Sombrero hats. Licorice. Newspaper. Various dismembered stuffed animals. Countless burns from industrial glue guns. As Tim Gunn would say, it’s time to “make it work!” for Project Runway‘s unconventional materials challenge.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the designers on Project Runway and the viewers of the show is how much they hate the infamous unconventional challenge episodes — and how much we love watching them. Typically taking place (at least) once per season and rather early on in the competition, these challenges have required the designers to source materials from a carnival, candy stores, garbage heaps, flower shops, hardware stores, flower shops and hardware stores, and plenty of other outlandish places.
Watching the more imaginative and creative designers excel in these bizarre circumstances, while others freeze or flop, has always kind of felt like watching a regular PR episode on uppers. Behold, a ranking of the good, the bad, and the most painful unconventional challenge episodes on the series’ 16-season, two-network history.
17. Season 9, Episode 2: “Pet Project”
Arguably the smelliest challenge episode ever (we weren’t there, but…), this one sent everyone to a pet shop to somehow figure out how to create a fashionable outfit. As one contestant so memorably put it, “This is not fashion, this is more like trashion.” Unfortunately, the end result here created one too many similar looks — lots of shift dresses with belts. One thing we did love, however, was the bird-seed collar.
16. Season 14, Episode 2: “It’s All in the Cards”
This episode (inexplicably) bridged the worlds of fashion and… greeting cards, charging the designers with creating full looks using Hallmark paper products. Lots of boxy dresses later, this challenge taught us how you always have to watch the quiet ones — Edmond, who stayed mostly out of the limelight or any of the usual PR drama, nailed it with his whimsical bridal gown — and reminded us, again, how important it is to follow the rules (i.e., don’t just paste some lettering on top of fabric, David).
“It’s not a challenge until you cry.” — Designer Ashley
15. Season 16, Episode 2: “An Unconventional Recycling”
The current season of Project Runway recycled the concept of using recycled materials by having the designers literally go through the trash to find and build their looks. Some of the results were surprising — high neck pieces were in, like on the winning look made by Ayana, an exclusively modest Muslim designer — and some weren’t, like the losing look, which updated the garbage bag dress from black to recycle-green.
14. Season 3, Episode 6: “Waste Not, Want Not”
The drama and insults flew in this early challenge, which tasked the team with using recyclable materials (paper, plastics, metal) to create classy looks. Things have evolved since season 3, though, and many of these pieces looked more crafty than classy. Paper dresses are tricky things — as seen with Vincent’s model, who almost stumbled on the runway.
“Innovation doesn’t have to hit you in the face.” —Michael Kors
13. Season 13, Episode 2: “Unconventional Movie Night”
This team challenge brought the season 13 team of designers to the gorgeous Village East Cinema in New York City, where they were thrown a challenge loosely inspired by all things movies: from the lighting equipment and actual film rolls of production, to the popcorn bags and ticket stubs of opening night. The resulting looks mostly felt way too cohesive — there were multiple film-strip skirts — and the winning teams’ looks were most surprising considering how terrible they looked on the dress forms before hitting the runway. But as always, Heidi and the judges had the last word.
12. Season 2, episode 9: “Flower Power”
One of the seminal unconventional challenge episodes, the first flower shop episode was a learning moment for the producers of the show, since all the contestants ended up with lots of greenery — and barely any flowers. Several designers found themselves praying that leaves and petals wouldn’t fall off their dresses on the runway, and sadly for designer Andrae, the now-infamous moss dress (in this case, a Jackie O-meets-Swamp Thing ensemble) sent him home.
“Green is the new black.” — Michael Kors
11. Season 5, Episode 7: “Fashion that Drives You”
Another episode that awkwardly shoehorns in product placement, the designers are ushered to the roof where they find a bunch of Saturn cars, from which they must create high fashion… using car parts and fabrics. Most of the results are undeniably gorgeous and sporty, even if just a few too many seatbelts were used (we’re looking at you, Blayne and Stella). And then there’s Keith, who let emotions (and grudges from the prior episode) get the best of him.
10. Season 11, Episode 4: “The Ultimate Hard and Soft”
This team challenge brought in various elements, requiring designers to pick up items at both a flower shop and a hardware store. This led to some inspired looks, like personal favorite Michelle who “caged” flowers using Venetian blinds, and some not-so-inspired ones like Joe’s lumpy-looking sheath dress (or whatever that was). Samantha doubted herself, but in the end her creative choice to overlay plants with a translucent material paid off. Oh, and Bette Midler was the guest judge, so what’s not to love?
