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The joy of bleeding pandas—and Project Runway’s unconventional materials challenge

The joy of bleeding pandas—and Project Runway’s unconventional materials challenge
Kayne's Project Runway 20 unconventional materials challenge design: a Disney villain wearing a stole made out of bleeding toy pandas (Photo by Zach Dilgard/Bravo)

Project Runway’s unconventional materials challenge—the “most-feared, most revered and famed way to torture designers,” as Christian Siriano described it—was the very first episode of season one.

Tim Gunn took the designers to a supermarket, where they had to buy their unconventional materials to design an outfit. From Hallmark cards to a literal pile of trash, flowers to newsprint, the materials have varied widely since then.

It’s feared by designers and revered by fans because, as Korto explained perfectly, this challenge “shows you who you are” and “really brings out that creativity.”

There is just something magical about watching everyday objects be converted into flowing fabric or panda stoles with bleeding eyes.

This may be extreme recency bias on my part, but I think Project Runway 20’s unconventional materials challenge was one of the best ever, bringing out some truly extraordinary creativity.

Even Nina Garcia, who basically dared the designers to disappoint her by telling them she’s seen it all, told them “you all delivered” and said “what a fantastic show.”

The two designers who ended up in the bottom—Mila and Laurence—didn’t so flop as run out of time, because each of them had some interesting use of the materials, just ones that didn’t come together.

A person gesturing and smiling
Christian Siriano in the workroom during Project Runway All Stars’ unconventional materials challenge (Photo by Zach Dilgard/Bravo)

The designers said goodnight to Christian at 11:33 p.m., and then were in vans in the dark the next (?) morning to head to FAO Schwarz.

That’s where they were greeted by a pink remote-controlled truck with Christian’s face on it, asking them to follow it—a sight gag I wished the trailer hadn’t spoiled. Watching the designers walk down the street following the truck was a terrific visual.

They learned their unconventional materials challenge was to create something that had “fun and whimsy.” And Christian told them it was also about “creating new textiles and leaning into your ingenuity.”

Each had $2,000 to shop. I really like the shopping versions of the challenge better than the ones where designers have to fight each other for shit that’s in a giant pile.

While they shopped, Christian danced on the walking piano that is most definitely not the one used in Big, a film that came out in 1988, when Christian was two years old, a fact I point out to remind myself hold old I am.

Two people standing on a runway; one is wearing a yellow trenchcoat; the other is wearing a gown that looks feathered and has blue toy bears on its shoulders and sleeves
Viktor Luna and his winning outfit, made with foam boomerangs (Photo by Zach Dilgard/Bravo)

The workroom was a mess, literally and figuratively, as the designers tore apart materials and also tried to figure out what they were doing.

Mila described this challenge—and the show—as “problem solving on steroids, that’s what Project Runway is.”

We saw a lot of that problem-solving in the workroom, and that’s the kind of process I love to watch unfold. Some of the designers toy textiles seemed like they were bought off a rack. Others, however, were just obviously sewed or stuck together.

Fabio’s decision to just hot glue playing cards to muslin prompted Christian to tell him “That is so easy,” withering feedback that Fabio told us was “maybe too dry for me. Could have used a little lube.” LOL 

After making Anna cry by mentioning a baby, making her think of her own young child, Christian told Anna “this gray dress, Anna, you can’t show that. It’s a wrinkled mess. They’ll tear you apart.”

Anna recovered from this in two ways: she used the gray fabric material to make lines of ruffles, which she covered the wrinkled mess with. And later, when the designers went to a wine bar to relax after their day of work, she FaceTimed outside with her husband and kid, and then walked into the bar and declared, “I called my boy. And I did not cry!!” They cheered for her.

There was more emotional healing: Viktor desperately needed more foam boomerangs to finish his outfit, and Korto had some. The editors cued up a flashback of their less-than-congenial relationship the last time they were on the show together.

He told her “I am in big trouble,” and she gave him some of her yellow boomerangs. Viktor then apologized, telling Korto, “last time, I was a little too competitive.” Korto told us, “much respect to him for just saying sorry.”

A model wearing a yellow hood with furry patches; a designer whose back is to us works on the outfit
Project Runway model Mimi not looking thrilled about Laurence’s choices, which landed the outfit in the bottom two. (Photo by Zach Dilgard/Bravo)

Mila created something with jigsaw puzzle pieces linked together, and made a top out of stuffed animal fur. Christian told her that it was “not as sophisticated as I feel your clothes are.” Mila told us, “I want to try something new.”

Alas, it didn’t pay off: The chains of puzzle pieces moved well as a skirt, but there were not enough of them, and the judges criticized her lack of point of view.

The judges weren’t thrilled with Laurence’s outfit. Nina asked her, “Why not try?”, yikes; Laurence said “I did try” and “whimsical is not relay part of my vocabulary.” She made it through.

Mila did not. Nina said, “I don’t know why you did it” and Brandon said “it looks like you just didn’t finish it.”

What did pay off was Kayne’s plan was for a Disney villain-ish character wearing a stole of panda toys, which he made the last-minute decision to spray paint red in their eyes.

It was dark and hilarious and perfect—and prompted a beautiful exchange during judging:

Nina Garcia: “The humor of the pandas and the bleeding eyes, I thought that was full of joy.”

Brandon Maxwell: “The bleeding pandas filed you with joy?!”

The judges also loved Brittany’s smashed-and-glued teacup dress, which I didn’t quite understand.

I did understand their love for Prajjé’s streetwear outfit, which that nodded to both his first visit to FAO Schwarz and also the way music—rather than plastic toys—brings joy in Haiti, where he was born.

The winner, though, was Viktor, whose textile’s source was unrecognizable as a toy to the judges yet came together perfectly, down to the bears for sleeves. Elaine Welteroth called it “so elevated and so chic” and Nina called it “flawless.”

Not all the Project Runway unconventional material episodes, never mind the outfits, are flawless, but I think this one comes pretty close. Just a great collection of challenge-related challenges and impressive creativity.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

Discussion: your turn

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Happy discussing!

Lyman Sevinop

Friday 30th of June 2023

I would love to watch on episode of one reality show where something was not "on steroids".

Chuck S

Tuesday 27th of June 2023

I was happy with the winner.. it was either Viktor or Kayne for me. I thought the use of the boomerangs for the bottom was genius. Kayne's model went from Cinderella's Fairy Godmother to Cruella de Ville in one step.. I loved it. I do not understand how Fabio's card dress was not in the bottom. Granted it was okay construction, but it was just glued cards. I don't think there was much creativity in the outfit. I really like how the show is going without a host. I think Top Chef should try this format as well.


Saturday 1st of July 2023

@Chuck S, also blind judging? Like Tournament of Champions where chefs are left 'wondering who they are cooking for?' and judges 'wondering whose food they are judging?' Human element of potential favorites 'removed.'