‘Project Runway”s Return to Bravo Was Diverse, Relevant and Touching

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Judges Elaine Welteroth, Nina Garcia, Brandon Maxwell and Karlie Kloss. Photo: ©Bravo Media/Barbara NitkeIn addition to noting that this post contains several spoilers, I should preface it by saying that I have not watched a single episode of “Project Runway” since the show left Bravo for Lifetime in 2009. I have nothing personal against Lifetime as a network, but it doesn’t air “Real Housewives” or “Vanderpump Rules” and therefore it is just not a channel I watch regularly, leading me to kind of forget about the fashion-based series.So! When Bravo announced that the show would be returning to its original home, with a cast of new-but-familiar industry faces, my interest was piqued; and here at Fashionista, we knew we had to cover the debut. I mean, Karlie Kloss as Heidi Klum? Christian Siriano as Tim Gunn? Brandon Maxwell as Michael Kors? Nina Garcia of Elle as Nina Garcia of Marie Claire? Amazing. But, I can only compare the premiere episode to those of the first five years on Bravo. And folks? We can authoritatively claim that “Project Runway” is back and better than ever.In my opinion, the producers (who were not involved in the Lifetime iteration) and cast did a perfect job of retaining the elements we all loved from the original seasons — even the old music cues gave me pangs of nostalgia — while updating the show for a very different, rapidly changing fashion industry and world.Photo: ©Bravo Media/ Karolina WojtasikIt takes some getting used to at first: It’s initially odd to see these popular fashion industry figures in such a new context (or in such an old-school media format?), with the exception of Siriano of course, who won season four and has since built an impressively successful business empire. The $250,000 prize is now provided by an… erasable gel-pen company. The sleek Parsons School of Design sewing room is replaced by an industrial loft space. Contestants live together in a big, fancy penthouse instead of in tiny, separate, dorm-like rooms. But ultimately, they made it work (despite the conspicuous absence of Gunn’s iconic catchphrase), and by the end of the show’s 90 minutes, it felt like we’d been watching it for weeks. Kloss is a natural, Instagram-ready replacement for Klum. Similarly, Siriano has the discerning, thoughtful nature and expertise needed to fill Gunn’s shoes as a mentor, but with the ability to relate to the contestants on their level and advise from the perspective of someone running a brand. Overall, the long-perpetuated (and, frankly, outdated) idea that fashion industry professionals are supposed to be scary and intimidating feels much less present on this version of the show.Meanwhile, a few modern and commercial ideas are more present. A surprise is announced midway through the episode: Both the winning design and a voted-on fan favorite will be produced by sustainable manufacturing platform Nineteenth Amendment and sold on Bravotv.com. Part of the challenge now involves taking a good iPhone photo for Instagram Stories. An aspect of the prize is mentorship by the CFDA, which adds a sense of legitimacy. Additionally, and importantly, the show’s cast of models consists of all shapes, sizes, ages and gender identities, and thus better reflect the audience watching at home.Renee Hill. Photo: ©Bravo Media/Barbara NitkeAs for the contestants, one episode isn’t a ton of time to get to know the cast of 16 (now 15) designers, but, from what we saw, it was a diverse, passionate mix of characters with all types of backgrounds and personalities — including some clashing ones. Among those with fascinating backstories include Jhoan “Sebastian” Grey, a Columbian immigrant working as a housekeeper; Renee Hill, a 51-year-old mother of nine; Kovid Kapoor, a big personality from the Himalayas who was literally forced to flee his home country for being gay and the heart-stealing Frankie Lewis, who had just lost her home, dog and boyfriend of nine years in a bad breakup. There are many contestants to root for, and many outspoken people willing to drop the harsh truth bombs we all love to see on reality TV.The debut episode is filled with emotional moments as well: Elaine Welteroth explaining what the first magazine cover she ever worked on — an Ebony issue featuring Serena Williams — meant to her was inspiring. Kapoor’s excitement over learning that his model, MiMi Tao, was the first transgender model ever on “Project Runway” was unforgettable. But that was nothing compared to the ending. (Spoilers ahead.)An emerging villain is Cavanaugh Baker, a Nashville-based luxury designer who reeks of privilege and clearly thinks she’s hot shit. (Though even she earns some sympathy as she talks about her supportive father’s passing.) Meanwhile, Lewis is the episode’s clear underdog, who, despite all her recent hardships, is overwhelmingly kind, humble and gracious to everyone. Both Baker and Lewis encounter fit issues in the design process (that the models aren’t all straight-size seems to create an extra challenge for some) which put them behind schedule. While Baker struggles on her own, the other contestants rush to help Lewis finish sewing her bodysuit.The designers. Photo: ©Bravo Media/Barbara NitkeLewis’s bodysuit is still poorly constructed, but Baker’s black top and skirt are boring. They are the bottom two designers. Listen, I am not exaggerating when I say I had not been this nervous since the 2016 presidential election; finally hearing that Baker would be going home was as satisfying as learning that “Moonlight” had beat “La La Land” at the 2017 Oscars. When the remaining contestants joyously applauded and rushed to hug Lewis as she collapsed into tears backstage, I felt that.In these trying times, elements like authentic representation and good prevailing over evil (not that Baker is actually “evil,” but she had much less to gain from staying on the show than Lewis) mean more than ever. Mix that in with a little drama and nostalgia and you have the perfect recipe for a relevant, enjoyable TV show in 2019. In our professional opinion, this is a program you should be adding to your television roster immediately.Never miss the latest fashion industry news. Sign up for the Fashionista daily newsletter. 
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