A reality TV star learns what real work means

MAKING HIS WAY: Christian Siriano with a model in
MAKING HIS WAY: Christian Siriano with a model in "Project Runway." (Jennifer Graylock/Associated Press)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

This has been the reality-show decade. Ten years of faux actors and an endless stream of klieg-lit banality, bad behavior and hormonal, steroidal, raging ambition. The concept of turning a television camera on a group of unscripted non-actors was not a new invention, but this was the decade in which it thrived and ultimately spiraled out of control.

It wasn't merely that more people were clamoring for their few moments of fame, it was the degree to which every place and every person became fair game for the cameras. The most intimate moments were rolled out for public consumption, so much so that gyms had to ban cellphone use in the locker rooms because one could no longer assume that everyone would instinctively understand that it would be wrong to take cellphone video of unsuspecting members heading into the shower and post it on YouTube.

One can no longer bank on that sort of common sense because so many folks have become exhibitionists. Average people become characters and caricatures once the camera shutters open. They expose family secrets; engage in physical confrontations. They even ostentatiously primp before gliding uninvited into a White House state dinner because in their faux reality that's where they are supposed to be.

The diminutive designer Christian Siriano, who grew up in Annapolis, was one of the characters churned out by reality TV. He was a winner of the New York version of "Project Runway," back when it was on Bravo and viewers did not have to witness Tim Gunn on a Southern California beach in a sports jacket. (In whose imagination is dear Gunn a beach bum?) The most memorable aspects of Siriano's time on the fashion competition show were his penchant for dramatic hats and his affection for the word "fierce" in describing his own work and the phrase "hot tranny mess" in assessing the work of the other contestants.

Immediately after being crowned the winner of "Project Runway," Siriano had his own show during New York fashion week. He had a proper publicist and the show was organized in a modest loft space that was packed to the ceiling with former contestants, admirers and fashion folks who were curious to see the truth behind what reality TV had wrought. Since then he has produced three more collections. And he recently came to Washington, where he presented his spring 2010 line in a charity fashion show for Autism Speaks, hosted by Saks Jandel. He also brought along a stack of his book, aptly titled "Fierce Style," with the proceeds funding his fledgling line.

As the reality show victor, he won $100,000 to launch his collection, but after taxes it was closer to $50,000 and most of that went into the bank because "I've always had good money sense," he says. Instead, in addition to the money brought in from his book, he has used cash earned from freelance work with brands such as Payless to finance his modest line.

Success on the show, it seems, did not mean that he was instantly wooed by patrons looking to lavish him with cash. Reality television made him famous; the real world brought him back down to earth. But that is all for the best, he says, because self-financing keeps him focused and frugal. "You know what your means are because they're your means."

Siriano sits, unrelaxed, on the edge of a lounge chair in one of Saks Jandel's salons. His collection hangs a few feet away on several rolling racks, but his spring show's finale gown, an explosion of strawberry-colored tulle, hangs in a corner like an exquisite Rose Bowl float. Siriano is short, but he is also quite thin and with aggressively straightened hanks of brown hair sprouting from beneath a charcoal hat. He is a bit of a waif, but less elfin than he appeared snuggled up next to Heidi Klum, the towering "Project Runway" host. He has a distinctive, flat voice that is all middle range -- no bass notes, no grace notes. As he speaks, one can hear the shadows of sarcasm, as if it has been such a constant in his daily patter for so long that its unmistakable rhythms are burned into his speech pattern.

It is as though Siriano is still shaking off the exaggerated persona that defined him on TV.

After so successfully navigating the faux reality of television and riding high on that fast notoriety, he has been faced with the burdensome facts of the fashion industry. "Project Runway" hasn't produced any award-winning designers in the way "American Idol" has produced Grammy-winning singers. Part of the reason for that, Siriano says, is because the design show is more about entertainment than mentorship. "They're a TV show; they're not part of the industry," he says.

Judge Nina Garcia has been helpful, he says, and often chooses pieces from his collection to include in the pages of Marie Claire. But the buyers, the folks who are most concerned with the retail bottom line rather than the fireworks of editorial fashion, have been the most helpful. They are quick to offer advice, as well as constructive criticism.

Michael Fink, the former women's fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, "told me after my first season that I should focus on evening, that evening was strong and I should have a wider range of choices." "The stores are always saying you have to be adapting," Siriano says. "Make sure things come with sleeves or that they can be made longer."

Thanks to the economic downturn, Fink is no longer with Saks. And stores are loath to invest in unproven brands. But Siriano has never known anything other than a tough market. This is just how it goes.

One might think that having a bravura personality would be to Siriano's advantage. Except that when contributors to Autism Speaks pop into the store and begin perusing the collection in advance of his show, he sits quietly watching. He does not leap up to introduce himself. He doesn't make a sales pitch. He doesn't take this opportunity to brag about the signature azure and cinnamon-colored prints in the collection that were inspired by aerial photographs of the Amalfi Coast -- a place that he has imagined but never visited.

Siriano even seems a bit bashful, when the stakes are high. Could this be the same swaggering reality show star who had no problems letting his competitors know when they had failed to impress him?

Certainly the aesthetic vision is the same. Thankfully, he no longer relies on catchphrases. But even more reassuring is the fact that Siriano -- the designer who is just starting his career -- is much more authentic, much more genuine, than the TV star whose slick veneer is falling away.

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