Christian Siriano shows why he's a fierce competitor

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Baltimore's divas weredressed in Helmut Lang and theirhighest heels Saturday night -- adisplay of cocktail party plumageintended to knock Christian Siriano'sdesigner socks off.

Still, they were worried. Wouldthe Project Runway finalist really approve ofthese shoes? What about this necklace of feltand sterling silver, which less chic individualshad previously compared to a cat toy?

"Mmm-hmm, I love it," Siriano declared, inthe center of his circle of glamorous but anxiousadmirers. "Work it!"

Siriano's own outfit for the BaltimoreSchool for the Arts' "Expressions" fundraiserincluded skinny black pants and his trademarkblack vest, metallic Kenneth Cole hightops and a shirt he'd sewn out of a scarf. Thefabric was silver lame threaded with purple;he'd picked it because the theme of the eventwas "Shine On" -- although, already one ofthe school's most fabulous alumni at the tenderage of 22, he could hardly hope to shineany brighter.

Even if he doesn't win the designcompetition's finale tonight(as he's widely favored to), the

Annapolis-area native has wowedthe fashion world and is fast becominga full-blown pop cultureicon. He can't go to the supermarketanymore without gettingmobbed, and he's hailed as a heroat the high school he left just afew years ago.

"I'm kind of lapping it up," heconfessed.

As he was passed from one socialiteto another at the schoolSaturday night, though, the attentionsometimes seemed like itmight be too much even for cockySiriano. The party was packed almostto the point of chaos, butthe diminutive designer was stillhard to miss with his spiky, asymmetricalhairdo poking up in thecrowd. Train ticket stubs, nametags, programs--he autographedthem all, listening politely to howhis stint on Bravo had "absolutelytransformed" someone 's12-year-old daughter.

One woman, in her haste tomeet Siriano, kicked over hiswine glass, which he'd placed onthe floor while scrawling "Workthe runway!" on yet another cocktailnapkin. Luckily, it was filledwith only water -- anythingstronger, he said, might inspirehim to blurt out the finale results,which finalists learned weeks agowhen the episode was filmed.

His fans, on the other hand,were busy topping off their husband'sdrinks in anticipation ofthe after-dinner benefit auction,when they could bid on thechance to have Siriano designsomething for their wardrobe. Ascocktail hour ended and guestsfiled into the ballroom, severalwomen whispered that theywould not be outspent, clutchinghis hand as though they intendedto take it home as a keepsake.

'Runway' finale

Tonight, Siriano will watch thefinal installment of Project Runway'sSeason 4 at a swank NewYork party, while those whoknew him way back when -- hisco-workers from an Annapolissalon, his high school teachers,his family and friends -- host localgalas of their own, to honor aboy who loved to sew, then becamea fashion sensation almostovernight.

If he wins, he'll get a new car,an editorial spread in Elle magazine,and, perhaps most importantly,$100,000 to start a personalclothing line. It's the kind of moneythat could vault Siriano, who'sspent the last several years scrapingby as a fashion student and anapprentice to various designers,into his own name brand, and observersare saying he deserves it.

"For once, Christian is someonewho lives up to his own expectationof himself," said Tom Fitzgerald,of the blog Project Rungay("Project Runway from a VERY gayperspective"), who saw the finalists'collections being shown duringNew York's Fashion Week. "Allof the collections were beautiful,but his was absolutely stunningcoming down that runway."

It was Fitzgerald and his co-bloggerwho christened Siriano "PrincessPuffysleeves," a reference tohis imperious on-camera personalityand penchant for ruffles. Inthe competition, Siriano, theyoungest contestant, often comesacross as a hyper-talented bratwho delights in lambasting his opponents'creations.

But the show neglects Siriano'skinder and gentler side, friendssay. Sure, he used to tell his femaleteachers that their sweaterslooked like rug remnants andtheir hair was "a hot mess," buthe would always do his best toremedy the situation. He'd takethem shopping and shower themwith his own hand-me-downs.

And "he would come in everymorning and do my hair beforeclass," bringing his own foot-tallcans of hairspray, said Kim Parr,his painting teacher. "It was verysweet."

