Project Runway no longer has a host, but Karlie Kloss’s absence has been barely noticeable this season, and wasn’t even mentioned on screen. Season 19 had a rough start with the Meg nonsense, but quickly recovered, though it still feels to me like something is missing, or off slightly.
Christian Siriano continues in his role as hilariously beleaguered mentor, pleading with the contestants to use some color, or change up their same-old approach, or just be true to themselves. Sometimes he takes on some hosting duties, like introducing a challenge, though the Beijing Olympics episode had guest judges Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski introduce the challenge.
Project Runway’s judges—Nina Garcia, Elaine Welteroth, and Brandon Maxwell—alternate taking a lead role during judging. They’re not perfectly smooth, as it sometimes feels like they’re being read a script into their earpiece and struggling to say the words and listen at the same time, but it works. There’s nothing missing without a host.
There’s a lot to like this season, but what isn’t working is less obvious.
At first I thought it might be the contestants, who might not be up to the challenge because of their skillsets, or who are just not as sharp as they would have been, because like all of us they’ve been dealing with more than a year of pandemic fatigue and ongoing trauma. (Season 19 was filmed in late spring.)
The first episode was a mess, with Darren somehow not being eliminated despite not actually making his own garment: Bones Jones made a dress in 30 minutes for Darren, and the judges loved it, and Darren almost took credit for it! (He said he made “almost all of it,” when he’d done almost none of it.)
How does he stay in the competition after that? How does Bones not just win Project Runway 19 on the spot after creating three looks, including one for himself, all of which the judges loved?
How does Katie remain in the competition after being repeatedly in the bottom, including for a pattern-making challenge that spoke directly to her skill-set? And how exactly was Sabrina’s work worse than Octavio’s ruffled mess? Why did Katie design a skirt when Johnny and Tara literally said that it’d only be seen from the waist up?
And I won’t even get into just not understanding how the designers made such bland clothes for Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinksi; and how those two and the judges liked some of the least-colorful looks; and how they applied criteria with stunning inconsistency, like having an issue with the neckline on one dress but not another.
Project Runway 19 had a rough start
The season began with two rocky episodes, including the wreck that was episode two, when Meg quit.
After making a big show of being an ally to people of color earlier in the streetwear challenge, she agreed to swap models with Kenneth, so he could design for an Asian man. But for some reason, she also yelled at him: “I think it’s fucking bullshit that you’re doing this now,” she said. It’s not like he was asking to switch the day of the runway show.
“Apparently, I can only design for white people,” Meg told her model, who gave her immediate shade: “just don’t yell at me like that, yeah,” he said, apparently thinking that models are allowed to talk on Project Runway. Prajje called her fake, which prompted her to yell at Kenneth again. I had whiplash from trying to figure out what was happening and whose side I should be on.
The whole scene was both uncomfortable and truly disorienting. How did Meg go from lecturing everyone about appropriation and saying “it’s so important to me to respect and acknowledge that he wanted to design for his own cultural” to telling Christian Siriano, “There is only one race, and it’s mankind”?
As Chasity said, “I’m not trying to say Meg was using race to create drama, she was trying to use race to be down with different ethnicities and reassuring us that a white person had our back.” Yep.
There was a lot of drama, though, and the show even commented on it. During one of the shouting matches, Zayden was caught in the middle, just sitting at a sewing machine, trying to sew. “I thought this was Project Runway. What is going on here?” he said.
An excellent question! And I’m not sure.
By episode three, the Halloween episode, the show settled into more comfortable territory. It was the first episode where I felt like we got to know more of the contestants as people; the first two episodes were just black holes of drama.
Project Runway still looks good, and the Duggal Greenhouse space is beautiful and spacious. In the most-recent episodes, there’s been some playful editing, like when Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski were listing criteria, and the editors turned those into on-screen bullet points, including “everything” and “nothing.”
Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are always fun together, and Taraji P. Henson was a terrific guest judge.
Christian Siriano, meanwhile, has found some opportunities to have fun, and also to be a full-on mentor. For example, there was his pep talk with Darren, who, at 27, was the youngest person on this season, and was thinking that he wasn’t right or ready for the competition. How great that he had the 21-year-old winner of Project Runway season 4 to talk to in that moment.
Overall, the challenges aren’t overly complicated, but rather are complicated by time. Designing a floral print is a straightforward task; having to do so with a designer working remotely, and in a short period of time, makes it into a challenge.
There was a “hauntingly chic” look challenge; and then the floral print; and then this week, the Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski episode, which was some product placement for NBCUniversal’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, but also a better spin on a product-placement episode than, say, designing flight attendant uniforms for an airline that dropped its sponsorship before the episode aired.
Still, the floral looks were supposed to be runway, not wearable, and they basically all seemed wearable to me, a person who doesn’t pay attention to fashion beyond reality TV shows. I understand how Anna’s dress won for the Olympics challenge, but I didn’t understand what the judges actually wanted.
But I may be wrong about that. On Extra Hot Great this week, Sarah D. Bunting said in her review of this season:
There are a ton of interesting designer voices this year who aren’t afraid to just basically put, like, a floral waist basket on the shoulders of a model and be like, What, it’s art. And the judges agree with that. It just seems to be more art and less commerce so far, and I like that.
Perhaps that’s it: the criteria has shifted, and there’s definitely less focus on sewing and construction than in previous seasons. But also, I’m not sure I’m seeing a lot of super-over-the-top fashion. The color palettes tend to be the same, and so many designers are not taking big risks. And I don’t understand the judges’ perspective this season.
In some ways, Project Runway 19 feels like a little like the deflated, somber season of Making the Cut, Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn’s new show. Project Runway is still by far the better of the two shows. This season absolutely has more life and creativity than Making the Cut season 2—and certainly more drama.
Maybe what’s missing is more equilibrium and consistency after that dramatic and weird start, so it’s like we’re on episode three now, not five. But for me, the show is still chasing the high of season 17, the first season of this new era.