When “Project Runway” launched in 2004, it pulled back the curtain on the fashion industry, made Michael Kors a household name, and elevated the role of designer into the pop culture pantheon. Running for 16 seasons with guest judges including Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker and Ciara, the show introduced such memorable moments as the Gristedes challenge and the Thunder From Down Under challenge. And it gave millions of wannabes dreams of making it like Christian Siriano, the biggest success story among the winners.
After a nearly two-year hiatus, the show returns on March 14 to Bravo for its 17th season, reimagined for now. New host, model Karlie Kloss, who is also executive producer, is joined by a new mentor (Siriano) in the Tim Gunn role, and three regular judges — Elle magazine editor in chief Nina Garcia, a veteran of the show’s earlier iteration; former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, and designer Brandon Maxwell.
The 17 designers competing have a range of experience, and hail from all over the world, including one contestant who is a Syrian refugee, and others who are from India and Samoa. The show will put a new emphasis on inclusion, featuring models of all races and sizes, including the first trans person. Challenges will embrace the evolution of the fashion industry in the digital age, and its new channels of distribution, including flash sales. The show will also give viewers a chance to vote on their favorite designs and buy them online.
Special guests will include Marni Senofonte, Kendall Jenner’s personal stylist as well as the stylist behind Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Super Bowl 50 looks; actress and Siriano muse Danielle Brooks; designer Dapper Dan, and rapper and songwriter Cardi B. The winning designer will receive the largest prize in the show’s history — $250,000 — a feature in Elle magazine and mentorship from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. It’s the first time the CFDA has partnered with the show.
WWD got an exclusive sit-down with Kloss, Siriano and the judges to talk about the new format and focus, and catering to the realities and challenges of today’s fashion industry.
WWD: What are your favorite memories of the original “Project Runway?”
Karlie Kloss: Well, Christian Siriano!
Christian Siriano: You guys know I had never seen the show before I was on it, right? I was living in London, and then I moved to New York and my friend’s mom worked at Bravo and said you should audition for this show. That’s literally how I got on. I didn’t know what it was.
Elaine Welterorth: What would Christian Siriano be without “Project Runway?”
K.K.: He would be just fine.
E.W.: It changed your life though.
C.S.: I [became a part] of pop culture in a way. Amy Poehler played me on “Saturday Night Live.”…But memories…we had a real woman challenge with women who had just lost a lot of weight, and we had to take their clothes and fix them. I loved that challenge.
WWD: Is “Project Runway” the new version of what designers used to mean when they said, “I grew up reading Vogue?” Is it inspiring the next generation of design talent?
Brandon Maxwell: I think so. So many people like myself and Christian have opportunities now because we are able to be seen more. Before, if you weren’t the assistant of somebody, you maybe wouldn’t get the chance. But in our generation, television shows like this one and social media give us the opportunity to drive our own narrative.
K.K.: All the rules have gone out the window in the course of our adult lives, and it’s exciting because it does feel like there is this entrepreneurial courage to take a risk. And I have such respect for the fact this show started when the fashion world was not entirely accepting of a mass look into the industry. The world was so different then, and it championed a larger access and audience into the industry. Magazines used to be the only way in, but this is a powerful medium.
Nina Garcia: The show was the first to take a chance on new designers that had no access directly to the industry. It gave them an opportunity and platform. The show launched December 2004, the iPhone didn’t launch until 2007 — that’s how much and how quickly things have evolved.
E.W.: Let’s be honest, the fashion industry does have a pipeline problem, and this show has always given people hope for a chance at being part of the industry who might not have had it otherwise.
WWD: Speaking of fashion industry problems, it’s extremely hard for young designers, even the ones who won “Project Runway,” to make it. How is the new season addressing that?
C.S.: The CFDA partnership is number one….You can’t show as a designer at fashion week without their approval, and you’re not going to get their approval unless they are involved. I couldn’t get their approval when I started. I had to work at that. Now, [CFDA chief executive officer] Steven Kolb is so excited, he understands how this world has changed.
E.W.: The CFDA’s participation speaks to the legitimacy and the credibility that this new iteration of the show is going to bring. Before, “Project Runway” existed over here, and the fashion industry existed over there. This show is going to bridge those worlds.
N.G.: I don’t want to name names, but there were designers who wouldn’t be guest judges on the show because of the Anna [Wintour] factor. They did not want to displease Vogue. They thought that by coming on the show, they would not be in the good graces.
