Making It Work: The Truth About Project Runway

When Project Runway premiered in 2004, the world fell in love with the relationship between Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum. The dynamic duo gave aspiring fashion designers a chance to break into the industry and showcase their hard work. Throughout the show’s 19 seasons, hundreds of contestants went in and out of the workroom.

Tim Gunn / Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum / Project Runway / Contestant on Project Runway
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After 19 seasons, thousands of scraps of fabric, and dozens of New York Fashion Week debuts later, Project Runway has introduced many talented designers to the world. The show also gave viewers a peak at the drama on and off the runway. Let’s look at what happened behind the scenes of TV’s most fashionable show.

Very Long Days

If you thought creating an evening gown from scratch in 24 hours was the hardest part of Project Runway, it’s not. According to Sara Rea, a producer of the series, the designers have to be there around 5 AM. After getting ready, they receive the challenge and get to work on their sketches.

Christian Siriano watches over the work of Hester Sunshine on Project Runway.
Source: Bravo

After going to Mood Fabrics, the designers return to the workroom and stay there till 11 PM or midnight. The process became so intense that Rea had to implement mandatory lunch breaks because contestants would become so focused that they forgot to eat. They created a schedule so everyone would take a break.

Not an Easy Competition

In addition to the tiring schedule, competitors are followed by cameras 18 hours a day. Even when competitors were tired, stressed, and overworked, they had to put on their best faces for the cameras. Diana Eng, who competed in 2005, said she was awakened by the camera crew standing over her.

Tim Gunn sits in the messy looking workworm.
Source: Twitter

Eng told New York magazine, “One morning they scared me so bad I jumped and screamed. They said it wasn’t good, so I had to pretend to wake up again.” That’s one form of proof that the show isn’t completely real. It must be hard to pretend to wake up.

VIP Treatment

If Project Runway ever inspired you to stop at Mood Fabrics in New York City’s Garment District, don’t be surprised if it’s not the experience you saw on TV. When Project Runway filmed at the store, the fabric emporium shut its doors to the public so designers could get their fabrics without distractions.

Contestants are pulling fabric off the sheves.
Source: Bravo

Rea explained that Mood closed for the show because “we have a very close, long-term working relationship with them, and we make sure we’re posted on their schedule, so they don’t close too early. It’s very kind and works out well for us for obvious reasons.” It was a good deal, indeed.

Contestants Go Off the Grid

While contestants filmed Project Runway, they were banned from all forms of media. It might sound hard to think about going weeks without texting, TV, and social media, but based on their schedule, it didn’t seem like they would have had time to use a phone or watch TV.

Contestnts talk in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

Not only were contestants banned from the internet, but they also weren’t allowed to listen to music. The designers got rare opportunities to contact loved ones, which viewers sometimes saw on camera. However, they had to sign NDAs preventing them from saying anything about the show. It’s no wonder they were so emotional.

Everyone Gets a Chance

While the show only highlights the three finalists showing their work at New York Fashion Week, other contestants also get to debut their designs. Project Runway used to host its own runway show during the event, where ten designers from the season displayed their work.

 A model walks the runway in a Kenley Collins design at the Project Runway Fashion Show.
Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

Since NYFW happened before the season aired, no one except the judges and contestants knew who the finalists were. It prevented the media from finding out any spoilers until the season aired on TV. It gave other designers a chance to get noticed even if they didn’t win.

Not an Instant Shot at Fame

Being a contestant on Project Runway gave many designers a chance to fulfill their dreams of showing their designs at New York Fashion Week. However, the show was not an instant ticket to success. Only a few former contestants actually made names for themselves.

“Project Runway” Season 6 cast members pose for a photo.
Photo by Joe Kohen/WireImage/Getty Images

Season 4 contestant Jack Mackenroth said, “I can think of two, Christian Siriano and Michael Costello, who have had some level of national success. Most people go back to their old careers and continue to struggle. Fashion design is a cutthroat business.” Even established designers go bankrupt.

Tim Gunn Wasn’t Always Paid

Although Tim Gunn is practically the face of Project Runway, the beloved mentor wasn’t paid for the show’s first season. During Season 2, he only made $2,500 per episode. He and Heidi Klum made the fashion competition iconic, so we hope his pay was increased over the years.

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn walk the runway at the Project Runway fashion show.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The contestants weren’t paid to be on the show either. However, that is standard for reality show contestants. They usually only get compensated with free meals. Project Runway contestants also got free fabric, so that’s better than nothing.

Not as It Seems

You have probably watched enough reality TV to know that not everything on the show is always as it seems. Project Runway is no exception to the rule, as we mentioned before. Season 4 contestant Jack Mackenroth said the show is “a sham.”

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum walk through the workroom.
Source: Bravo

Mackenroth continued, “The judging is totally fake, and they basically decide who they want to eliminate and edit the footage to make the viewer agree.” Other former contestants said producers portrayed people in a certain way and pushed it to the extreme.

Tim Gunn Hated This Season

Gunn was a mentor and producer on the show for many years, so it’s no surprise that he has a least favorite season. In 2015, he told Entertainment Weekly, “I haven’t said this very much, but I hated Season 14.” He felt it was lackluster.

The season 14 finalists stand on stage.
Source: Bravo

Apart from a few designers, Gunn said the contestants weren’t working to their potential. He added that Season 14’s contestants weren’t hungry enough for the win, and the judges didn’t offer enough valuable critiques or constructive feedback. Gunn ended up leaving two seasons later.

