When “Project Runway” first premiered in 2004, it premiered in a different world. It was a time of low-rise jeans and chunky highlights, trucker hats and skinny scarves, body glitter and “accidental” nip slips. Pop culture was ruled by rude boys and stumbling starlets — the messier, the better.
In retrospect, it was a truly bold move to premiere a show about fashion in such uncertain (read: tacky) times.
Now, 15(!) years later, “Project Runway” is making some calculated adjustments to stay ahead of the times. Season 17 of “Project Runway,” which premieres tonight on Bravo (thus ending the show’s stint on Lifetime), looks and feels much like the show of old, with a few key changes. Supermodel host Heidi Klum has been replaced with the Instagram friendlier Karlie Kloss, while designer and former contestant Christian Siriano steps in for mentor Tim Gunn. In fact, the only holdover on the judge’s panel is “Elle” editor-in-chief Nina Garcia; new faces include designer Brandon Maxwell and former “Teen Vogue” EIC Elaine Welteroth. The workroom, runway, and even the designers’ apartments are revamped for optimal glossiness as if to reassure the viewer just how thorough the show’s makeover really is.
But the biggest differences in how the latest of iteration of “Project Runway” wants to present itself aren’t, in fact, its new faces. One of the show’s big new twists is that many challenges will include a capitalistic new outcome in which both the winning design and a fan favorite (determined by an online vote) will be manufactured and sold through Bravo’s website. This practical focus couples nicely with Siriano’s recent insistence at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour that his mentoring style will, unlike Gunn’s, be more rooted in “real fashion industry feedback,” because “what you do after the show [is] to build a brand.” Whether or not this means the judges’ picks will err more towards ready to wear fashions versus tricky to reproduce couture, even if they might like the latter better, remains to be seen.
Most stark, however, is how much the show is tripling down on inspirational inclusivity in a way that feels distinctly 2019. The new season’s models, like those of season 16, are of varying sizes (though I’d hesitate to say they’re quite as wide-ranging as the show itself implies). The judges and designers alike emphasize the importance of being able to tailor to every body, which makes for a downright jarring difference from the earliest “Project Runway” seasons in which “real women” challenges were presented as catastrophic curveballs. There’s also a lovely moment in which one of the models reveals to designer Kavid Kapoor that she is the show’s first transgender model to date, prompting an immediate, thrilled reaction. “Honored” to dress her, Kapoor then speaks movingly about his own experience having to leave the Himalayan highlands of India, where homosexuality is illegal, with his partner of eight years.
Even the judges emphasize their backstories in a way that they never quite have before. The first challenge they set has the designers working off photos symbolizing significant moments in the judges’ lives when they grew to love fashion. Some are more inspiring than others. Welteroth shows off her first celebratory “Ebony” cover shoot of Serena Williams; Garcia talks about immigrating to the United States from Colombia; Karlie Kloss shares a photo of her first runway show.
Still, the message is clear: this is a warmer, fuzzier “Project Runway” that wants to be for the people instead of decreeing the grand laws of fashion from somewhere above them. So far, that doesn’t make for especially fascinating reality TV, a genre that is usually better off for allowing a little more room for rougher edges. But if the vanguards of the fashion world are truly finding it in their hearts (or at least their savvy business brains) to open the doors for talent and designs alike just a little bit wider, it makes for an intriguing new direction nonetheless.
“Project Runway” airs Thursdays at 8/7c on Bravo.