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There is something special about a young man who, at such a young age, can put together genius collections of clothing lines ensembles that popularize like crazy, become an inducted member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and be crowned a winner on the ever so popular fashion designing reality show, Project Runway. Christian Siriano is this man. After winning Project Runway back in early 2008, entrepreneur, fashion designer and member of the CFDA, Siriano has been spending his years since doing big things in his career. His major successes range from the launching of his own fashion line, The Christian Siriano Collection, and the release of his first book, Fierce Style: How to Be Your Most Fabulous Self. It surely wasn’t long after his big win that Siriano’s designs were making their a debut appearance at New York Fashion Week later in 2008. His career continues to move in a positive direction, as well as his popularity, but in order to find himself headed toward a fashion whirlwind he had to start somewhere.
Growing up with watching his mother designing costumes for his younger sister’s ballet, Siriano found himself surrounded by fashion at a young age as well as an interest that he longed to practice himself. He used this energy to work towards making his dream a reality. When the time to attend high school rolled around, He chose to take a step towards becoming educated on this new found love for fashion by attending the Baltimore School for the Arts, focusing on fashion design. His longing to find a creative outlet in what he did led him to places where he could do so. He went on to attend the American InterContinental University in London while also interning with renowned fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. With experience in hand, graduating from college only led Siriano to larger opportunities in his career.
First on the list: New York. Upon first arriving in the fashion capital, Siriano was unable to jump directly into the designing job of his dreams; having no money and being new to the city, he had to settle as a freelance make-up artist until he was able to earn some extra cash. Fortunately, Siriano’s broke, temporary make-up artist persona didn’t last very long; he was quickly back on his feet and working as a paid intern for Marc Jacobs and auditioning for Project Runway. His career was truly taking off in a positive direction and people were noticing.
2008 was not only the year of Siriano’s big win on Season 4 of Project Runway, but the launching of The Christian Siriano Collection as well. Six months down the road, Siriano had accumulated his share of fans which led to the launching of his fashion line, giving his fans their very own Siriano products to buy. During a Q&A with freelance writer and editor Kate Montrell, Siriano said “It was a quick rush jolt into the limelight with celebrities wanting my designs and so much publicity because of the show,” referring to life after the launch. Although with the pressure weighing down on his shoulders, Siriano had enough motivation to quickly give the people what they wanted.
According to the Christian Siriano official website, Siriano’s fashion line which is known for its whimsical designs, consisting of fantasy evening gowns, cocktail dresses, tailored sportswear, and intricately detailed shoes and accessories, brought in an estimated $5 million in 2012. The Christian Siriano Collection can be found in department stores and specialty boutiques all over the world, in an abundance of magazines, as well as worn by some the world’s greatest names in film, television, music and fashion. This collection was very much a significant accomplishment in Siriano’s fashion career.
A great deal of successes continued to go his way in 2012 following with the the opening of the first flagship Christian Siriano store in New York City as well as being inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Siriano also designs a bridal collection for Nordstrom, four seasonal collections for Payless ShoeSource, as well as being involved in other design partnerships with retailers. And if that’s not enough, the Christian Siriano fragrance and eyewear line will make its launch in 2014. One may ask how Siriano has accomplished so much at only age 27, and this is all attributed to the determination, passion and pure talent he has for the work that he does. Dubbed “a prodigy” and “the next great American fashion designer,” by fashion guru and Project Runway mentor, Tim Gunn, Siriano continues to make enormous strides in his career continues to work towards affirming this statement.
Art can be evocative and profound. It can speak to larger social movements and provoke change. As the late artist Elizabeth Catlett once wrote in her 1989 book Traditions and Transformations: Contemporary Afro American Sculpture, “Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” Catlett was a fervent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and championed equality for all people. As such, many of her works captured the essence of the indomitable human spirit, adversity, social enlightenment, and cultural pride. From Catlett’s perspective, art was a medium that transcended mere aestheticism. Beyond her creativity and acumen, Catlett utilized art to uplift downtrodden and oppressed people.
As the granddaughter of former slaves and the daughter of educators, Catlett inherited a sense of pride in her African American heritage. Her father, who passed away before she was born, was a mathematics professor at the Tuskegee Institute and her mother worked as a truant officer. Catlett’s grandmother told her stories about suffering as a slave and the perseverance of African Americans in spite of slavery. As such, Catlett was well aware of the plight of African Americans and embraced her racial identity. She also gained an appreciation for the determination of African American woman by observing her mother struggle to support the family.
