"I want Karlie to critique my collection."
"Guys, act like TV stars!"
"Someone let me know if I'm flashing the camera."
I heard a lot of stuff during my afternoon spent with Project Runway 3.0’s newly minted cast at Refinery29’s New York headquarters. Jokes were made, eyes were rolled and astrological signs were debated. But despite the offscreen fun and the harsh (but necessary) "You're not going to Paris" moments, this season aims to be about much more than just drama and dresses.
The beloved reality show, which took a year-long hiatus in 2018, is back (on its original network, Bravo) with new faces — and a tweaked new mission. Along with Lifetime, the show bid farewell to co-hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, plus all of the judges save Nina García. But despite the loss of such pivotal figures, their replacements aren't wasting any time breathing some much-needed new life into the show, which premiered in 2005.
First up, there's Karlie Kloss, a 26 year-old Midwestern native who's managed to find a balance between computer programming and being one of the highest paid supermodels in the world (nice). Then there's Christian Siriano, the designer who won Project Runway 11 years ago (season 4 on the show) and has since dressed the likes of Michelle Obama, Victoria Beckham and Lady Gaga . In walks Elaine Welteroth, whose rise to editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue made her only the second African American woman to hold such a title in all of Condé Nast history (she has a book, More Than Enough, coming out in June). And last, but certainly not least, is rising star designer, Brandon Maxwell, a Longview, Texas native who, despite only launching his namesake brand four years ago, has already been a finalist for the 2016 LVMH Prize and won the CFDA Swarovski Award for Womenswear.
But varied experiences and backgrounds aren't all that make this foursome perfect for Runway’s reboot. "One thing that really bonds us together as judges is that we've all been really vocal in our own careers about issues that we want other young people who are looking at us to understand, to feel less alone in… we took that very seriously with this show," Maxwell says. Both he and Siriano have advocated for diversity on the runway, as seen in some of the most inclusive shows during New York Fashion Week. Welteroth used her perch at Teen Vogue to ensure that "anyone who picked up the magazine would see themselves — on the masthead and in the stories." And Kloss's nonprofit, Kode With Klossy, works to diversify the next generation of coders to include a larger representation of young women. Armed with a wide range of fashion world expertise, this new crew is dedicated to shaping the show's contestants (not just the eventual winner) for the long haul, and teaching them to create something more than just a garment — be that a legacy, an impact, a new perspective, or all three.
And this year’s 16 contestants, perhaps the most diverse in the show’s history, are ready to deliver. Welteroth says she and her colleagues sought out “contestants [who] would be reflective of the world today." After all, the fashion industry has changed a lot since the pilot episode 14 years ago, and this season was about reflecting that. "You have a Syrian refugee who's living out his American dream literally in front of America,” Welteroth said. “You have a woman who has nine kids, is on her second marriage, and is living out her best second life."
But not to worry, reality TV fans: season 17 will still check off all your guilty-pleasure boxes: rejection, triumph, tears, frustration, rivalries — a.k.a. all the things you want from Bravo (we're looking at you, Vanderpump Rules). But while you vicariously experience the stress of making a win-worthy garment in less than 15 hours right alongside the contestants, you'll also be privy to the creation of a new kind of talent in the fashion world thanks to these four fresh faces — and, of course, longtime returning judge, García. "The show is still, bang you over your head, about the clothes,” Welteroth said. “But we're more conscious now of the fact that you can't create clothing for the whole world in a vacuum."