“I walked on the red carpet, and I heard people gasp,” Billy Porter says.
The “Pose” actor has made bold fashion choices before, but none quite as showstopping as what he delivered at this year’s Academy Awards. Cloaked in a luxurious black velvet tuxedo gown, Porter sparked a social media frenzy — a polarizing one, to be sure — as dramatic as the frock’s flared bell skirt.
“I felt like Cinderella at the ball,” Porter recalls by phone. “That’s what he does.”
He is Christian Siriano. Porter enlisted the fashion designer for the custom creation. After all, Siriano is known to buck convention.
The 33-year-old designer has established himself as a rising talent within the high-end fashion ranks and one of the busiest red carpet couturiers, largely by ignoring the one-size-fits-all approach. He’s a designer who will dress people the physically elitist industry often neglects. And as this year’s Oscars demonstrated, he’s a designer willing to bend and fold fashion’s gender norms like a box pleat.
Quite the “Where are they now?” turnaround for a former reality show contestant.
Which brings us to a hotel bar in Pasadena, a few weeks prior to the Oscars look that stopped red carpet traffic, where Siriano is reflecting on the platform that helped launch it all.
“That was a crazy long time ago,” he says sheepishly. In TV years, sure.
In 2008, the year he reached the legal drinking age, Siriano became the winner of the fourth season of fashion-centric reality competition “Project Runway.” (He remains the youngest ever to win the top prize in the show’s run.)
Now he’s going back to his TV alma mater in a different role.
When the 17th season of “Project Runway” launches Thursday on Bravo — returning to its original home after an 11-season run on Lifetime — Siriano will make his debut as the show’s new mentor for contestants. He steps into the role made famous by Tim “Make It Work” Gunn.
“It came about in such a random way because I was definitely not thinking about it at all,” Siriano says. “I was confused at first.”
Siriano says he knew the show was moving to Bravo from Lifetime. But when he got the call to join, he had just assumed the show’s veterans, Gunn and host Heidi Klum, would still be onboard. But Gunn and Klum announced last September they would not return to the series. (Both are developing a new fashion series for Amazon.)
“I was very focused on opening my store [The Curated] in New York and I wasn’t paying attention to other projects so much,” Siriano says. I feel like I was probably like, ‘Oh, cool’ [but] I really didn’t wrap my brain around it. When it got closer and then closer and then closer, then I was like, ‘Oh, this is like a thing.’ ”
Changes on the ‘Runway’
That’s what Bravo is hoping for as it seeks to revive the threadbare reality competition. Its 16th season, which aired on Lifetime, averaged 1.77 million viewers — about half what it averaged in its heyday.
Judge Nina Garcia, the editor of Elle, is the only remaining original cast member. She’s joined by new judges Elaine Welteroth, the former editor of Teen Vogue, and designer Brandon Maxwell, who recently dressed Lady Gaga for the Oscars. Meanwhile, model and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss takes over as host.
The new season will feature 16 designers from all over the world, including Colombia and Samoa — one contestant is a Syrian refugee. The show is also amplifying its inclusion efforts with a more size-diverse group of models, as well as the show’s first transgender model.
It’s hardly surprising producers would come calling on Siriano for his expertise. He is easily the most successful alumnus in the show’s history. He began his label after his “Project Runway” win and has spent the years since building his empire.
He’s had design partnerships with Payless, Puma, Starbucks and Spiegel, and has launched a fragrance. And his line — which goes up to size 28, a rarity in high-end designer clothes — sells at select retailers, including Neiman Marcus, as well as through his website and his store in lower Manhattan. His creations have been worn by the likes of Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Amy Adams, Cardi B, Leslie Jones, Laverne Cox, Octavia Spencer and Regina King.
“Tim is such a beloved person on the show — in a lot of ways, he and Heidi were the heart and soul of the show from the beginning,” says executive producer Dan Cutforth. “So to have to replace Tim Gunn is obviously a huge thing. Christian was really the first person we thought of. We felt like it was a great opportunity to get someone who has a different point of view.”
Fellow executive producer Jane Lipsitz added: “He’s got two perspectives for them. He’s got the perspective of having been in their shoes and now the perspective of being a designer and giving them information from a point of success and building a business.”
So, how does Siriano’s mentoring style differ from Gunn’s? For one, he’ll tell you he’s not sure if he has a catchphrase quite as distinct as Gunn’s “Make it work” — “I think I say, ‘You’re killing me’ a lot.”
“I approached it totally different, I think,” he says. “I didn’t really think about it as me giving advice. I just treated them like they were somebody working in my design studio.”
It would go something like this: “I’d be like, “Oh, are you really sure about that sleeve shape? Do you think that’s interesting? Do you really think that’s new? Like, haven’t we seen this dress a million times? Would Beyoncé wear that?’ ”
That’s a table-turning development since his days as the young contestant with the trademark thick-framed glasses and asymmetrical hair who wasn’t always receptive to Gunn’s critiques.
Siriano says he hadn’t really watched “Project Runway” before he joined its ranks all those years ago. The Maryland native had studied designed at the American InterContinental University in London, interning for Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen, during its first few seasons. It was at the urging of a friend who worked at Bravo that he auditioned.
“I was a kid,” he says. “Like, I didn’t know anything. But I felt like I had nothing to lose by going on it.”
It gets him talking about how much the fashion industry has changed in the intervening years and how “Project Runway,” which has been dinged for not launching enough success stories, can still be a valuable springboard — if contestants have a strategy.
“It was a totally different time when my season was on,” he says. “There was no Instagram. The Kardashians were new. The pop culture was different. There are no rules anymore. You can build a brand and be successful with nothing.”
There are some changes in place to better prepare contestants for life after the show. Challenges will better reflect the the fashion industry in the digital age; flash sales will be a component to some episodes, allowing viewers to purchase their favorite looks. Bravo has also upped the prize money to $250,000 — the biggest sum in the show’s history. And the winning designer will, for the first time, receive a mentorship from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
“The show,” Siriano continues, “is an unbelievable experience for someone who has no access. It’s hard to get that as an intern at a brand sometimes. … I think now, because the show has been on for so long, anyone on it should have a plan. If you’re eliminated, or if you’re on until the end, the moment it’s over, what’s your plan? I was very unprepared. I didn’t know anything.”
In the words of Gunn, he at least made it work. In a few hours, he’ll catch a red-eye to New York, where he lives, to begin the casting process for his New York Fashion Week show, which has a futuristic glam theme and will close with plus-size model Ashley Graham.
And he’ll have to finish taping the finale of “Project Runway,” of course.
Like fashion, life comes full circle sometimes.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)