9. Season 4, Episode 6: “Eye Candy”
The first of at least two challenges that sent the designers to a candy store in search of sweet inspiration (and materials), this go-round led to lots of pleats, graphic Hershey fonts, and a win (surprise!) for the talented Rami. It also sent the graced, blessed, and fortified Elisa — with her mushy brown “macabre Gretel” dress — packing.
8. Season 7, Episode 7: “Hard Wear”
The goal of these challenges is to use unconventional materials to create fashion that doesn’t look tortured, even if the designers have to torture the materials (and sometimes, the models wearing them) to get there. Some did and some didn’t, as seen with a heavy metallic look or two, and trash bags used as leather. This challenge also had the garment with arguably the least amount of coverage on a model in PR history — a “swimsuit” made of nothing but hanging string and metal washers. SOS, mayday, mayday!
7. Season 15, Episode 1: “An Unconventional Launch Party”
While not the most imaginative of premises for one of these challenges (the welcome party thrown for the incoming designers doubled as the source for their materials), the end looks were pretty fierce, even though repetitions abounded (loud couch pillows and backpack straps, especially). It came down to creativity vs. sophistication, and losing designer Ian became the umpteenth designer who fell victim to his own stubbornness getting in the way of being able to follow the friggin’ rules (we get that you’re a designer true to your own aesthetic, but you gotta play the game!).
6. Season 1, Episode 1: “Innovation”
We’ve come a long way since the first-ever episode of Project Runway, and my, how things have changed. But the unconventional materials challenge, surprisingly, hasn’t changed much. Here we were introduced to a corn husk dress, a barely-there swimsuit look for Rio, and some garbage bag couture. What about how young everyone looks!?
“I just wish I would’ve seen… more clothes?” — Nina Garcia (re. the Rio look)
5. Season 10, Episode 2: “Candy Couture”
It was Gunner vs. Chris in this early season 10 episode, which again saw the designers wrestling with candy and sweets to create killer looks on the runway. We ended up with destroyed umbrellas, weird candy aprons, glue burns galore, and a “rigatoni Mad Max.” The most disappointing look that still somehow made the cut went to the arrogant Elena, with her boxy monochromatic piña colada licorice jacket thing.
“There’s a difference between fun, and insane.” – Michael Kors
4. Season 7, Episode 2: “Fashion Farm”
One of the more inspiring unconventional challenges, this one sourced things from the farm down home, and what we got in exchange were some gorgeous end looks. Who knew burlap could be so chic? (Apparently, winner Jay did.) And then there was Jesus, who just didn’t care about what Tim had to say. We all know what happens when you don’t listen to Tim… you end up on the bottom.
3. Season 6, Episode 5: “Fashion Headliners”
For Project Runway in Los Angeles, producers brought the unconventional challenge to the presses — specifically those of the Los Angeles Times, where designers had to grab stacks upon stacks of fresh newsprint to create their ensembles. The results were surprisingly chic and in many cases playful — except for the case of Johnny, who at one point literally crumples up his look and throws it away. If it wasn’t for all his storytelling (and not in the good, journalistic sense), he may have survived to the next challenge…
“Giving up addiction was probably easier to do than this.” — Designer Johnny
2. Season 8, Episode 3: “It’s A Party”
In this gleefully unconventional challenge using party favors for clothing, we have the puppy-murdering Casanova (stuffed animal versions, FYI), Tim Gunn positively losing it over party favors called “animal woolly balls,” and bully Gretchen, who ended up on top for the third time (but thankfully, not winning). Poor Sarah got derailed by palm trees, but none of it really mattered by the end, when one designer fainted from exhaustion and dehydration and had to be rushed to the hospital. This one was a real party.
1. Season 12, Episode 3: “An Unconventional Coney Island”
The top spot for PR unconventional challenges has to go to this insane, drama-filled episode for its bizarre product tie-in (something about feeding Yoplait fro-yo to Coney Island visitors), the decision to let the designers play carnival games to get their materials, and all the mayhem that ensued. Much of that madness is owed to the unicorn-riding inanity of Timothy, and the sexist, horrific way Sandro belittles his teammate Sue. Thankfully, in the end we were at least able to feast our eyes on one of the most gorgeous pieces to come out of any PR challenge, unconventional or otherwise: Kate and Helen’s breathtaking sombrero dress. Can I have one?
“Maybe when I end up in the mental hospital, they’ll let me take this dress with me.” — Designer Miranda