New York Fashion Week is the promised land for 16 budding designers in Season 19 of Project Runway. That and $250,000. The field for Bravo’s Emmy-winning competition series is diverse as ever, coming from across the country (and the world). Although representing different cultural backgrounds, they each share the same dream.
Returning mentor Christian Siriano knows firsthand what this opportunity can mean, having parlayed his Season 4 win into a multi-million dollar brand. He’ll once again be joined by judges Nina Garcia, Brandon Maxwell, and Elaine Welteroth. Bringing further star power to the panel is everyone from Taraji P. Henson and Billy Porter to Andy Cohen and former full-time host Karlie Kloss.
The competition kicks off Thursday, October 14 at Lincoln Center (runway shows also take place at the hidden greens of Rockefeller Center), where the hopefuls are divided into two teams, tasked with creating a cohesive collection of monochromatic high fashion looks celebrating color. Here, Siriano and Welteroth share what the designers needed to do to stand out.
It’s amazing to see the international flavor of the contestants, from Shanghai to Afghanistan. What do you make of this Sweet 16?
Christian Siriano: That’s my favorite part. We’ve never had such a diverse group of people from all these different countries and cultures and walks of life. Someone is speaking Russian while another is speaking Farsi. What is also inspiring for Project Runway over 19 seasons is showcasing the American dream. But to these designers, this is a dream to be on the show and be a successful designer. Some of them have come from nothing and really worked hard to build something. It’s pretty beautiful to watch.
What kind of qualities does the winner have to possess?
Elaine Welteroth: I think in these times, people connect to the designer as much as they do the work. The stories behind some of these designers often translate into their work, into what they stand for. I think the winner of a show like this, in a season like this, in a moment in our world like this, is somebody people will relate to and whose work they are inspired by.
The practical side of things: Not only will they have to have an incredible skill level and be incredibly creative and innovative in their designs, but clothes have to actually be clothes you can wear. We love the fantasy of fashion and we want to feel this aspirational quality, but post-pandemic, if people are going to put clothes on their body, it has to be clothes they can feel comfortable in. I think so many of us lived in sweats and pajamas on Zoom for over a year, so it’s harder to get people in things that don’t feel practical. I feel like there was this really interesting balance. I thought there was this real-world context. It’s the backdrop to all the cultural and political conversations that have reached a fever pitch. We also are looking for someone who understands those issues and how to use their brand as a platform. Someone who has something to say.
There are so many fun challenges this season. What was your favorite?
Siriano: The Real Housewives challenge was quite wild. It was actually really fun though. There is a really exciting challenge toward the end of the season: They really dig deep into the creative process, shooting a campaign, working with a supermodel—a real industry moment. I like the challenges that push you through to what is actually going to happen in the business. Even though the Housewives challenge was really fabulous, hilarious, dramatic, and crazy, the clothes were pretty great.
Welteroth: I have to say the unconventional challenge was on another level. I think there were some pieces that [the viewers] wouldn’t have any idea were made out of popcorn or straws. The caliber of these designs is so high. The things these designers were able to do with scraps are truly mind-blowing. For me, that was really exciting and impressive, which was surprising. That one is either hit or miss. I’m always like, “Lord, why are we doing this? These designers are not using straws in the real world.” But it shows you just how crafty and skillful they can be working with random stuff.
What guest A-list judge caught your eye?
Siriano: I thought Taraji was fabulous. I thought the designers couldn’t even handle themselves around her. It was really good. She is my favorite.
Welteroth: Taraji knows fashion. She knows what works on a red carpet. She has strong opinions and delivers them with clarity and sass. I feel like I have the best seat in the house because I sit next to the guest judges. Taraji had me dying. She is also so invested. I will say at one point she got real emotional. She even got out of her chair and walked onto the runway to give one of the designers a hug because she felt so overwhelmed with love. She was moved to tears. It was incredible to see her.
How would you say you approached this season knowing a milestone, Season 20, is potentially around the corner?
Siriano: I’m definitely approaching this milestone in a really important way as a working designer in the business right now. I’m really trying to give these designers real advice. I walked around the workroom how I treat my workroom. I think the show and competition were great for a long time and amazing, but the working designer not being in that workroom makes it really hard. You have to understand what they are going through. I think that is my goal. Really actually help them. It’s not enough to give them advice sometimes. We all have to support the designer afterward too because we want them to be a successful business or else why are we on the show?
Project Runway, Season 19 Premiere, Thursday, October 14, 9/8c, Bravo