Yes, Project Runway is still on TV — and yes, it’s still getting worthy ratings.
Other than Emmy-winning hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, the cult reality show’s ability to evolve and “make it work” for over a decade has made it a touchstone both for its dedicated fan base and brand franchises hoping to last as long. With the premiere of Season 16 last month, it’s clear that the fashion reality hit is doing anything but resting on its laurels. This year’s format change to dress models sizes 0–22 keeps the show as relevant as ever.
Looking back, there’s been a clear precedent for mixing things up.
From judge rotations and unconventional design challenges to alumni and youth spin-offs, Project Runway has kept viewers on the edge of their seats. This has continued to garner recognition from the industry as a whole. Take, for example, its accolades from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences; the program has earned 55 Emmy nominations (and two wins) over the years. It’s also received high Nielsen ratings over its lifetime, even nabbing the No. 1 rating for non-sports programming during its time slot in 2015.
Here’s how the show’s creative staff keep Project Runway relevant in TV’s Golden Age:
Listening to the Cultural Conversation (2017)
There’s been an outcry for designers to create looks for all sizes. With a market of over 100 million women, the plus-size market continues to grow and its voice is gaining amplification. The topic has recently been addressed on a national level in Refinery 29, WWD, and Allure.
In step with contemporary culture’s desires, Project Runway has announced that this year its cast will create ensembles for models sizes 0–22. This move echoes the success of Season 14 winner and plus-size designer Ashley Nell Tipton, whose line will hit J.C. Penney this fall.
Expanding With Retail Partnerships (2017)
Retailers continue to leverage new collaborations with brands that have dedicated followings — and Project Runway is definitely a brand. The TV show itself recently announced its own J.C. Penney line. As John Tighe, J.C. Penney’s chief merchant, said in a statement published on MarketWatch, “This strategic collaboration enables us to work directly with up-and-coming design talent from ‘Project Runway’ and increase our assortment of contemporary apparel, while gaining a fresh perspective on what women are seeking when curating the ultimate wardrobe.”
The partnership will help incentivize Project Runway contestants by offering the winner an opportunity to create a limited-edition collection. As part of a summer preview, some items were made available before Season 15’s premiere. The line currently features workwear such as trim pencil skirts, casual wear such as sweatshirts and occasional clothes such as ruffle lace tops.
Catering to the Youth Market (2015)
Another evolution of the Project Runway brand was to take the winning formula to a new market. With two seasons complete and one upcoming, Project Runway: Junior puts the spotlight on aspiring designers ages 13 to 17. Icons to this generation — including Christian Siriano and First Lady Michelle Obama — were high on viewers’ radars. Further, the modified prize package was extremely attractive to the young hobbyists: A full scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology, $25,000 to launch a line, and a feature in Seventeen magazine fit the new audience perfectly.
Encouraging Creative Collaboration (2013)
In a twist, Season 11 inspired its talent to work together. This could be inspired by modern designers who have found success working together in groups, such as the trio behind CFDA/Vogue-Fashion-Fund favorites Orley, or the time-honored duo Dolce & Gabbana. Experimenting with the established show rules paid off with fresh content, if not a new way forward for future seasons.
Refreshing Influencer Talent (2013)
In Season 11, when Michael Kors needed to step back from the judges panel, the producers swiftly asked American fashion designer and master of modern glamour Zac Posen to fill his shoes. This brought in a new point of view that modernized the programming, much like rotations on other reality shows including American Idol and Top Chef. Posen brings a tactful voice to the panel, and he also examines not just the final look, but the thought process behind it and the creative integrity of the garment. This is made clear when he requests a closer look at the designs after they go down the runway to assess the construction — an appeal that has now become common on the show.
Welcoming Back Alumni in All-Star Battles (2012)
Another spin-off, Project Runway: All Stars, invited standout talent from previous seasons back for another chance to make a name for themselves; think Austin Scarlett, Daniel Franco, and Wendy Pepper. This has been proven to be tune-in-worthy by others in the reality TV market, including So You Think You Can Dance and Big Brother which have also featured alumni seasons.
Despite all of the format and programming shifts Project Runway has experimented with, some things haven’t changed. The up-and-coming designers still show their ingenuity and unique personalities that have shepherded the show forward. Given that the fan favorite has been renewed by Lifetime through Season 18, more unexpected turns are no doubt in store.
Top image by Henry Lamb/BEI/Shutterstock.