'Project Runway' Producers Discuss Rebuilding Their Bravo Original After Weinstein

Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, returning after a decade away from the show they originally launched, discuss updating the fashion competition for a new landscape.
Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
'Project Runway'

Project Runway has had one of the more unusual, albeit fortunate, trajectories of any reality competition. After a wildly successful run on Bravo, starting in 2004, the hit was poached by Lifetime during its 2009 prime. But the stink of longtime producer (and former format owner) Harvey Weinstein put an end to that version of the show. Then, Bravo swooped back in.

The series returns for a 17th season on Thursday night, and the Bravo bug hovering in the corner of the screen won't be the only bit of nostalgia for the largely reworked Project Runway. Original executive producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, the brains behind Bravo mainstay Top Chef, have also returned behind the scenes for the first time since the Lifetime move. Now completely severed from The Weinstein Co., the new era brings with it an almost entirely refreshed cast, a new focus on the increasingly democratized state of fashion and, as longtime viewers have come to expect, more sartorial drama than you'll likely find on the Met Gala carpet.

Cutforth and Lipsitz recently announced they'd be leaving their longtime production company Magical Elves, though they will be staying onboard their legacy series. And while they couldn't speak too much about their next steps, they did have plenty to say about their welcome return to Runway, taking this week's Top Chef finale to China and the enduring appeal of the short-lived Work of Art.

The show seemed dead after Harvey Weinstein's comeuppance. Were you approached to help bring it back before or after Bravo announced the news?

Dan Cutforth I was out in Kentucky for Top Chef when I heard the news. We knew nothing of what was going on. I think that the day they announced it, we got a call from them to say that they were doing the show again and asking us to come in to meet about it.

Jane Lipsitz It kind of unraveled in slow motion. "Oh wait, it's leaving Lifetime." Then it just seemed over. We weren't thinking about it. The next day it was back at Bravo, and all of sudden we're doing Project Runway again. It was incredible. I literally cried when they said we were doing it. Project Runway is where Magical Elves started. I mean, we had done Project Greenlight, but we really came onto the scene in a major way with this show.

Can you speak a little about the appeal of returning to that sandbox after having left it so long ago?

Lipsitz We love reflecting what's going on in the real world, and this show is rooted in reality. We created Project Runway, the original when we were developing it based on what the fashion industry was like then. Ten years later, so much has changed in the fashion world. The democratization of fashion has transpired in terms of social media, flash sales, the ability for designers to express themselves on different platforms for all their businesses. What can we do with Runway now that really reflects what is happening in the world? Not just in the business, but in terms culturally, sociologically, politically.

Cutforth It's also just such a fun show to produce. The actual production of the show was always really inspiring. The characters were amazing. It was a really hard decision for us to walk away from the show when we did.

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn were synonymous with this show the way Padma Lakshmi is with Top Chef or Ryan Seacrest is with American Idol. How is recasting an established series different from casting for a new project?

Cutforth It raises the stakes significantly. The decision was out of our hands. Heidi and Tim decided that they wanted to go and do something different. In a way, that made it a little easier. But it is very hard to replicate chemistry that is being built up over years with judges. All of that stuff is a challenge.

Lipsitz It was crucial to have someone with a previous connection to the show. With [season four winner] Christian Siriano, even Heidi said, "If you're going to replace Tim, it should be Christian." It was so funny because we were already in the midst of doing that when she said that. It felt like that was the right thing to do.

Cutforth When Christian was announced as the new mentor, both Heidi and Tim reached out to him to congratulate him. I think Heidi sent flowers. The whole thing was positive all around. We're not saying it was not a concern for us. Obviously, it was. But at the same time, it came together in a really great way. Karlie Kloss had such high shoes to step into in terms of replacing Heidi. But she came into it as someone who had been a fan of the show when she was growing up. It had inspired her when she was growing up.

Lipsitz The decision to choose Christian was completely validated when the designers heard that it was him.

Was he immediately responsive to the pitch? His career is really thriving.

Lipsitz The first thing Christian said was that he really didn't want to be in the position of judging them. He was one of them. He went through this process. He's going to understand it more than everybody. He has come out of that and launched an incredibly successful design business. He really had some insight on not just what's happening on the show, but what they can do with the opportunities afterward. His perspective is different than Tim's, which is important.

The new show does seem to be trying harder to help them launch businesses. The prize money is up to $250,000.

Cutforth That was a big part of our first discussion with Bravo. We wanted to try to attract the best talent and felt it was really important to increase the prize money. The CFDA involvement came about because we really wanted the designers to have a platform to launch a successful brand. Over the years, people have had a huge amount of success after competing on Top Chef. They've built great businesses. We really wanted to kind of gear our people on Project Runway the best possible platform to do something amazing after the show to really exploit the opportunity.

You introduced a participatory element in the show, with audience polls and winning looks being sold on Bravo's website. Was that a natural move for the show, or a way to add some urgency for the audience — since people often watch these shows on their own schedule.

Lipsitz It was actually more a reflection of the promise that we had made in terms of what we wanted to do with the show. We really did feel like incorporating the flash sale was reflective of how the fashion industry works today. People buy a lot of their clothes online. It wasn't as much a contrivance. We love the immediacy of the fact they are able to have a say in the clothes, but that was sort of the second gear of that.

Was there ever any suggestion about leaving New York?

Lipsitz New York City has always been the epicenter of the American fashion industry. That's where we always did it and we really felt we could not take it somewhere else. We did move to Brooklyn, which was influenced because there is a section of the fashion industry that is moving there. So, we shook it up a little bit, but definitely felt it was important to stay in New York.

Thursday is also the Top Chef finale. I was so surprised you went to Macau, because you rarely leave the Western Hemisphere. What was the biggest challenge?

Cutforth It sounds like not that big of a deal, but the time zone was quite challenging because the people had come from the states. It was hard for them to acclimatize. We were based at the MGM Grand, so we had all of the facilities you could want. You can fly direct into Hong Kong and get there pretty easily. Once we got over all of that time on the plane and the crazy time difference, it wasn't much different than doing it in Mexico or Hawaii. We're quite used to taking Top Chef on the road.

Are there ever talks of doing more Work of Art? That show never really got its due.

Cutforth Not really! It was more than a year in between seasons, which was quite a long time. The second season just did not rate as well. Top Chef has been a sort of outlier for Bravo in terms of its audience. From my understanding, the network has an audience that comes just for Top Chef. I think Work of Art was like that as well. It was such a fun show to make.

Lipsitz Maybe you should call Bravo.

Jerry Saltz's profile has really blown up since then.

Lipsitz I know! For an episode of Nailed It!, there was an art challenge and we tried to get him as our guest judge. But he is very busy.

Cutforth He was going to do it, but something came up and we couldn't change the date of the taping. But yeah, we love Jerry. Such a character.

Can you give me a sense of your involvement in shows like Runway and Top Chef moving forward, even though you're leaving the production company?

Lipsitz We're not going cold turkey. That would be painful. Part of the transition is our onward commitment to the quality of these shows and to our network partners and talent. We're still one hundred percent committed to that — to make these shows as good as they can be. That means staying involved in the creative.

Cutforth The whole process of our transition into our new venture has been very copacetic. For us, it's pretty nice to not have to be in the position of just walking away from all those shows. We remain connected to them.