'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.
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.)
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?"
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.
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.
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.
PART 2: Making It Work (2005-2007)
Kors: I was picking up Rolling Stones tickets, and I ran into Rashida Jones. And she said, "I love Project Runway." I said, "Thank you." She said, "My mom loves the show, and my sister loves it." And I said, "Great." Then she said, "My dad likes the show." And I was like, "Quincy Jones watches Project Runway?"
Gunn: I knew it was [a hit] when a construction worker shouted down from scaffolding, "Tim Gunn, you're killing me with that show."
Garcia: Competing magazine editors said, "Can we come to your finale?"
Klum: I would have to leave messages on people's phones, saying "auf Wiedersehen" all the time. Fans would ask, "Can you please record this [as a greeting]?" Someone says something a few times, and it just runs off.
Gunn: How many seasons were we saying, "Don't bore Nina"?
Kors: The next thing you know, people are wearing Don't Bore Nina shirts.
Klum: [Contestant] Christian Siriano would say, "Hot mess." So everyone watching the show was saying, "It's a hot mess." And Tim with, "Make it work." You can't think of those things -- they just happen. Tim speaks different than most of us. There are a lot of times I have no idea what he's saying. I just hope someone fills me in later.
Kors: People who were never interested in clothes suddenly realized, "This came from somewhere." An investment banker could think, "Someone designed the pattern on my tie, the width and the fabric."
Garcia: Harvey had a real crash course on fashion. One time he told me: "I thought making movies was difficult. Well, fashion is as difficult."
Kors: He understands what people will be captivated by.
Klum: Before, it was not OK for an A-lister to do anything on television. Everything changed, and Harvey understood that very early on.
Kors: I love when we have actresses [as guest judges]. We had Natalie Portman for the organic challenge. At first she didn't want to be critical, and I said: "You don't have to be critical. You have a point of view." The next thing we knew, she started speaking fluent fashionista.
Rob Sharenow, lifetime executive vp programming: With the pet-store or candy-store challenge [where designers used only the store materials to create an outfit], contestants are going outside their comfort zone and able to translate something difficult into something beautiful.
Klum: These designers can make $50 look like $2,000.
Lipsitz: We're finding the next great designer. It has to be their own design aesthetic. It was important they understood that. With Keith Michael [who was asked to leave for using a pattern book], it was painful. You never want to kick a contestant off, but it was important.
Gunn: The designer who wins and the finalists achieve as much as their ambitions and resources allow them to. Season-two winner Chloe Dao has a hugely successful business in Houston. Is she a household name? No, but she's very happy. Not everyone can be Michael Kors.
Garcia: But also, Michael Kors did not become Michael Kors overnight.
Kors: It takes time. The show finds the talent. Put the light on the talent, and then it's up to them.
Sara Rea, executive producer (Bunim/Murray): After shows like American Idol, I understand where people are coming from, but fashion is very different. Just because they aren't in every mall in America doesn't mean they're not successful. Few people make it to that level in fashion.
Gunn: You need to be a Weeble. If you fall down, bounce right back up.
Kors: Fashion is not for sissies.
PART 3: Reworking the Pattern (2008-2009)
After a three-year legal battle, on April 1, 2009, The Weinstein Co. acknowledged it had sold Runway to Lifetime without giving NBCUniversal a chance to match the offer and settled out of court, paying an undisclosed sum. Despite the controversy, the season-six premiere drew 4.2 million viewers, only slightly down from season five's finale more than a year earlier.
Cutler: When all that was happening with the courts, we were taping season six in L.A., which was the hardest one because everything was new: the network, location, production company. It wasn't that we were unaware; we just weren't following the politics. We kept our heads down and waited to be told when and where we would be airing.
Lipsitz: Dan [Cutforth, executive producer] and I had made the decision to move on from Runway prior to our deal with NBCUniversal [Magical Elves has a first-look agreement with the company]. We felt it was time; it would be a clean break with the show moving to Lifetime.
Jonathan Murray, executive producer (Bunim/Murray): Lifetime and TWC approached us to come on board to run the show after Magical Elves decided to stay with NBC/Bravo.
Rea: I was scared. It was such a great show with such a high standard that if anything went awry -- whether it's our fault or not -- everybody's going to be looking at us.
Murray: My agent said, "If this show doesn't work on the new network, Bunim/Murray is going to get the blame." It was challenging. The show didn't come with an owner's manual. We had to figure it out as we went.
Rea: Before we started, I watched 50-something hours of Runway -- every episode, over and over.