E.W.: That’s over. We have a Vogue model, an ex-Vogue editor, a Vogue-approved designer involved, it’s a new day.
K.K.: Our business has been and will always be a people business. What comes after is crucial, and is an important incubation period. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have eyeballs and interest on you, even if you don’t have approval of XYZ, you still can build your business and chase your dreams. The best talent will rise to the surface.
B.M.: To set anyone up for success always starts at home, with parenting. What we tried to do on this show was come from a nurturing, loving place. You have to balance being critical and honest because the world is critical with us, and honest with us, but also come from a place of understanding.
WWD: Did you think about today’s new consciousness about bullying, and tone down the criticism at all?
E.W.: I don’t think any of us were intentional about toning anything down. But the world is different today, it’s a friendlier place, and a more collaborative place than it was in years past. You can pick up on that shift in the spirit from competition to collaboration both in the workroom with the designers and also in the approach we all took in giving feedback to them. No one was being snarky for the sake of being snarky. We were there to be honest, and give critical feedback with the intention of making them the best designers they could possibly be because we were rooting from them.
K.K.: We all sound like such Millennials saying, “Be the best you can be, you can be great,” but I feel like there is an element of truth to that in our industry. It’s not about looking at what other people are doing, you gotta just…
B.M.: I don’t think any of us are a mean-spirited person by nature. There are moments I was crying because I felt so emotionally attached to people, and there were times I had angry responses to them for not stepping up to an opportunity so many young people would love to have. I would get so emotionally worked up and Nina would say leave it at the challenge and move onto the next one. Ultimately, I was able to. But the first couple, I’m sure she was ready to go have a drink!
N.G.: The thing I see that is different with this new version of “Project Runway” is the fact that we have more interaction with designers. We didn’t have access to them before. There’s really the opportunity to hear about their backgrounds and stories, and that changes the dynamic….Now you have an intimate relationship…that’s why it’s emotional…because before we really judged them solely on their work. Now, you know the background story, you know what they’ve been through. It puts it in a different perspective and it’s a different dynamic.
WWD: There is a new emphasis on storytelling in fashion today. Do you think personal story and personal branding, whether it’s being reflected on Instagram or through a collection, has become more important?
B.M.: To me, it’s the total driving force. It’s also what you have to be doing because people want to understand what they are buying. It’s an industry so much about what everything looks like and the smoke and mirrors, and that is just exhausting. The truth is, we are all going through something and the more we can have that conversation, the more we can understand how to be better. That’s what people are drawn to. For me, I make a black dress, so you really need to understand what that’s about.
WWD: It’s very different from the old model of a designer who was very walled off and never spoke.
K.K.: Same for the models. Fashion is emotional and is a form of self-expression…vulnerabilities, good, bad, the ugly. But a lot of creatives aren’t comfortable with that all the time. I don’t think that’s what we’re measuring on, necessarily, as far as who has a good story, but we wanted to touch on that because it’s a part of the world today. But we aren’t forcing that on anyone.
C.S.: Fashion still needs to be aspirational, that’s why people want it, so there has to be some of that mystery. But it doesn’t have to be disconnected. I’m a more personable designer, but I still have a lot of clothes not everyone can buy, so there’s an aspiration there. It’s about how you balance it.
WWD: So designers have to be engaged.
E.W.: Fashion is a platform. In a world like the one we live in, there’s no way to think you can just create in a silo and vacuum. You have to be thoughtful about what’s happening in the world.
C.S.: What people wear, what first ladies wear…
E.W.: It all has meaning. And we talk about that on the show.
WWD: Do you advise the designers on social media strategy?
E.W.: There’s one social media challenge looking at how they communicate their look on Instagram. It matters so much.
WWD: And what about the fast-fashion piece of the industry?
K.K.: The flash sale challenge is a really interesting part of the audience being able to partake in and show right away what they are interested in, and what they like. That’s where the social media piece matters, it’s your campaign to win them over.
WWD: That sounds like invaluable experience, actually getting to sell something in real time.
C.S.: It is, because after the show, you’re a brand without having anything to sell. There is no product to give anyone. It was the biggest problem in my day, and with this that changes.
K.K.: We also touch on sustainability; there’s a designer who only works with no-waste materials. We are not going to find the solution on the show, but it’s a conversation happening in real time about how we as an industry can be more responsible about how we produce.
WWD: How does the show address inclusion in fashion?
