Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn may be out, but the 15-year-old “Project Runway” is still very much in as it returns to its old Bravo stomping grounds after 11 seasons on Lifetime. Their departures sparked an overhaul of the series in front of the camera, starting with model Karlie Kloss and designer/former winner Christian Siriano replacing the host and mentor, respectively. Also, Elaine Welteroth and Brandon Maxwell join veteran Nina Garcia for a freshened judges’ panel. With these personnel changes comes a revitalized purpose for “Project Runway” to democratize fashion and make it accessible and all-inclusive for everyone in an age when identity, acceptance, and self-expression have become paramount.
The rebooted “Runway” still has the same formula though. Competitors are challenged each episode to design an original outfit, and the one with the worst design is eliminated. By the end of the series, the three finalists create an entire collection for judgment. Despite this familiar format, the feel of the show is more energetic and unabashedly progressive.
“Fashion has always been a reflection of what’s happening in the world, and this show will be a reflection of what’s happening in the world,” said Welteroth during the Television Critics Association panel for the show in February. “We do not shy away from conversations that are happening in our industry and in our world that affect women, in particular people of color. [Fashion] is the nucleus, but it is also a lens for the things that are happening in our world and specifically regarding women’s empowerment. That’s a really central theme that’s woven throughout the season.”
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Below is an examination of the many ways “Project Runway” is more inclusive and relevant than ever:
While Klum and Gunn are still in demand — Amazon lured them away to make their own fashion-themed series — their presence wouldn’t have brought in any new viewers to “Project Runway.” In contrast, Kloss and Siriano have younger fans and a greater social media following that may have not watched the show previously.
Both also have strong culturally progressive leanings. Kloss has been a proponent for young girls pursuing STEM, is an avid coder, and started a coding scholarship for high school girls. Siriano has always made his fashions inclusive, whether it’s through his affordable line at Payless or dressing celebrities of all colors, shapes, sizes, and identifications for the red carpet. Siriano has dressed Michelle Obama, Leslie Jones (after other designers refused to make her a red carpet gown), and most recently, Billy Porter in a show-stopping, gender-defying, tuxedo-inspired gown for the Oscars.
Shutting the carpet down In a Siriano velvet tuxedo gown! #billyporter at the #oscars @theebillyporter pic.twitter.com/7PaSPJkRi2
— Christian Siriano (@CSiriano) February 24, 2019
While Gunn’s catchphrases and avuncular presence will be missed, Siriano is a working designer conversant with the current fashion industry. He also knows exactly what it means to compete on “Project Runway” – the demand for innovation, ridiculous deadlines, sleep deprivation, creative fixes, and coping strategies. His ability to identify with the contestants will make his advice carry more weight.
“I think what’s really special for the designers to be successful going forward is to have a real designer giving them advice, just because the industry’s tough. The fashion business is hard,” said Siriano. “If anyone can give them advice, I would think it would be me, someone who won the show and then built something afterwards because it’s really what you do after the show as well to build a brand, and you have to do that for yourself.”
Perhaps inspired by Siriano, the show seems more determined than ever to produce designers who can actually continue to build a real career after the show. The doubled prize money — a whopping $250,000 — can’t hurt to set up a fashion line and studio, but during the show, the competitors will still have opportunities to sell their clothes through a flash sale.
“To reflect the new reality of the fashion industry, we really wanted to lean into the influence of social media and the phenomenon of the flash sale,” said producer Dan Cutforth. “In a number of the episodes, the audience has an opportunity to vote for their favorite look … and then that will be available to buy. Financially, they would benefit from that. And the judges’ favorite look from that episode will also be available if it’s different than the audience’s vote.”
This interactive element gives the viewers access to designer clothing, but also the power to guide what is made available. A design that an audience member might admire from afar might be very different from the design they’d be able to wear themselves, which prompts different criteria for the fan-favorite vote.
The premiere introduces designer Kovid to his model Mimi Tao, who reveals she’s a transgender model, a first for the series. Kovid, who had to flee his home country where homosexuality is a crime, identifies with Mimi’s struggles and achievements.
“I want to change the industry. I want to inspire all the transgender young generation who have a dream,” she says.
Representation for transgender people has been slowly increasing on TV, with FX’s series “Pose” starring a record number of transgender actors. Tao was raised to be a Buddhist monk but realized she’s a transgender woman while she was in the Thai monastery.
Although “Project Runway” has featured models of different shapes and sizes previously, that was treated as a novelty or a design challenge. This season, little fanfare is made of presenting the models. Instead, each designer randomly picks a model from cards and then creates a design to fight their body.
“It’s been amazing to see the designers work with any model that’s a different size, because there’s actually quite a range,” said Siriano. “Sometimes they would want a girl that was a different size because they felt like that was their brand. That was the first time really seeing designers being like, ‘Oh, no. I would rather have someone that has more shape, because that’s the type of brand I want to put out to the world,’ which, I think, is different than maybe when I was on… Now, designers are really thinking about what people will say about their work.”
“This is the most inclusive iteration of ‘Project Runway’ that the world has ever seen … it’s the most diverse cast of designers,” said Welteroth. “From an age perspective, there’s a 20-year age difference that you’ll see. Also, people are coming from all over the world, from Samoa, from Syria, India, all over the country.
“When the world feels like it’s become very, very tumultuous from a social and political perspective, we all just need a reason to dream again. We all need a reason to laugh, to smile, to cheer someone on, and to come together. And I think that’s what this show does. And it’s a really critical moment in time to have a show like this that really bridges the divides in the country.”
“Project Runway” will still have plenty of drama — it is a reality show after all — but this season feels distinctly different. There seems to be less snarky commentary from the designers and more mindful respect for each other, despite differences in opinion or personality. Following a season that was rocked by a cheating scandal, this newer, nicer “Project Runway” that’s focusing on the work is refreshing.
“We wanted to come from a place of passion. I think that everything starts with being loved and cared for and paid attention to and seen,” said Maxwell. “That is the greatest thing about this show, that we came in every day charged with the mission to not only find the greatest talent, but also to help them feel the best that they could. All we need to be doing is making people feel good. That’s what the show did for me when I was sitting at home, dreaming of this life, and that’s what I hope it will do now.”
”Project Runway” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on Bravo.