Even in her own life Catlett experienced discrimination and prejudice firsthand. Catlett wanted to pursue a higher education and applied to the Carnegie Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, she was barred from admission due to her race. In spite of racial discrimination, Catlett was determined to further her education and attended Howard University. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Art and later received a MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. During her studies Catlett made African Americans the focal point of her artwork. The onslaught of racism and inequality inspired her to create works that reflected the African American experience.
While Catlett was dedicated to portraying the plight and resiliency of African Americans, she and other artists of her ilk were challenging the status quo in the United States which drew the ire of the American government. At the height of McCarthyism, Communist supporters and sympathizers were blacklisted and/or imprisoned. Catlett’s first husband, Charles White, was a member of the Communist Party so they decided to leave the United States. In addition, Catlett received the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship which enabled her and White to travel to Mexico City.
As a resident in Mexico, Catlett wanted to preserve her liberty without compromising her artistic integrity. She became active in the Taller de Gráfica Popular workshop which was founded by artists Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O’Higgins. This was a community of like-minded artists dedicated to promoting social equality and conveying the authenticity of oppressed and marginalized people. She divorced Charles White and married Mexican artist Francisco Mora. It was also during this time that she created her linoleum cut series titled The Negro Woman.
With this series, Catlett depicted African American women as resilient and endearing human beings. Catlett also crafted an overarching narrative to complement her artistic representations of African American women. As Catlett wrote, “I am the Negro woman. I have always worked hard in America. In the fields. In other folks’ homes. I have given the world my songs. In Sojourner Truth I fought for the rights of women as well as Negroes. In Harriet Tubman I helped hundreds to freedom. In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery. My role has been important in the struggle to organize the unorganized […] My right is a future of equality with other Americans.”
In particular, Catlett wanted to demonstrate the strength of African American women in her works. As an African American woman herself, Catlett knew how difficult it was to endure racial and gender discrimination. As she told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992, “I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women […] Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States.”
Her 1952 piece, “Sharecropper” depicts an elderly black woman solemnly gazing into the distance. This woman symbolizes the strength of African Americans to endure even the most difficult circumstances. Following the Civil War, African Americans in the South lived in conditions similar to slavery. African Americans had limited opportunities for work and many of them had to resort to sharecropping to provide for themselves and their families. Although they were technically free, the master-slave dynamic still existed. In this piece, Catlett paid tribute to the anonymous individuals that suffered oppression and indignities in order to survive. While prominent figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks are deservedly immortalized in history for their contributions, countless unknown African Americans also bore excruciating burdens to pave the path for future generations.
Catlett’s piece “Homage to the Black Panthers” captures the spirit of radical activism. It features images of members of the Black Panthers as well as two black, clenched fists and an assault rifle. The Black Panthers believed that militancy was necessary to bring about equality for African Americans. Catlett’s piece illustrates the rage and resiliency of African Americans who were fed up with being treated like second-class citizens. While The Black Panthers’ methodology has garnered controversy, their desire for equality was admirable and justifiable. Since Catlett encountered the same struggles as The Black Panthers and other African Americans, she identified with their cause and portrayed their solidarity through art.
Her piece “And a Special Fear For My Loved Ones” depicts the graphic aftermath of the lynching of a black man. The lifeless body of the man lies on the ground while his assailants trample on the severed noose hanging from his neck. Catlett evocatively gives viewers a glimpse into this bleak reality that African Americans have endured for centuries. “And a Special Fear For My Loved Ones” is still, unfortunately, relevant today. The specter of racism looms in American society and in some respects African Americans are still treated and viewed as expendable. This powerful image encapsulates the brutality of racial persecution that’s plagued America since its inception.
Even though Catlett spent the majority of her life in Mexico, she was still concerned for the well-being of African Americans and continued to portray them in her artwork. She went on to become the Professor of Sculpture for the National School of Fine Arts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Catlett also continued her activism by organizing the Mexican Provisional Committee of Solidarity with Angela Davis, a former member of The Black Panthers. In the 21st century, Catlett was still actively creating art. She created a bronze sculpture in 2003 to honor author Ralph Ellison titled, “Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison” which depicts a clear silhouette of a man within a bronze rectangle.
Elizabeth Catlett was always purposeful when she created art. She wasn’t concerned with recognition or fame; she made artwork to usher in societal equality. Catlett embraced her identity as well as the history of oppression and perseverance shared by all African Americans. Her works are timeless and a testament to people who have endured, combatted, and surmounted societal injustices.
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