E.W.: We didn’t have a part in casting the show…but it was incredible to see the full range of backgrounds. To have a Syrian refugee make it onto this show is indicative of what the American dream is about. Lord knows, we need to be a little better about how we are delivering against that American dream right now in this country.
N.G.: One of the designers is from Colombia…and his story…he came here cleaning houses, yet he is this incredibly gifted, skilled creative designer.
E.W.: With the best craftsmanship on the show.
K.K.: There is also diversity in experience, some people have never been trained before, others have businesses. It made for a really interesting dynamic, too, a well-rounded group of people that learned a lot from one another.
C.S.: They all came from such different worlds, and were inspired by one another, which is very different then when I was there, when most of us lived in New York.
E.W.: The fact we are all part of the storytellers of the show means something. We are all outsiders who have become insiders in this industry and found a way to make it into influential positions.
N.G.: I remember growing up and having very few Latina role models in the U.S. to look up to. And when I started the show, I had so many reach out to me. One girl flew all the way from Chile to meet me, and has become this girl I love and protect and advise.
K.K.: I also think diversity leads to a better end result. It’s not just ticking off boxes, there should be a well-rounded, diversity of thought and life experience at the table in creating anything.
E.W.: There are so many moments when inclusivity and diversity are celebrated on the show. We have our first trans model, and several plus-size models.
B.M.: We each tried to dive into subjects we know and how they affect the process. There are a lot of gay men in fashion and the idea of what that is and looks like we addressed a lot on the show because there are a lot of people identifying in different ways and they put a lot of that into their work. And rather than sitting back and saying, “I like that because it’s red, or you should have done that shorter,” it was about, “Why are you making that?” “How does this story of yours bleed into the clothes?” We realized we were looking at ourselves because we were that once. You are thrown out there, one article is written about your collection, and everyone’s asking what’s it going to be? And you are standing out there without your clothes on in front of everybody and you have to find it within yourself to be the best you can be while everybody is watching and you are also trying to understand who the hell you are.
WWD: Can you speak about the models and why it was important to have a trans model and if it’s a different experience for them?
K.K.: For me, I have seen and am so proud to be a part of an industry that continues to evolve. There is room for more inclusion and diversity of all shapes, colors, sizes, that is happening slowly but we wanted to reflect that through the conversation and our actions in creating a show with models representing the audience and world at large. I’m someone who grew up on the runway. My body was very different at 15 than it is today. I really care about supporting this movement to have more inclusion because I don’t have the body I did when I was 15 or aspire to, nor do I think the fashion industry should only serve people in that way. Models are muses and canvases that bring designs to life, so they are an important part of bringing designers’ creations to the runway, and could make or break why someone won or lost sometimes.
C.S.: When I was on, we didn’t have the same experience with models. Now, they are so close with their designers.
E.W.: For us, it’s about how a woman feels in the clothes. If you are not designing to celebrate her body, you got docked points. There is no way to be a successful designer in this world if you are ignoring a large portion of the population. Most women are curvy and they deserve to feel good in their bodies. I actually think there was more interaction between the model and designer and the model and judges than before, asking questions like, “How do you feel in that? Can you walk? Can you breathe?” The designers listen to the models, too.
WWD: Do you talk about sexism in the industry?
K.K.: The way we judged it, we all really were aware of not judging through the male gaze, or the gaze of the traditional fashion industry with only one point of view or ideal. We wanted it to be so much more about how they felt.
WWD: Did doing this show make you feel hopeful about the fashion industry because there is a lot of gloom and doom?
B.M.: The experience left me with more purpose in my own life, how does this matter, what am I doing for others. Going back to the sexism question, we really didn’t have an answer because it had not occurred to us because we approached this show in a different way. There was no difference between the models, the designers and us. It was a collaborative experience about trying to bring out the best. And when we can do that, the industry is at its best. There are young people I know for a fact whose lives were changed by this experience. What more can you ask for?
N.G.: You could also say it’s growing pains, we’re going through a digital revolution. It could be an obstacle or opportunity.
K.K.: I got on board because in this changing landscape, what does not change is that fashion at its best can make people feel like best versions of themselves, and inspire and dream.
E.W.: We would not be here if it was not for our mentors. There was a woman who opened the door for me, and gave me my first opportunity and I’ve been mentored all along the way. So for us to be mentors to the next generations meant so much. I didn’t expect to be so moved or invested. There were tears, usually in the workroom, but it happened on the judges’ table, too. If we had to let someone go, we wanted to give them our number.