The start of Project Runway season 20, Bravo’s first all-star version of its flagship fashion design competition, opens as a meditation on the passage of time: on aging; on evolving creatively; on stepping back into an uncomfortable, challenging space.
Some designers have moved on in their careers so they’re disconnected from the kinds of things Project Runway demands of its designers, such as sewing.
Others are so close to their eliminations that being asked to revisit and reimagine the outfits that ousted them is quite raw.
Season-one’s Nora Pagel was, back in 2004, a 21-year-old mohawked designer whose experience consisted of interning at a fashion house, while today she’s creative director at the same place, spending her time not at a sewing machine but managing other designers.
Anna Zahou has moved away from her palette of black and white and is working with bright colors now, reflecting the glee that having a kid brought into her life.
I was delighted to see so many of these people from the past back on screen—Kara Saun from season 1, Kayne from season 3, Rami from season 4.
The range of contestants—designers from more-recent seasons include Hester Sunshine and Prajje Oscar Jean Baptiste—means that some of them know each other as peers and friends, while others are celebrities.
“I’m here amongst greatness,” Bishme says, reflecting on watching Kara Saun as a teenager. I don’t disagree, and I also include Bishme in that category.
These are excellent designers, many of whom are recognizable but not household names, and also not Project Runway winners. That may explain why some decided to return to the workroom.
Season five runner-up Korto Momolu, the first returning all-star to arrive to the new, spacious workroom in Brooklyn, tells us, “I can’t believe I came back, either!”
Sh notes that the space is “a whole lot fancier than I remember,” and season 5’s sparse and small workroom is shown to us, with headless forms standing next to empty tables and blank walls.
There is one constant: “The only thing that’s been in all 20 seasons—besides Nina—” Christian Siriano jokes. That’s the fabric store Mood, which the designers return to. (Alas, time has also taken dear Swatch, who died last fall.)
Amid all of this, there’s a sense of reunion, of homecoming, of trying again, and it’s warm and fuzzy and just a delight to watch.
“You are all like my children,” Nina Garcia says after a montage of her verbally eviscerating their work. “It’s very emotional to see you guys.”
That emotion is sometimes complicated: After the designers see (reproduced versions of) the outfit that got them eliminated from the competition, season 7’s Mila Hermanovski describes it as “trauma lane.”
They’re charged in the first challenge with reinventing that garment. Project Runway, too, is looking to redeem itself, making its way back to what made it a cultural icon instead of a commodity that was yanked from Bravo, drained of life on Lifetime, and then sold off as an asset.
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn are long gone, self-evicted to their gloomy Amazon Prime Video show.
When it returned to Bravo four years ago, Project Runway leapt out of the gate, finding great new judges in Elaine Welteroth and Brandon Maxwell, and interesting designers. But then it stumbled around for the past two seasons, somewhere between forgettable and repulsive.
In many ways, the start of Project Runway season 20 doesn’t change its flavor a whole lot different from seasons 17, 18, or 19. But the introduction of the all-stars is giving it life.
In the grand tradition of networks ignoring history, Bravo is calling this season calls itself Project Runway All Stars. Lifetime’s Project Runway All Stars was a separate show, giving the designers an additional showcase for their work, but always felt to me like a bizarro version of the main show, like with Isaac Mizrahi pretending to be Michael Kors.
Whatever it is called, Project Runway is, thankfully, holding on to what worked—a gorgeous workroom on the river, a panel of judges anchored by Nina Garcia but not centered on her—and letting go of what did not make sense (sorry, Karlie Kloss).
Yet what I was struck most with about Project Runway season 20 is just how much freakin’ fun it is to see everyone back and creating again.
Mentor Christian Siriano is literally dancing around jubilantly, and I started dancing when the classic Project Runway music cues returned during the actual runway and deliberations. It was so natural it took me a moment to register that they’d been absent for years.
Yes, Project Runway feels like itself again, even despite the changes.
In its two-part premiere, this season sometimes has an effortlessness about it, all of its parts flowing as it struts confidently down the cable TV runway.
And other times, its desperation to be loved again, to be at the top of the conversation, yanks it away from what makes it great.
Part of that is Bravo’s decision to make this a 2.5 hour premiere. The first hour, which introduces the contestants, was not provided to critics for screening. Episode two was, so when I started watching, it was obvious that something was missing, yet that last 1.5 hours works just fine without the intro.
I did watch the first episode, as it aired on TV Wednesday night, and again tonight at 8. I’m glad I did, because in the second episode, the editing outright ignores some of the designers.
The three-hour premiere is full of flashbacks to the first 19 seasons, and also flash-forwards to this season, as if to promise that drama and tension are to come. The most interruptions come in the one-hour premiere, which Bravo aired last night and will re-air again tonight ahead of episode two.
During both episodes, you can feel Project Runway being pulled in two directions, one foot in the distant past and another its most-recent reinvention present.
Christian twirls around the workroom, gleefully but playfully taunting the designers: “I can’t wait for my twist,” he says, which will be “so much fun.”
That twist: immunity is out this season, but in are “prizes and advantages for the winners.”
His advice is as specific and blunt as always (“You have no elements of you and what you do”; “I think you should go the most extreme it can be”), and it’s clear the other designers respect his perspective.
Christian is not trying to change them into a copy of himself, but like the best teachers, he’s trying to both help and encourage them to challenge themselves.
In both the design process and the re-introduction to the characters, there’s an ebullience that Project Runway has lacked for some time.
Even the producers are having fun. Anna Zahou tells her interviewer that she got pregnant the night she was eliminated from her season. “My husband and I didn’t see each other for a long time. We were—thirsty,” she laughs.
In some ways, though, the show almost resists this joy. At their hotel for the first time, Kayne talks about a thing he’s upset about, Kara offers some light advice that’s cut off, and the editing tries so hard to turn this into a fight. It is not.
In the first episode, after we see Korto with her kids, a “later this season” flash-forward shows her saying, “this is some bullshit.” That’s kind of thirstiness is the only bullshit in this premiere.
Not everything needs to be Vanderpump Rules, Bravo, and Project Runway works best when it allows the creative process to create drama, not teams or twists.
It doesn’t need to reach far for real-life drama. Bishme Cromartie struggles, understandably, to focus, as it’s been just two months since his sister died.
Elsewhere, a model doesn’t show up, nor does some fabric that was purchased. And choices of fabric, color, and construction create problems.
Watching outstanding designers who are interesting, complex people navigate those challenges, and then produce incredibly clothing, is why I’ve loved Project Runway since its first season. Thanks to its decision to bring back many of those people who made the show great back then and more recently, it’s on the verge of reinventing itself, and is most definitely a great watch.