At the Oscars red carpet last Sunday, various stars posed for the cameras in show-stopping fashion: Lady Gaga donned a black Alexander McQueen dress and matching gloves, Rami Malek was dapper in a Saint Laurent suit by Anthony Vaccarello – and Billy Porter wore a velvet tuxedo gown by Christian Siriano that broke gender norms and amassed a huge response across the Internet.
This isn't a first for Siriano, who entered the fashion scene after winning season four of Project Runway, becoming the series' youngest person at age 21 to do so. Since then, he has seen staggering success. He designed a dress for Michelle Obama's Democratic National Convention appearance in 2016 and dressed 17 women at the 2018 Oscars.
But he's truly known for his willingness to dress people with different body types, at various price points, and has received worldwide praise for doing so. He has a clothing line with Lane Bryant, a national chain for plus-sized women, and consistently uses plus-sized models in his shows. He has partnered with Payless to design inexpensive shoes and also designed numerous items for discount store TJ Maxx.
In 2016, he designed Leslie Jones' dress for the movie premiere of Ghostbusters when no one else would, and in 2018 he was named as one of Time's 100 most influential people of the year.
While defying norms is Siriano's staple, this time it took him by surprise.
"I think [Porter] just really wanted to wear something that made him feel really good. And that was it. Kind of easy," Siriano told NPR's Michel Martin in an interview for All Things Considered. "And we didn't know it was going to turn into what it turned into. We really didn't."
On the statement the tuxedo gown made
I didn't think it would change, you know, what this kind of world of fashion is ... we just kind of were having fun you know and I think he [Porter] felt great. I felt good and we just didn't take it so seriously until we saw what it was doing. And then now I think about it a little bit more and I'm like, oh well, maybe this was something that needed to happen and we didn't even realize how much it really did. There was like a cry for it, you know, receiving all these amazing messages from parents with young kids ... that don't know what they are yet. And can they be masculine or feminine and it's such a huge cultural issue that we have right now going on in our world.
On the response he received to the tuxedo gown
The outpour of amazing support and response and literally like reading these parents emails saying that they have a child who is, you know, has kind of an unidentified gender and isn't sure you know, who they are and reading how Billy's gown changed that child's life. I mean, that's something that just doesn't happen every day when somebody shows up on a red carpet. I mean, at the end of the day, red carpets can be quite frivolous and they're just for fun.
But I think this was really more just showing that you can be whoever you want to be, whatever makes you feel good, that's what you should wear too. I mean clothes are, we're not curing cancer here, we're putting on a party dress and going out and I think that that's a funny thing that people can take it so seriously sometimes in not a good way, in a negative way. So anyone that took it that way I think sadly, you know, they're just not thinking about it in a broader scheme of things I think.
On how he doesn't follow conventions
I think in the Leslie instance it was like I thought that that was so unbelievable. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Leslie I'm a huge fan of SNL. I think a lot of the world is. And I just thought that that was so interesting that she was having a hard time finding a dress for a huge premiere. So I was already a fan. So it just was a no brainer. I just didn't really think about it the way ... I didn't know it would turn into this culturally [sic] thing that, you know, people are having a hard time finding clothes or people, you know, designers don't want to dress people. I didn't even know that was a thing. I just thought that it was strange. But I think for me, my team, my world, even how I grew up, it's just that I think I like being immersed with all these different types of people and I think that's what's interesting about this business. So that's what excites me. I like dressing all these different types of women, shapes, sizes, ages. I don't care. I think that's kind of the fun challenge of it. So I look at it that way.
On the current state of the fashion industry
There's a few brands that are really trying to champion people not just, you know, obviously women, but obviously just people in general and I think then to see other brands completely disregard it and it's such a strange thing. I mean, I can't imagine. I'm like, what are [sic], the people that work in your office think. That's what I think about a lot. I'm like, I have 45 employees in my office every day, all walks of life. And I can't imagine – I feel like they would be so offended and upset with me if I didn't support these people. So it is a bit strange. So that's what I think about the most. And then I think about like my mom or like my sister you know, my mom is a curvy woman and my sister is a tiny little ballet dancer. So I don't know I think it would be weird to not have something for both of them. So I do think it's a bit strange and other brands they must listen. I mean, the meetings must be unreal. You know it must go through 40 people and then someone made a bad decision somewhere. I don't know.
On his return to Project Runway
I think this will be the first time the designers have a real designer, a working designer as their mentor. So I think if anything, they wanted a young designer that's in the business right now to hopefully help guide these other younger designers, because that's really what they need. They need real experience. You know if they have a red carpet challenge I can be like well, I just dressed 10 people at the Golden Globes, I think I kind of know something about it. And hopefully, they'll listen to me, so that hopefully, is what I bring to the table this season.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today we want to talk about fashion. The runway shows in New York and Europe are about finished for the season. But if your invitations got lost, you still got to take in plenty of fashion during awards season, which wrapped last Sunday with the Oscars. And while a lot of people's looks grabbed buzz, I think it's fair to say that the most head-turning ensemble was Billy Porter's gender-bending velvet tuxedo gown. Porter, the star of the TV series "Pose," also hosted preshow coverage for ABC. And his ensemble, as they say, broke the Internet.
No surprise - it was designed by Christian Siriano, the designer who first won acclaim as the 21-year-old winner of the fourth season of "Project Runway." But he's now lauded around the world for his show-stopping designs as well as his willingness to dress people with all different types of bodies and at all different price points. And he's with us now from his studio in New York.
