Fashion

'Fashion Is Not for Sissies': An Oral History of 'Project Runway's' First 10 Years

Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, Tim Gunn, Harvey Weinstein and more share memories of the addictive reality show that brings the drama of high fashion to the masses.
Miller Mobley

This story first appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's 10 a.m. on July 15, and supermodel-turned-TV mogul Heidi Klum looks impossibly cool gliding through a stifling 95-degree studio in New York's Fashion District in a skintight Jitrois black leather dress and 5-inch Christian Louboutin pumps. "We ran over here from production, so it's the only thing I had," she says of the not-so-breathable fabric. Within moments, her Project Runway co-star and designer Michael Kors strides out of an elevator -- aviators on -- and beelines to Klum. Between filming episodes of Lifetime's Emmy-nominated reality series -- which features 16 budding designers competing to show at New York's Fashion Week and win $100,000 from L'Oreal to, in theory, launch their own line -- the co-stars, along with Marie Claire fashion director Nina Garcia and former Parsons fashion-design department chair Tim Gunn, convened for a discussion with The Hollywood Reporter. (Interviews with Harvey Weinstein, Jane Cha Cutler, Desiree Gruber, Rob Sharenow, Jonathan Murray, Sara Rea and Jane Lipsitz were conducted separately.)

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Bowing in 2004 on Bravo, Runway has seen 10 seasons, multiple spinoffs including Project Runway All Stars (not to mention scores of less-successful knockoffs) and lucrative brand integrations with the likes of Lord & Taylor and Lexus. It also survived a turbulent network shift to Lifetime in 2009 -- complete with a 13-month hiatus because of the injunction put on marketing and promotion by NBCUniversal after Bravo's then-parent company went to federal court to battle The Weinstein Co. (TWC). Despite ratings fluctuations ("Fashion is a moving target," says Klum with a smirk. "One day you're in, and the next day you're out"), the veteran show captured 2 million viewers for its season-10 premiere, was among the first to prove that reality didn't have to be about eating bugs or bad dates and, most important, will contribute largely to the $1.9 billion in ad revenue that mothership A&E Networks is projected to earn in 2012, mostly because of its upscale female audience. "The show teaches that good qualities pay off," says Gunn. "Working hard, playing nice and not being a diva."

PART 1: Creating a Form (2004)

Harvey Weinstein, creator and executive producer: My [model] friend Daniela Unruh had the idea to do a show called Model Apartment. As we kept developing the idea, it made sense to do a show about fashion designers instead of models. I had been producing a show called Project Greenlight, which gave young hopeful writers/directors the opportunity to make movies, so we applied the same format to fashion. I have had a long-standing business relationship with Heidi and Desiree [Gruber, executive producer] and reached out to them early on to discuss it.

Heidi Klum, host and executive producer: He didn't really know anything about the fashion industry, so he asked, "How can we make this interesting?"

Weinstein: We thought showcasing the creative process could be fascinating. Along with it came lots of drama, and the competition element makes it fun for audiences to pick their favorite designers at home.

Jane Cha cutler, executive producer (Full Picture): We wondered if people would watch a show about sewing. We started a treatment and convened a panel of fashion people at Miramax Television to figure out what we could get away with.

Jane Lipsitz, executive producer (Magical Elves): There was a lot of nervousness, but when they started talking about the kind of challenges we could do, we realized this had more potential than we initially thought.

Klum: We would bounce ideas off each other, and we thought, "What if we give the designers different challenges each week?"

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Desiree Gruber, executive producer (Full Picture): The real work was figuring out how to help a designer be creative on an every-other-day basis. That's when all the moving parts started really coming into play.

Cutler: Initially Harvey wanted to do without models.

Gruber: One idea was to have a seamstress help with each contestant's designs. Not every designer can sew, cut and make a pattern. We budgeted out how much for seamstresses to be available on 24 hours' notice. [TWC precursor] Miramax was like, "We're giving them sewing machines."

Cutler: It was fun to see these designers deal with these wonky machines.

Klum: When you go to all the networks, they throw so many questions at you, and you have to be ready with answers. I went to all the pitch meetings to explain why it would be interesting to watch designers make clothes. It's very technical, and that was the problem. We're talking about the length of a hem or why this is the wrong fabric. [Network execs] were like, "Why would people be interested in that?" So we came up with a few challenge ideas to pitch, and we found a network [Bravo] that was into it.

Tim Gunn, mentor: The producers were looking for a consultant, and they came to me because I was at Parsons. My role in the show didn't exist.

Cutler: We actually met with a few fashion school deans, and a lot of them were negative. Tim was the only one who said, "This can totally work."

Gruber: Originally we wanted a "house mom" … to give the designers support, tell them what they did wrong and get them back on track. We were looking for this den-mother character and found Tim Gunn.

Cutler: He was supposed to be the off-camera mentor to the designers but became this breakout star.

Lipsitz: Then we did a tour of Parsons with Tim and found this downstairs space for the runway.

Gunn: They were going to outfit a loft space but said, "We don't have the budget." So I said, "We're taping in August, and Parsons is empty." It was organic.

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Klum: My dressing room was Tim's office. He moved his desk to the side. My clothing rack was basically the curtain rail in your bathroom.

Gunn: I was honored. It was Heidi, Nina and Michael that gave the show credibility. People figured it must be real because of them.

Michael Kors, judge: Honestly, when Desiree first called me, I was like, "I don't know." I had this fear this was going to be designers eating bugs because that's what everything was on TV at the time. I was afraid everyone was going to say, "Why would you do this?"

Gruber: Michael was my next-door neighbor, so we were able to cajole him and call his cell phone.

Cutler: It couldn't be somebody who said yes easily. One of his right-hand people at that time, Anne Waterman, convinced him by saying: "Not many people watch Bravo. If it's a hit, it's good for us; if it's not a hit, nobody will see it. Win-win."

Gruber: Fashion is very insular, and saying that we wanted to show the industry was unseemly. It's an invite-only world. We got a lot of no's, and people are kicking themselves today.

Nina Garcia, judge: I had a lot of hesitation. I was very skeptical. I thought I might lose my job. I thought, "Who's going to watch?"

Kors: I had this weird thought that only fashion freaks would watch. Or maybe people would watch because they think [Heidi] would be in a bikini.

Gunn: In season one, the feedback I was getting was very polarizing. People either loved it or hated it. The people who didn't like it were the ones who liked that the industry had a veil over it. And Runway basically ripped it off.

Cutler: It was not easy to get anybody to agree to guest judge.

Lipsitz: We were flying by the seat of our pants that first season. But the moment Austin Scarlett's cornhusk came down the runway, we knew this was special. It had dried out and shrunk up and was a moment of total panic because these were details -- like, oh, you need a fridge when you're working with produce -- that we realized in all the madness.

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Cutler: We had really low ratings the first few weeks we aired. I don't think people started glomming on until Bravo did the holiday marathon that year. We came back in January to a whole different show.

Lipsitz: That's when we thought there was hope. I would hear people talking about it out on the street. It was becoming a phenomenon.

Cutler: There was a buzz, and it kept snowballing.

What do you think?

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