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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Behind The Seams: ‘Project Runway’

Anna Tingley |
August 6, 2015 | 9:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Courtesy of Lifetime
Courtesy of Lifetime

“Make it work!” Tim Gunn’s voice resonates through the workroom as stressed designers and half-naked models rush to perfect their looks before the final runway. While filled to the brim with talent and character, Project Runway isn’t lacking in anxiety. With challenges that require gowns to be perfected in two days, and fabrics to be chosen and cut in twenty minutes, the pressure is always on. 

From designing outfits for WWE wrestlers, creating clothes for mailmen, and ripping apart household furniture for materials, Project Runway designers are truly unstoppable. Where else can someone find a model dressed head-to-toe in groceries? Lady Gaga’s meat dress worn during the MTV Awards circa 2013 may have come close, but she didn’t have Michael Kors and Nina Garcia singing her praises. 

Returning with its fourteenth season, sixteen new designers trek to New York City in hopes of crossing the first stepping-stone to a life of high fashion, and also to win the promised $100,000 to start his/her business. As the Lifetime reality show approaches its premiere, executive producer Jane Cha sits down to talk about the magic behind the competition.

Neon Tommy: How did you come to create the show? Where did the idea come from? How did everything fall into place?

Cha: That was already about twelve, thirteen years ago. What happened was, myself and my partner at FullPicture, Desiree Gruber, who’s the president of the company, and Heidi Klum. We’ve all known each other for almost twenty years now. But, um, we had worked with MiraMax at the time, and Harvey Weinstein on a bunch of fashion related projects. And so when he wanted to do something about fashion, he came to us for advice. And we came up with the idea for Project Runway. And initially, he wanted it to be about models but we thought it would be stronger to be about designers. And he said “Oh who wants to watch a bunch of people sewing? That’s going to be so boring.” And so we concepted it out and said “No, it would really be about the whole creative process.” And we came up with sample challenges. And we brought on Tim Gunn – who was originally not supposed to have an on-camera role- but of course he ended up becoming the star of the show. And then we obviously attached Heidi and Michael Kors and Nina Garica, who at the time was at Elle Magazine (now she’s at Marie Claire). And all of a sudden we had this great formula.

NT: Have you observed a difference in talent? Some people argue that contestants in the earlier seasons were more talented. Do you think people are just a bit more jaded now and they were simply more surprised at the beginning?

Cha: Oh, I think that’s the opposite. I think the talent has probably gotten much better. Because in the beginning, not as many people knew about the show, so we had a smaller pool of people applying. Now we have hundreds of people going through the audition process. We used to do open-call casting, but now it just got too crazy, so we changed it. Our casting directors pre-select a certain amount of people for us - the producers and the judges - to see. So that’s what made the talent caliber even higher. You’re always going to have some stand-out talents in each season, but overall it’s probably a stronger pool now. 

READ MORE: Sew It Begins Again! 'Project Runway' Approaches Its Fourteenth Season

NT: What do you think makes a reality competition show stand out and succeed? When compared to some that are flops, what makes people entertained by shows such as Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol, and other successes?

Cha: If I knew the answer to that, I would bottle it. But it’s really serendipity. It’s really the right combination of people, ideas, and the right time. So we were one of the first competition shows- I mean really. It’s been almost fourteen years. So I think it was fresh at the time. And through twists and things like that, we’ve managed to keep it fresh even now.

NT: How true to reality is this show? Are the time constraints completely real? Is all of the drama between contestants completely un-manipulated? 

Cha: It’s really not. What’s true about it is the talent, and the creative processes. By that, I mean you’re inspired by something and you bring it to life in a final product. But in reality, it is a television show. Nobody in real life is going to ask you to make a dress out of groceries, or paper, or plants, ya know? And hardware. But that’s what’s fun about it. So the time constraints are not really realistic. But what is realistic is the concept behind it. You are always in a time crunch. Think about designers in real life now. They are responsible for not just spring and fall collections. They are responsible for resort, they’re responsible for pre-resort, they’re responsible for pre-fall. Like they are always on a hamster wheel. 

NT: What are the rules that contestants have to follow? For example, I know that someone in one of the first seasons was kicked out for cheating. How is that controlled?

Cha: That’s funny because in this first episode you see a few of the designers forget the rules, and they don’t bring certain things that they need to bring. So they kind of need to depend on the mercy of strangers to get through! Yeah, the rules are pretty strict. You’re not allowed to have your phone, you’re not allowed to have magazines, books, or anything like that. You’re told to bring all your materials- meaning your scissors, and your tool kit and everything. And yeah, you’re pretty much isolated in a little Project Runway bubble. 