His own incandescent sense ofstyle blossomed at the Bubbles salonin the Westfield AnnapolisMall, where he started out as ashampoo boy at age 13, workingthroughout high school. At the salon,he learned the basics of hairand makeup design and startedsewing clothes for the annual hairshows.

"At first he was really quiet andshy," said Maria Sung, a Bubblesstylist. "He used to wear button downshirts and khaki pants. Wesaid he needed more personality.Then he started opening upmore."

Siriano's notorious hairdo alsotraces its roots to Sung's advice.She first taught him to relax,straighten and stylishly snip hiscoarse curly locks, launching alook that recently earned him anotheronline nickname -- "thecockatiel" (he apparently prefers"bird of paradise").

His fashion sense matured furtherat the School for the Arts,where he designed a 20-piecefashion show for his senior project.

"Everybody there is really eccentric,really interesting and nobodyjudges," Siriano said. "It wasthe best place for me to go, and itreally helped me develop."

His teachers remember him as aslave to fashion even then. Theystill don't know how, out of alltheir pupils, he alone managednever to drip oil paint on his outfits.

His clothes didn't always treathim as well. Friends recall thetime a few years back when Siriano'sbeloved pony-skin cowboyboots somehow got stuck on thegas pedal of his car, causing a collision.And -- according to24-year-old Chuck Phipps, a friendfrom the mall -- when Sirianowas studying abroad at London'sAmerican InterContinental Universityafter high school, he wassometimes at war with customsofficials because of the suspiciousamount of women's footwear inhis luggage.

Worst of all, the finery Sirianocraves is completely unaffordablefor the average 20-something. Itseemed unfair to friends that aguy who'd interned with the likesof Vivienne Westwood and MarcJacobs couldn't afford the uberexpensivelooks himself. Even afterhe made the cut for ProjectRunway, Siriano lived in a tinyNew York apartment, barelymaking it. Paula McLoud, afriend from Annapolis, wentshopping with him last summerin Los Angeles, after Project Runwayfilming had started; she finallyforced him to accept a pairof gold-lame sneakers as a gift.Nothing makes her happier thanto see him prancing in them today.

"He deserves everything hegets," McLoud said. "Fashion ishis love."

Of course, not everyone is asupporter. The closest Sirianocame to defeat this season wasthe episode where he had tomake a prom dress for a ratherobstreperous teenage girl.

"First of all, I wanted to workwith Jillian [Lewis]," Maddie Eugene,17, of Aberdeen, N.J., said,naming Siriano's chief rival. "Butsomeone took Jillian, and Ididn't have a choice, so I choseChristian."

The collaboration went southfrom there.

"A lot of people have thankedme for telling him I hated thedress, because he's so conceited,"she said.

Twenty-one-year-old LeanneBernsten has another word forher friend Siriano's nature."He's blunt," she said. "But afterhe says something catty, hewill always smile."

Bidding war

The bidding for Siriano's servicesbegan at $5,000, but the auctioneercould have started muchhigher. Siriano had promised tocustom-design "a gown, a blouse,a jacket ... whatever you want, byme," and Baltimore's best-dressedwomen were elbowing their husbandsand working themselvesinto a postprandial frenzy.

Eleven thousand, twelve thousand-- the price shot heavenward."Now 13, 13, bid it up!" theauctioneer sang as Siriano danceda gleeful jig on stage.

Eighteen thousand, twenty-threethousand. Now the fieldwas down to A.C. Hubbard, whosewife had her heart set on a Sirianooriginal for her 70th birthdaypresent, and Molly Shattuck, wifeof the Constellation Energy CEO,who raised her hand like an A-plusstudent every time the pricejumped.

At $25,000, though, she finallybowed her blond head in defeat.Maybe it was the kindness thathis friends remember that madeSiriano lean over to whisper inthe auctioneer's ear, or maybe itwas affection for his alma mater,which would collect the money.Or perhaps it was the simple factthat Molly Shattuck was wearingan electric lime leopard print in asea of little black dresses--an utterlyfierce fashion statement. Inany event, Siriano announcedthat for another $25,000, hewould make a garment for her,too.

The crowd gave Siriano a standingovation. Though we won'tknow until tonight what the finalepisode holds, he looked like hewas used to it.

Project Runway airs at 10 tonight on Bravo.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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