An Energetic, Freshened-Up and Entertaining Project Runway Returns to Bravo for its 17th Season

Posted on March 15, 2019

Project Runway is back home on Bravo, where it always belonged. And Bravo, for its part, is determined to let you know just how badly the show deteriorated away from its loving attention. Lifetime locked the show into its gone-stale-a-decade-ago 2004 format, cast it with colorful attention-seeking characters with limited fashion design skills, played down any depiction of the inspiration/design dynamic and process, and tried to make the show all about “stories” rather than about its ostensible purpose: to showcase and highlight the designs of talented up-and-comers in order to find the best of the lot and send them on their way with a career startup package. The critiques got bitchier and less helpful, the mentoring was reduced to hugs, and winners were picked based on personality over technique. It stopped being about fashion, in other words.

Now? The sets are completely different (not just mildly freshened up), the production values are better than they ever were, and in what we hope will be an ongoing practice going forward, the process of inspiration and design has been centered in a way that reminds us of those long-ago first few seasons. In a twist we never could have predicted, the new Project Runway (Nu-PR, let’s call it) reminds us quite a bit of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Not in the screaming-queens-seeking-camera-time sense, but in the way it ties the process of fashion design to a designer’s own personal story. Drag Race became an international sensation and won some Emmys because it was always very good at tying the challenges posed to the queens each episode with the very essence of what drag is all about, giving the contestants time and space to talk their way through their difficulties and to share with the camera and the other contestants where they’re coming from. In other words, good reality television has to be about the stories and how they integrate with the challenge, but old Project Runway sought maximum drama and attention-seekers over storytellers, which meant the process got shifted to the back burner and eventually dispensed with altogether. This is why Tim Gunn went from one of the most compelling personalities on television to a hugs-dispensing fashion grandpa. The show had no use for someone with his knowledge and abilities.

 

This brings us to our next bit o’ blasphemy: We didn’t miss Heidi or Tim for one second last night. The new cast members are not only up to the task of filling their shoes, they create a dynamic that reminds us very much of the show’s best days. Brandon Maxwell, to our complete and utter delight, has turned out to be something of a Baby Michael Kors. Not that he’s necessarily imitating the former judge, but he’s got that same sense of excitement about fashion, respect for different approaches to it, and a little bit of wit and bitchery to make his commentary entertaining. Zac Posen was just bitchy, treated each designer like a competitor and largely acted bored with the whole thing for the last several seasons. It’s no surprise that Christian Siriano is great on camera, but we were thrilled to see a mentor come in, talk briefly with a designer, offer some sharp and technical advice and move on. Nothing against Tim, but if there’s drama to be found in the work room, it should be provided by the designers themselves, not the mentor giving them hugs. Christian’s brief consultations were refreshing and on-point, delivering real advice from someone who’s not only been in the trenches, but rose to the heights.

 

Karlie Kloss is just about as good out of the gate as Heidi was about ten years into her tenure. No tea no shade, but the OG host took a while to settle into her role back in the day and Karlie’s ease on camera and likable personality make us wonder if this new cast wasn’t trained, rehearsed and directed before the cameras ever rolled. In other words, it sure looks like Karlie is a graduate of Reality Hostess University.  Nina is where she always should be: Smack in the middle, directing the conversation and guiding the critiques. She seemed looser and happier on camera than we’ve seen in years. Elaine Welteroth makes a fantastic counterpoint to Nina. They’re both fabulous, knowledgeable and excited about fashion, but with different enough professional and personal backgrounds to make their perspectives unique. Just as Nina made a point to mention her Latin American background, Elaine brought her perspective as a black woman in fashion to the table – literally.

 

Which brings us to our next point: By having the judges speak to the designers about their own stories and entry into fashion and then having the designers use those stories to inspire them to tell their own stories, Nu-PR did a better job integrating stories with design than the show has done since its earliest days. Yes, several of the designers had some sad stories to tell about themselves, but it never became about grandiose emotional scenes or confrontations; just real people struggling to do their best work while dealing with whatever baggage they brought to the table.

 

Which isn’t to suggest we don’t foresee some major drama and meltdown action down the line. This is reality television after all and Project Runway, like all reality competition shows, deliberately puts the contestants in high-pressure situations in order to ramp up their stress to see how well they handle it. And there are certainly enough colorful and forceful personalities among this group for us to reasonably predict that meltdowns and personality clashes are on their way. But we didn’t get the impression from this premiere episode that such things were going to be the entire focus of the show, which seems committed and determined to focus on the process.