NT: Is there a specific way you pick contestants for the show? Is it all based on talent, or do you also aim for entertainment and diversity within contestants?

Cha: We do. And by diversity, I don’t mean just ethnic or gender diversity. I mean diversity in terms of aesthetics and design point of view. You can’t have twelve evening gown designers. You can’t just have twelve sportswear designers. So we really try to think “Okay, this person’s really strong in this. This person’s really strong in this. This person’s really strong in avant-garde.” So you can mix up the group so that you never quite know how it’s all going to combust and come together in the workroom until it starts. But that’s what we do in core. 

NT: From watching the show, it always seems like the judges and contestants build very strong friendships. Is there anything the team does off-screen that helps strengthen the bonds between contestants themselves, and also between contestants and judges?

Cha: I would say we have a very, very good family atmosphere right now on the show because we’ve all worked together for many, many years. Like a lot of people on the show work behind the scenes and in front of the camera and have been with the show since the beginning. So, many of the producers, Heidi, Zac now instead of Michael (but he’s already been on for several seasons now) have all been with the show for many years. So we have a short hand with each other, and it’s very comfortable and friendly. 

READ MORE: Our Expectations Are Different Than Our Hopes For Fashion

NT: Off of the top of your head, do you have any particularly funny moments from the set over the past few years?

Cha: The one that I always think of, and that made me like cry with laughter, was when we had this world wrestling challenge, and I never forget this. We were having the runway show and the models were a little bit over the top – like different than our models. Obviously that’s what they do. And what happened was, Nina started laughing. Not laughing at the women, but just laughing at the absurdity of the challenge a little bit. So when she started laughing, Michael Kors started laughing. And they could not stop. It was like kids in church. Like they could not stop. We were dying in the control room. I was crying. I was literally crying. And then Heidi started laughing!

NT: How do you guys come up with the challenge ideas? 

Cha: What we do, is we have a big meeting before the season starts and we kind of hash out the kind of challenges we want to do. We all have our favorites. Like I advocated for a potato sack challenge we did three or four seasons ago. And Tim went to a potato farm. And that’s one that I was advocating forever until we finally did it. Um, and there’s one that we’re doing this upcoming season that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, that has to do with makeovers, and that’s probably all I can say. Yeah, we have a big meeting, we go through ideas. It’s also a matter of working with sponsors and figuring out how to meld the two together.

NT: Are there any challenges that the team has regretted, or didn’t work out as expected?

Cha: I don’t think we’ve regretted any. But one that turned out unexpectedly was one that Heidi really wanted to do. There’s a male kind of Chippendales-esque dance troop, called Thunder from Down Under. They’re based in Vegas. So they came to New York and we outfitted them- that was the challenge. To make outfits for them – not stripper clothes, just real menswear! And it was a little scary, I have to say. The fashion was not great. But the show itself was great because there was Velcro involved, and they were coming down the runway and stripping off their clothes. So it was really funny and entertaining but the fashion was a little bit lacking.

NT: Who has been your favorite designer from any of the seasons?

Cha: My favorite designer – just on a personal and professional level – probably is Christian Siriano. He designed my reception dress for my wedding. And he and I have remained very close friends, and I adore him. And I think he’s made a great, multi-million dollar business. Because he did it the right way. A lot of people think you win Project Runway, and it’s easy street. Like nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just a stepping stone. You have to take that and run with it, and that’s what he did. And I did stay in touch with a lot of them – um, Daniel Vosovic, Kara Saun, Austin Scarlett. I have great relationships with a bunch of them and it’s really nice. And sometimes I’ll see Mondo and Seth Erin when we do castings, and we’ll bring them back to judge and it’s really nice. 

NT: Is there anything new this season that will be surprising to loyal viewers?

Cha: Tim Gunn gets very worked up over the designers. There are a couple in particular who really rub him the wrong way. So he gives them a talkin’ to. It takes a lot to get Tim riled up, but when he gets riled up, he is serious about it. So that was pretty interesting.

NT: Can you give one hint about where this season will take the designers?

Cha: Um, one place involves water and one place involves crossing water. 

With popular guest judges such as Bella Thorne, Ashley Tisdale, and Ciara expected in almost every episode, along with anticipated challenges and an angry Tim, what else can you ask for? Make sure to tune in August 6th at 8pm PST on LifeTime to meet the next “it” designer. 

Reach Staff Reporter Anna Tingley here.



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