Murray: The marching orders from the network were to keep it exactly the same. The big concern was to make sure viewers, who had been so loyal to the show, were comfortable with the move to Lifetime. As the production company who had done shows like Real World and The Simple Life, there were jokes like, "Are they going to try and put a hot tub on the runway?" gruber Our goal was to understand how our show DNA fit into Lifetime's DNA. How to keep our show authentic to the original fans and blend that to bring in more viewers. Sometimes it's not a partnership. [The network] will say, "Meet the new boss, and change this and this." But it wasn't that way. Lifetime wanted the show for what it was. I think that's unusual.
Cutler: Actions speak louder than words. We went from a 6o-minute show to 90 minutes [beginning in season eight]. It's a testament to how supportive Lifetime is of the franchise.
PART 4: Future of Fashion (2012)
Gunn: People ask me, "Aren't you getting tired of this?" Do I get tired of teaching? Every semester there's a whole new crop of students, and they're invigorating and energizing. That's how I feel about each season.
Klum: Also, people ask, "What's different this season?" What are we going to change? The show works the way it works. We don't fake things. It's a real show about how clothes are made, and we don't want to change that.
Sharenow: Fashion changes through time, as does Runway in that sense. It really is the perfect format because of these ongoing elements. The heart and soul of the show is really the designers, and that changes every season.
Cutler: Whenever the show ends, we collectively want it to be on a high note. I don't think we are concluded now by any means; we still have fresh ideas. I think we will know when the time is right.
Weinstein: Part of what I am most proud of with Project Runway is giving all of these young people the chance to get their foot in the door, so I hope we can continue that for some more time to come.
Murray: There's no question [about season 11]. When we started the Road Rules and Real World challenges years ago, we found a new way to bring viewers back. We've been doing that for 23 seasons now. I'm hoping we get to do 23 seasons of Project Runway All Stars, which means we'll have 30 to 40 seasons of Runway.
Klum: We're going to have the ramp, and we're going to be wheeling in with our air tubes. We'll be walking with walking sticks onto the stage.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW? The path of a fashion star is far from certain, as Project Runway's winners have proven
Jay McCarroll (Season 1): The debut winner recently launched an online fabric house (jaymccarrollfabric.com) showcasing his textiles. McCarroll says he's also working on "continuing to expand my brand into multiple retail channels." The Pennsylvania native teaches fashion at Philadelphia University.
Chloe Dao (Season 2): The business-savvy winner (who opened her Houston-based boutique Lot 8 in 2000) recently partnered with Nuo Tech to create a line of travel accessories, available at 1,200 Staples stores nationwide. Last year, the designer launched her first bridal collection at chloedao.com.
Jeffrey Sebelia (Season 3): Last year, Sebelia launched La Miniatura, an edgy children's apparel brand with entrepreneur Melissa Bochco. The line sold out in two days at the March 2011 ENK Children's Club show and is now available at Barneys, Fred Segal, Bloomingdale's and Kitson.
Christian Siriano (Season 4): Far and away Runway's most successful alum, Siriano has his collection at Neiman Marcus and high-end retailers nationwide. In addition to an exclusive bridal line for Nordstrom, the designer (who dresses Rihanna and Victoria Beckham) recently opened his first New York boutique.
Leanne Marshall (Season 5): In spring 2010, the designer launched the sustainable clothing collection Basic Math, which she showed during New York's 2012 spring/summer Fashion Week. Marshall also has a bridal collection and continues to work on one-of-a-kind designs with private clients such as Paula Abdul.
Irina Shabayeva (Season 6): In addition to routinely dressing such celebrities as Lady Gaga, True Blood's Rutina Wesley, Mad Men's Alison Brie and Selena Gomez, in spring 2012 the designer show-cased a 48-piece, brightly colored dress collection, which also included evening gowns.
Seth Aaron Henderson (Season 7): Along with such fellow Project Runway alums as Michael Costello and Gordana Gehlhausen, the designer travels from city to city doing trunk shows while focusing on finding a suitable retail partner and manufacturer. He is working on his 2013 collections.
Gretchen Jones (Season 8): "It's been a very exciting spring," says the controversial winner (the judges were split on whether to crown Jones or Mondo Guerra). Jones is preparing her spring/summer 2013 campaign, which she plans to show at New York Fashion Week and Vancouver's Eco Fashion Week.
Anya Ayoung-Chee (Season 9): Caribbean-based designer Ayoung-Chee is working on her spring 2013 collection as well as her pre-Runway women's label, Pilar, and her lingerie collection, Anya de Rogue. She recently revisited the show for a season-10 challenge.
Mondo Guerra (All-Star Season): After finishing season eight as first runner-up, the popular contestant dominated the All-Star season. The designer (who blogs Runway recaps for THR.com) hopes to debut his collection at Neiman Marcus this year and is launching an exclusive eyewear collection at See in the spring.