he was also in a hurry to gain acceptance

from an industry that was not quick to accept outsiders.

- The CFDA is a membership trade organization

that promotes American fashion in the global economy.

Members of the CFDA include Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan,

Tom Ford, Michael Kors, and so many others.

It's quite competitive.

There are people who never get in.

- The first time he applied, he was rejected from the CFDA.

To a lot of people, it was just a reality show,

and then when it was over, it was over.

- Project Runway was a guilty pleasure

for a lot of people in the industry like myself,

but there's basic criteria: three years in business,

having real retail accounts, distribution,

getting editorial from magazines and digital media.

But most importantly, it's having

talent and a point of view.

- His response was, "I'm gonna do it my own way.

"If they don't want to accept me,

"then I'm gonna make everything happen regardless."

- You made a decision not just

to do a few high end partners,

but you also decided to be open to mass market.

- Yeah, yeah.

I decided to partner with Payless.

I've been working with them for almost 10 years now.

I did a huge partnership with LG.

We did tech accessories with them.

I did a partnership with Victoria's Secret.

They gave me supermodels for my runway.

I did a Starbucks gift card, I did everything.

I did all kinds of stuff early on.

- You were open for business.

- I was open, I was like, "Listen, I need to fund this."

It's so expensive to make fantasy clothes

and dress women on the red carpet.

It's expensive.

- He was smart to use Payless,

or some of these other collaborations as a way

to build Christian Siriano the brand.

- With Payless, it was a good business decision

because the platform that Project Runway

gives him is very mass. So is Payless.

His audience was able to get a piece of Christian.

- Two years later, he applied again and got in

'cause not only is he a talent, him being

part of something gets so much attention.

- So this is from our spring collections.

It's fashion, it should be fun and playful

and that's what we did tonight.

- That is a huge undertaking.

That means you are part of New York Fashion Week.

That is the embrace, that is the recognition.

- Christian, and entrepreneurs in general,

need to have confidence.

You're taking a risk and you need

to believe in what you're doing.

Selling a dress by itself just won't cut it anymore.

Designers have to look for other revenue streams,

look for other ways to reach customers,

and have to look at new customer segments.

- [Carlos] In 2013, Christian's savvy business decisions

to work with mass market brands proved his viability

and helped him gain acceptance into the CFDA.

And with that recognition came

the next wave of opportunity.

- That's when he started getting major red carpet moments.

- We dressed Lady Gaga.

I dressed her for her first TV appearance ever.

- Scarlet Johansson on the cover of Cosmopolitan.

To have your dress on the cover of the largest selling

women's magazine on a talent like ScarJo

is a calling card for your brand.

- And then dressing Oprah really early on

was really interesting to me because

who wasn't obsessed with Oprah?

- The pivotal moment was when Leslie Jones

couldn't find anybody to dress her.

That was shocking.

- I'm a huge fan of Leslie, and it was like a no-brainer

that turned into such a huge moment.

It was a bigger conversation that needed to like get out.

- Christian saved her and made her look stunning.

That was a pivotal moment.

- [Carlos] Christian's inherent instinct

to connect with women of all body types

inspired him as a designer and following that instinct

positioned him at the forefront of a trend

that would soon make its way into the fashion industry.

- When the whole body positive movement happened,

Christian already was ahead of the curve.

- He wasn't afraid or worried about

putting a plus-sized model in his runway show.

He did it first.

- People say like, "Oh, you had so many different

shapes and sizes on your runway."

And I'm like, okay, I'm like, yeah,

my mom my whole life, size 14, 16.

My sister is a ballet dancer, she's a zero.

- [Carlos] Talk about working with Lane Bryant.

- Lane Bryant came and asked me to do a collaboration.

I was just so excited because my mom shopped at Lane Bryant

my whole life, so I was like it all comes full circle.

- I used to be skinny as a rail, but you know,

42 years old, divorced, trying to raise two kids by myself.

Yeah, I put on weight.

And I had a hard time finding pretty clothes that fit.

So maybe that was part of it.

He wanted his mom to look pretty.

- Lane Bryant is probably the one brand

that every full-sized woman could connect with.

Again, very smart.

It's almost like he anticipated

the wave that was going to happen.

- My whole collection now is available up to size 26.

We are making sure that all of our retailers

can carry every size.

- I don't think it came from a marketing strategy, no.

That is so authentic Christian.

- History shows us that businesses can really shape culture.

Christian, in designing for all

these body types, has really done that.

Demanding that people accept their bodies as they are.

- [Carlos] Going beyond just popular culture,

Christian was able to put his imprint

on one of the key social issues of the day,

not only breaking big,

but breaking through the stratosphere.

- There have been a few moments for me

that felt like this is really happening, this is huge.

- [Announcer] Ladies and gentleman...

- He had told me that he was dressing her,

and he had sent her two or three things.

So we were watching, waiting to see

which one she would pick.

(crowds cheering)

- I was sitting at home watching the DNC,

and it was just a text from mom,

and she was like, "That's your dress!"

- Of course she picked that beautiful blue dress.

- [Announcer] Please welcome First Lady Michelle Obama.

- It doesn't get much more fabulous than Michelle Obama.

- [Joye] That was like one of those

tears in your eyes moments.

- [Carlos] What are the things

you think allowed you to break big?

- I think it's almost an unhealthy obsession

that you need to have with anything that you're doing.

- Christian has a true entrepreneurial spirit.

He has something that he wants to express,

and he wants the most amount of people to hear his message.

- That fearlessness, that confidence.

Yes, you might be born with it,

but it also comes with the knowledge that you have talent.

If you know that, you own it.

- [Carlos] Christian's honest and unapologetic attitude

earned him a spot on a top-rated TV show.

But his talent, drive, and work ethic

earned him a permanent place

in one of the most competitive industries in the world.

- I'm proud that he's still the same person he always was.

He really hasn't changed.

He can get sassy right up in your face

and then give you a big hug and a big kiss.

That's who he is.

- I do feel inspired all the time, every day.

I'll make one thing and that inspires five other things.

The clothes transform you into a new place.

Even if it's the most basic piece,

I want you to feel transformed.

- You have now a liberal woman in a machista society.

That has consequences.

- I am done being politically correct.

I am mad as hell.

I've been widely criticized.

The local politicians said I was putting in danger any aid

that the United States could send to Puerto Rico.

- Nobody else denounced publicly

that we have been neglected.

- I screamed for help when we needed it.

- And then what about computers, because now you see

a lot of people who are designing things using computers.

- Yeah. - But are you still a sketchpad

and a pen or pencil? - It is very, yeah,

we're very old school here.

I mean, like these are all like paper patterns

that we like create, and all of these are just like by hand.

- It does look a little bit like a UPS office in terms of...

- But you know, these are like, you know,

some of these patterns have 200 pieces to them.

It's hard to digitize that into a computer.

I don't think it's really possible.


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