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'Project Runway' turns 10: How the show changed reality TV

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Project Runway
Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images

These days, Project Runway is the TV equivalent of comfort food. Whether we’re bingeing on old seasons or picking up in the middle of the newest one, we’re soothed by the sight of half-dressed mannequins stuck with so many pins that they look like giant voodoo dolls, Tim Gunn’s “this concerns me” face, visions of taffeta grandeur floating down the runway, and Heidi’s impossibly long, lean legs.

But when it debuted 10 years ago this week, Project Runway was a novelty. A decade ago, the most popular reality competitions on TV were The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, The Mole, and Fear Factor—shows that focused on pretty people trying to double-cross each other. America’s Next Top Model was already in its third season—but it was always more about gorgeous girls and drama than fashion. There was also American Idol, a talent-based contest—though it placed its emphasis on the audience’s judging of the contestants rather than accompanying the singers through their creative processes.

The point is, reality TV wasn’t exactly held in high regard. Thanks to Runway, though, a very different sub-genre of reality TV has since emerged.

Competitive talent shows in the same vein as Project Runway are so common now that it’s almost tough to find a creative industry that hasn’t been featured in one: Top Chef, Face Off, Shear Genius, The Next Food Network StarWork of Art. So it’s easy to forget that Project Runway introduced something fresh to the reality TV landscape: an addictive show that didn’t rely on the degradation and humiliation of its contestants (save for Nina Garcia’s most biting insults). The idea that you could produce enthralling television without relying on physical and emotional exploitation—a guiltless pleasure—was fairly new. In other words, Project Runway was one of the first reality shows that didn’t make you feel dirty—or stupider—after watching it.

Project Runway made a bold and risky move by shifting away from the petty conniving and scheming of previous reality competitions. Instead of artificial drama, Runway favored raw talent and remarkable ingenuity—specifically, the technical skills, the hard work, the bold creativity, and the sincere passion of working designers.

Now, of course, sparks fly when strong personalities rub up against each other in stressful conditions and close quarters—and Project Runway has seen more than a few catfights. (We’re talking about the fashion industry, after all.) But those brawls were never the reason to tune in to the show. More importantly, the shouting matches—and the intermittent, teary mental breakdowns—were usually spurred by creative disagreements rather than personal spats. Clashing visions and working styles are a far cry from love triangles and manipulative alliances. The conflict and emotional turmoil were substantive.

Project Runway‘s interaction with the fashion industry—bringing credibility to the show in the eyes of both viewers and actual fashion insiders—was equally groundbreaking. Big name guest judges like Victoria Beckham, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Brooke Shields, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson (not to mention Ms. Klum herself) garnered attention from viewers. At the same time, influencers who weren’t well known outside of the fashion industry—like Alberto Ferretti, Catherine Malandrino, Francisco Costa, Patricia Field and John Varvatos—gave the show an extra sheen of legitimacy, as did the fact that its designers actually had a chance to show their collections at Fashion Week. (And while it’s hard to imagine a world where Tim Gunn wasn’t a demigod, he too wasn’t anywhere near a household name before 2004.)

Project Runway has long had a foot firmly planted in an industry once thought to be elitist and impenetrable, making a name for itself in the business while taking viewers behind the velvet ropes. In fact, the series was actually one of the first shows to build a tenable bridge between reality TV and the real world. It proved that reality shows could have an impact outside of their own self-contained universes.

You also can’t discuss the legacy of Project Runway without pointing out that it was arguably the first reality show starring—wait for it!—actual gay people on mainstream TV in a non-gimmicky, utterly casual way. From day one, gay contestants and judges have been integral to the show, though their stories were never about their sexual identity (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), sexcapades (The Real World), or LGBTQ-specific hobbies (RuPaul’s Drag Race). In the context of the competition—and indeed, the fashion industry at large—this just wasn’t a big deal. When a series features multiple gay figures, each with his or her own distinct personality, there is no “gay one.” Project Runway went a long way towards normalizing LGBTQ presence on reality TV.

Project Runway wrapped its 13th season this summer and kicked off Season 4 of its All Stars spinoff last month. Clearly, a lot has changed since the series premiered: Zac Posen replaced Michael Kors on the judges panel. The prizes have gotten bigger and more fabulous. The models are less central. The sponsors have gotten more random (Red Robin, really?). Audience participation has been incorporated. Tim Gunn now has the power to save designers that deserve a second chance.

But although the show’s minutiae have been altered, much like any good brand, its integrity has remained intact. Runway continues to be about real people, genuine talent, and beautiful design. (And, let’s admit it, Tim Gunn’s now-classic catchphrases.) While there are no signs of the series ending anytime soon, we know we’ll have to say “auf wiedersehen” to Project Runway eventually. But until then, carry on, designers—and danke very much for giving reality TV a much-needed redesign.

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