Can a reality show revive itself in its 17th season? More often, the question is: Should it? Competition shows operate under a different set of incentives from traditional scripted shows, generating their own talent pool of camera-ready contestants and with closed systems tending to exhaust their supply of self-generated ideas. Over time, RuPaul’s Drag Race has evolved into a fourth-wall-busting deconstruction populated by queens drawn to the art form by the show itself; last fall, CBS’s Survivor, the great-grandaddy of reality competition shows, enjoyed one of its best seasons ever well into its second decade.
The rebirth of Project Runway is less a matter of choice than necessity. First, its production company, the Weinstein Co., collapsed under extremely public and highly distressing circumstances. For the fashion design show, the company’s dissolution had an immediate practical impact: a return to Bravo, the network where Project Runway launched in 2004 and aired its first five seasons before switching to Lifetime in 2008 after a Weinstein-negotiated new licensing deal. A change of venue didn’t necessarily signal a larger change, but then a second, much bigger bomb dropped: Host Heidi Klum and iconic mentor Tim Gunn would be leaving the show to start a new fashion competition on Amazon.
Klum and Gunn’s show has yet to premiere and was still casting as of this winter. But in their absence, Project Runway and its producers have gone to work, overhauling the show’s look, format, and most importantly, judging panel. Elle editor-in-chief Nina Garcia remains, while the new faces largely preserve the preexisting dynamic. Karlie Kloss is the glamazon-turned-emcee who pronounces contestants “in” or “out”; Brandon Maxwell, like Michael Kors and Zac Posen before him, is the designer bringing real-life industry insight; and the show’s own Christian Siriano, the winner of Bravo-hosted Season 4, provides workroom feedback. The sole, chemistry-altering addition is former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth, who despite occupying the same professional space as Garcia brings a younger, more internet-literate energy. “There are no bossy ladies,” Welteroth admonished a contestant in last night’s second episode. “Only boss women!” She’s a representative of the more socially minded approach to fashion she pioneered at Teen Vogue, though she’s still capable of delivering harsh critiques.
Along with its roster, the show has opted to freshen up its structure as well. Project Runway’s Lifetime incarnation did little to make the show reflect outside changes in the fashion world, including the rise of social media and the accompanying changes in how consumers find, purchase, and think about their clothing. To that end, Kloss and Siriano introduced the concept of a “flash sale” challenge in the season premiere: Some weeks, designers will be charged with staging an iPhone photo shoot with their models, and the winning garment—in Week 1, Tessa Clark’s minimalist tunic with a flowing, tendriled back—is manufactured and made available for purchase through Bravo’s site. (Unfortunately, Sebastian Grey’s stunning fringe dress from Week 2 remains one of a kind, possibly because it was made to highlight a wearable body modification from A. Human.) Along with brand-new sets, the first transgender model in the show’s history, and a CFDA mentorship added to the prize package, the flash sale concept is one of a host of updates with an eye toward freshening up the Runway brand.
The premiere was careful to introduce its new judging panel alongside its contestants, basing its initial challenge around images that represented Kloss’s, Maxwell’s, Garcia’s, and Welteroth’s relationship to fashion. Yet it’s Siriano, who has no input in which contestants stay or leave, who serves as the linchpin of Project Runway’s attempt to both push itself forward and return to its roots. The designer has, unquestionably, the highest profile of Project Runway’s 16 former winners; every time one of his dresses appears on a red carpet alongside the work of storied European houses, it’s proof of the judges’ taste level and the power of the show’s cosign. He’s the franchise’s answer to American Idol’s Kelly Clarkson or Top Chef’s Stephanie Izard, a Cinderella story that demonstrates the potential rewards of a brutal shoot.
Siriano’s presence in the workroom is stern, serious, and to the point, in stark contrast with the peppier, goofier vibe he had as a contestant. It’s early yet and Siriano’s time with each contestant is limited, so his comments are thus far as brief as they are direct: For a group challenge, make sure there’s cohesion between separate garments; if you’re running out of time, simplify your design. Nor are the changes just temperamental: there are volumes’ worth of personal growth in the transition from his asymmetrical, extremely aughts hairstyle in Season 4 to his close-cropped, slightly salt-and-pepper one in Season 17. Replacing Gunn’s air of absolute, if loving, authority is no easy feat, but contestants take Siriano’s advice just as seriously, no doubt because he’s their best-case scenario.
Off camera, Siriano hasn’t just established himself as a name-brand designer. He’s also built a following on crafting inclusive, custom styles for clients who fall outside the limited archetype of an A-list star. This reputation peaked in 2016, when Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones couldn’t find a label to dress her for the film’s premiere before Siriano stepped in; the two have continued their relationship in the years since. More recently, Siriano was the force behind Billy Porter’s showstopping gown-tuxedo hybrid, one of the undisputed highlights of this year’s Oscars. In keeping with his reality show roots, Siriano has modeled a new and different path to mainstream success, challenging traditional notions of glamour, beauty, and cachet. Who better to rep not just Project Runway but a revived version of it?
Project Runway’s update may not have been strictly voluntary. Nevertheless, the show has seized the opportunity to revamp more than its core personalities. Because it’s too early in the season to evaluate the competitors themselves, most of the novelty has come from the shape of the competition, as well as the judges and counselors who administer it. On the other hand, I’d kill for Afa Ah Loo’s all-white ensemble from last night. The new Project Runway makes for better television because of—not despite—its focus on the fashion. Even in 2019, a reality show can still center the work over the drama surrounding it.