 

The format has remain largely unchanged, but there were a few tweaks that we really loved. First, the sets are gorgeous and look more like actual fashion spaces in New York than the old sets. Second, the designers got two whole days and $250 to complete their work. We LOVED the “final touches” in the hallway before the runway show because that is an essential aspect of literally all runway shows and something we rarely saw on the old Project Runway. We also love that Christian has nothing to do with the judging process and never appears on set while it’s going on. We LOVE that the designers have to take a phone picture of their design for social media because, unlike in 2004 when the show launched, such things have become an essential aspect of modern fashion culture. And we loved that the safe designers get to watch the critiquing process from backstage, because first, it gives them all a sense of how the judging works and second, it allows them to feel sympathy for their competitors, fostering a more “we’re all in this together” vibe rather than a cutthroat one. We also really liked that the show chose to focus on a handful of designers in this first episode rather than trying to get you to remember all of them. Again, it gave the highlighted designers a little space and time to tell their stories. Granted, the focus made it really easy to determine who was in the top and bottom long before they were announced, but we didn’t mind that so much. And finally, the prize package is appropriately enormous and includes something the show should have always offered: a mentorship with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the leading industry mentorship and career-building organization. It’s been well over a decade since Project Runway gave any sort of impression that it cared about what happened to its winners. This package seems designed to ensure that the show will finally be the career-maker other reality shows are, from American Idol to Top Chef to Drag Race.

 

Here’s the best way we can sum this up: When we were PR fan-bloggers, we happily and eagerly greeted every other fashion design competition that debuted in its wake (and there were quite a few back in the day), only to be disappointed by the lukewarm offerings and stale sense of familiarity. Despite the new energy and surface changes to the show, we never once felt like we were watching anything but a good episode of Project Runway. We never felt like we were looking at some pale imitation or cheap knockoff. Honestly, it feels like the entire overhaul was a special present just to us, addressing almost all our complaints and bitches over the last 13 years. This is the real Project Runway deal, better than ever.

Now let’s see how they all did. If you can’t remember which designer is which, click on their names over each picture. Let’s start with the safe designers who got waved through without critique.

 

Afa

It’s okay. Not the freshest look in the world, but fairly well executed.

 

 

Bishme

Interesting shapes, but terrible proportions. The fabric choices weren’t great. The open sleeve design with the buttons was the one interesting element. This needed to be edited to allow that aspect to shine.

 

 

Garo

Well.

It’s a point of view, alright. The pants are interesting but the top is terrible and the whole thing wildly distorts her body.

 

 

Hester

Overdesigned.

 

 

 

Jamall

It isn’t the freshest look in the world and we think the proportions are questionable, but this is decent star.

 

 

Kovid

Again, not reinventing the wheel, but very well done. Elegant, with a perfect sense of drape and flow and a good sense of color usage. Kovid was one of the standout personalities; very sweet and fun to watch. His response to his model Mimi revealing that she’s the first transgender model in PR history was so lovely it brought tears to our eyes.

And kudos to PR for hiring her. Back in the day, the show was a pioneer in featuring gay men in reality television and it’s wonderful to see this sort of evolution happening. Also: she’s fabulous with cheekbones to die for.

 

 

Nadine

You can tell this lot does not manage their time well yet. The blouse is nice but the jacket’s unfortunate.

 

 

Sebastian

A truly interesting and fresh look, even if it is wildly overdesigned. It’s an impressive amount of work to pull off in two days.

 

 

Rakan Shams

Bland.

There were also a lot of seriously questionable fabric choices, which we’re going to be kind about and assume they all need to learn the Mood layout a little better.

 

 

Sonia

This is actually pretty great.

 

 

And now, the poor unfortunates who found themselves on the bottom this week.

 

 

Frankie

This is awful, of course. We don’t have anything to add to the judges critiques or even to Frankie’s self-critiques. But we probably would have chosen her for the boot because this wasn’t only a badly rendered design, it was a poorly conceived one. She looked at a picture of a woman in a blue bathing suit and used that as inspiration to make … a blue bathing suit. And for a designer of plus-sized wear, she was astonishingly dismissive of her model’s proportions in the critique.

 

 

Lela

Bad design, badly sewn, in ugly fabrics, paired with the wrong shoes.

 

 

 

Cavanagh

Girlfriend was getting the villain edit right out of the gate. Granted, she was giving them plenty of eyeroll-worthy soundbites. The problem here is that this design is bland; not badly rendered or even badly designed. Just bland. And Nina in particular will almost always punish the bland design over the badly rendered one.

And finally, the Top Three:

 

Renee

LOVE the design, don’t love the fabric choices. She got an impressive amount of work done.

 

 

Venny

The skirt’s straight-up bad, but the jacket is absolutely gorgeous. He’s got skills, bit might have some questionable instincts. Those feathers…

 

 

Tessa

A really great, fresh, modern design. Knowing that the winning design was going to get produced – another welcome aspect of the new show – she stuck to something minimalist with high impact, which means the production costs were going to be low. It’s just okay from the front, but it’s really fantastic from the back.

The final produced design, which you can buy now, for a surprisingly affordable price:

The fact that it made it to production looking pretty much exactly the same is a testament to how well she pulled this off.

Whew! That’s more words about Project Runway than we’ve written in YEARS. What did you all think of Nu-PR?

You can hear more of our thoughts on the fashions and the new format in today’s podcast:

 

 

 

[Photo Credit: Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo, Barbara Nitke/Bravo, BravoTV, nineteenthamendment.com]

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