Updated: 6 days ago
Article by Mia Galante
An examination of the most recent season of the reality television series Project Runway and its influence on the fashion industry and audience behavior.
One of my earliest introductions to the power and influence of fashion was watching
Project Runway as a teenager When the competition series first aired in 2004, it was one of the first reality television programs to feature fashion designers at the forefront. Since then, Project Runway has produced countless successful designers, the most notable being Christian Siriano. In its almost 20 years on the air, Project Runway has become a pop culture staple and introduced mass audiences to the intricacies of fashion and design. However, as the show wrapped up its 20th season in September, the narrative Project Runway is giving to its audience has shifted to an emphasis on creating designs that are “trendy,” “new,” and “fresh.” This has ultimately pressured older and seasoned designers to change their aesthetics in order to advance in the competition and to avoid the dreaded “dated” critique from the judges. A show that once celebrated unique perspectives in fashion and pushing boundaries has now put its designers in a box. Contestants and fans alike are growing tired of the narrative the show is now trying to push, begging the question if Project Runway has finally run its course.
The 20th season of Project Runway first premiered on June 15th, 2023 and featured 14 designers from previous seasons ranging from seasons 1-19. The judging panel was composed of Elle Magazine editor in chief Nina Garcia, fashion designer Brandon Maxwell, and journalist Elaine Welteroth with Christian Siriano as the designers’ mentor. While season 20 had a promising start, the judge’s bias towards designers who catered to a younger clientele became increasingly evident. Many designers throughout the season were critiqued for creating pieces that catered towards an older demographic, especially designers Korto Momolu (Season 5) and Rami Kashou (Season 4).
The critique that her work was “dated” and “safe” was given to Momolu so frequently that she grew increasingly frustrated with the judges throughout the competition. The picture below features Momolu with her design that got her eliminated from the competition. As a viewer, I understood Momolu’s frustrations with the judge’s criticism, especially with this particular design. This piece completely captured Momolu's aesthetic as a designer and the clientele she caters to. Her designs allow older women to have a modern edge and I think she succeeded in that despite the judges’ disagreements.
Project Runway centers its judging panel as “fashion experts” to their audience which
has removed a sense of subjectivity within the show. The judges’ holding the opinion that certain fabrics, styles, or design choices are antiquated doesn’t mean there isn’t a space for designs that speak to an older generation in the fashion industry. The format of Project Runway is imposing rules on what fashion should be on to its designers when those rules shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Similarly to Momolu, Rami Kashou also pushed back on the judges classifying his work
as “dated.” In an interview with Vulture, Kashou expressed his frustration with the “dated” critique stating, “It’s very cliche, when you’re describing someone’s work who happens to be older. I was able to break that mold I was forcibly placed in in the beginning, because I disagree with it highly.” Kashou also affirmed the sentiments of fellow contestant Korto Momolu, “Calling something ‘dated’ without explaining the reasons why is just not enough. Korto brought that up. It doesn’t mean that older designers cannot create hip, cool, fashion-forward things. Of course we do, and of course we can. I think Kashou is completely right in his assessment of just saying a design is “dated” isn’t enough. Technical aspects of the designer's work should be the driving force of the judge’s critiques. However, for many seasoned designers such as Kashou and Momolou, their design’s capacity to fit the current trend cycle took precedence.
Ultimately, the final three designers left standing in the finale were Brittany Allen (Season 18), Laurence Bass (Season 15), and Bishme Cromartie (Season 17), with Cromartie being named the winner. It did not go unnoticed that the final three designers all came from the most recent seasons of Project Runway. Furthermore, Allen’s placement in the finale was controversial for myself and many others because her work was often too referential to popular fashion brands. Particularly, her design in a menswear challenge that asked contestants to create looks that were flamboyant and embraced the “male peacocking” phenomenon. In Allen’s critiques, the judges did acknowledge that her design was very reminiscent of Gucci’s past collections but were able to overlook it because of how topical the design was to current fashion trends and celebrity red carpet looks. This decision, and many others this season, felt like the judges were affirming to their audience that adhering to trend cycles is what’s most desirable in fashion when that is just not the case.
Season 20 of Project Runway does not make the future of the show look promising.
It no longer feels like the creativity of the designers is being celebrated because of the limitations the judges are placing on them. The show has become so concerned with producing designs that are “fresh” and “new” that it is failing to recognize work that is truly original and authentic to the designers. The narrative the show is sending to its audience that fashion should never be “dated” or antiquated is alienating its seasoned designers and diminishing their talent. Project Runway has become the antithesis to its own premise and it may be time for it to retire.