Christian, thanks so much for joining us.
CHRISTIAN SIRIANO: Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, let's start with Billy Porter's look. What was the inspiration for this?
SIRIANO: It was a really organic kind of thing. I just grabbed this dress, and I was, like, I think we should try this on. And he was, like, I would love to. And we threw kind of a jacket over it that obviously didn't really work with the look. But we were trying to just get an idea, and it just all kind of came together. And then we made it fully custom for him. But it was the first thing we tried. It was the first conversation we had. And I think he just really wanted to wear something that made him feel really good.
MARTIN: Did you see it as a statement? And here is where I want to say that you have consistently broken norms - I mean, that you have consistently used plus-sized models in your shows. I wonder, do you see this also as making a statement? Or for you, is it just an outfit that the guy wanted to wear and it made him feel good?
SIRIANO: I don't know. I'm open to that, but I really just don't think about it that same way. It was the same with showing curvy girls on the runway. I really just wanted to show the customers that the clothes looked good on all these different sizes. I didn't think it would change, you know, what this kind of world of fashion is. And I think the same with Billy. You know, we just kind of were having fun, you know? And I think he felt great, I felt good, and we just didn't take it so seriously until we saw what it was doing.
And then - now I think about it a little bit more. And I'm, like, oh, well, maybe this was something that needed to happen - receiving all these amazing messages from parents with young kids that don't know what they are yet and - can they be masculine or feminine? And it's such a huge cultural issue that we have right now going on in our world, so it was really interesting to see that.
MARTIN: I was interested in what kind of feedback you're getting because it wasn't all positive. I mean, there are...
SIRIANO: Of course.
MARTIN: I'm thinking about one person, for example, a African-American male commentator who wrote several pieces decrying what he called the feminizing of the black man and seemed to take offense at it. So how do you understand that? And what kinds of comments are you getting?
SIRIANO: Yeah. I mean, I think the outpour of amazing, you know, support and response and literally, like, reading these parents' emails saying that they have a child who is - you know, has kind of unidentified gender and isn't sure, you know, who they are and reading how Billy's gown changed that child's life - I mean, that's something that just doesn't happen every day when somebody shows up on a red carpet. I mean, at the end of the day, red carpets can be quite frivolous. And just - they're just for fun. But I think this was really more just showing that you can be whoever you want to be. Whatever makes you feel good, that's what you should wear or do. I mean, we're not curing cancer here. We're putting on a party dress and going out. And I think that it's a funny thing that people can take it so seriously, sometimes in a negative way.
MARTIN: Many people have worn your clothes who are internationally famous, like Lady Gaga, former first lady Michelle Obama. But you've also made a point to reach out to people who have been looked over by other designers. I think some might recall that you dressed Leslie Jones for the premiere of "Ghostbusters" when she said that nobody else would. Why do you do that?
SIRIANO: I thought that that was so interesting that she was having a hard time finding a dress for a huge premiere. So it just was a no-brainer. I just didn't really think about it. I didn't know it would turn into this thing that, you know, designers don't want to dress people. I didn't even know that was a thing. I just thought that it was strange. But I think for me, my team, my world - even how I grew up - I like being immersed with all these different types of people. And I think that's what's interesting about this business. So that's what excites me. I like dressing all these different types of women. Shapes, sizes, ages - I don't care. I think that's kind of the fun challenge of it.
MARTIN: Do you think other people are following your lead, though? I still hear complaints. Like, we still read complaints every year about lack of diversity on the runway...
MARTIN: ...Lack of diversity of body size, lack of diversity ethnically. And then we see these moments where, like, Gucci with the blackface sweater and things of that sort...
MARTIN: ...How do you understand that? What does that say?
SIRIANO: There's a few brands that are really trying to champion people - not just, you know, obviously women but obviously just people in general. And I think then to see other brands completely disregard it - my mom is a curvy woman, and my sister is a tiny little ballet dancer. So I don't know. I think it would be weird to not have something for both of them.
MARTIN: I find that women are still criticized for wearing pants, for example. I noted that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a number of women made a point of wearing pants on the red carpet or wearing lower heels. I think it was a way of saying that I'm going to do what I want to do. But I still think that they get criticized for that. I - do you agree?
MARTIN: So do you think it's going to be a point at which women can wear the pants if they want and men, like Billy Porter, can wear a gown...
MARTIN: ...If they want - and it's not going to be so judgy?
SIRIANO: I hope so. And I definitely think it takes every fashion commentator or reviewer of that world to really get behind it 'cause it's really a collective thing. I think that's kind of the whole issue with - in general, just like this idea of supporting people, is that we all have to do it collectively - which is a challenge. But I think it is definitely changing. I mean, the amount of support from Billy was so much more than the negative. It was mind blowing. From just normal, average people to the most famous people in the world, it was so crazy to see the support.
MARTIN: That was Christian Siriano, fashion designer and mentor for the upcoming reboot of "Project Runway." He was kind enough to join us at a very busy time for him from his studios in New York City.
Christian Siriano, thank you so much for talking to us once again.
SIRIANO: Thank you.
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MARTIN: After our conversation, we called Christian Siriano back to ask if he would dress first lady Melania Trump. In an April 2017 interview with Time, he said that he would not, that he dresses people that he can support. But his publicist has said that they didn't want to get into it this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANNI EL KHATIB'S "PARALYZED (DISCOTHEQUE REFIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.