They Auctioned Off Designs

Some of the garments designed on Project Runway were sold on the show’s website. It allowed fans to get their hands on creations from their favorite contestants. Season 7 winner, Seth Aaron Henderson said clothes produced by contestants went up for auction immediately after the show.

Judge Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, Victoria Beckham and Heidi Klum attend the
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Since designers didn’t have a chance to clean up the design, some garments were sold unfinished. There was a disclaimer on the site that clearly stated that designs were not always finished pieces and went up for sale “as is.”

No Patterns Allowed

Even the most talented designers have to use patterns sometimes, but Project Runway contestants weren’t allowed to prevent them from copying work. It helped ensure that all their designs were original. Rea added that the show limited their supplies too.

Tim Gunn talks to a contestant about their design.
Source: Bravo

Rea said, “We don’t want them relying on other people’s designs or other materials, and we don’t want anyone to have an unfair advantage, so we limit their resources to what the necessities are with their dress forms, scissors, and sewing kits.” They needed to create what they knew, not a pattern in a book.

A Long Process

Although the episodes were only about an hour long, the filming took more time. According to former contestants, the runway show and judging process took six or seven hours to film. Rea said there were breaks to move the cameras and readjust.

A contestant is working on her design in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

The runway, judging, and elimination were only ten minutes of the episode, but many setup and camera changes were needed between them. We can imagine that many of the comments made during judging are also edited out for TV. It makes the process seem much smoother.

A Lot of Thought Behind This Episode

The unconventional materials challenge was an episode fans looked forward to each season of Project Runway. The contestants had to create stunning designs using items that wouldn’t normally be used to create clothing. The show had a team dedicated to finding the materials for the challenge.

Contestants and models stand on the runway.
Source: Bravo

Rea revealed, “We have a team of people whose main job is to sit around and come up with ideas, and they bring them to us, and we try to visualize all the different materials.” The producers picked the most fun ideas and tried to make them different from other seasons.

They Decided to Leave

After Season 16, host Heidi Klum and Gunn decided to leave the show to create a new design competition with Amazon called Making the Cut. The two said they ultimately decided to leave Project Runway due to budgetary restrictions and the fixed format.

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn are seen in Midtown during a taping of
Photo by Gotham/GC Images/Getty Images

Klum said, “When you do a show, someone always has to pay for it, and other people want you to do certain things, so you can’t have the creative freedom. Gunn said the show’s format became repetitive, and the producers didn’t want to change it.

Designers Don’t Leave Immediately

When designers are sadly eliminated and sent to the workroom to clean out their station, they are not immediately sent home. Instead, they are sequestered, potentially for weeks. Season 9 contestant, Bert Keeter said eliminated contestants aren’t allowed to go home.

Contestants wait to be judged on Project Runway.
Source: Bravo

Those eliminated had to stay in the basement while the episodes were filmed, so no one could tell who was off the show. Keeter said it was torture because they would be in the basement for 12 to 14 hours.

Plenty of Scandals

Besides the fashions, fans continued to tune into Project Runway for 19 seasons because of the drama. From emotional meltdowns and contestants picking fights with each other to cheating allegations and claims the show wasn’t real, there were plenty of scandals over the years.

Models get ready from the runway in a still from season 19.
Source: Bravo

While scandal may not seem like it would be good for ratings, fans wanted to see more because it made the often repetitive show more exciting. The drama and talent turned Project Runway into a must-see series from the first seasons.

The Model Walk-Off

During the show’s second season, the drama started to ramp up. Klum was caught off guard when contestant Zulema Griffin called for a model walk-off. Griffin was unsatisfied with the model she had worked with, so she asked to see the other models go down the runway.

Zulema Griffin poses for photos at the TRESemme Project Runway Finale Party.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Her request was within the rules, but Griffin was the first to ask for something controversial. It put a target on Griffin’s back, and she was eliminated the same week. Judge Michael Kors left her with a harsh critique, saying her design looked like a “debutante dress gone wrong.”

They Were Accused of Cheating

Season 3 designer Keith Michael landed in the hot seat when rumors spread that he had pattern-making books, which is against the show’s rules. The production team investigated the rumors and determined that Michael had broken the rules. He also disappeared for hours without telling production.

Keith Michael is working on a dress in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

Gunn was surprised to find out that Michael had books because he thought he was an “exceptionally talented designer.” Michael denied the accusations, saying there was “a lack of integrity on behalf of the production.” He was ultimately disqualified from the competition.

An Awkward Emotional Moment

Project Runway is a tough competition, which became very clear during Season 2. Designer Andrae Gonzalo had a breakdown when the judges gave their critiques. Klum asked what he was thinking about during the challenge, and Gonzalo lost it. He became inconsolable.

Andrae Gonzalo has an emotional moment during a fashion show.
Photo by Thomas Concordia/WireImage/Getty Images

The moment didn’t go over well with judge Nina Garcia. She said, “I don’t need to hear all this,” and later added, “it was like watching a wailing child getting shoved onto the naughty mat.” Gonzalo ended up making it to the top ten.

Not an Easy All-Star

Although he didn’t win Season 2, Gonzalo returned for Project Runway: All-Stars Season 2. Before the season began, bloggers predicted, “Like a bully on the playground, Project Runway won’t feel satisfied unless it makes Andrae ugly cry at least three times,” and they weren’t far off.

Andrae Gonzalo works on a design in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

The show might have been tough on Gonzalo, but he wasn’t too upset after his elimination. He said, “One thing I learned from this experience: Maybe my ambitions are more expansive than just on that runway.” He admitted that he might have tried to do too much in the time given.

She Wasn’t Ready

Fans of Project Runway have seen many contestants break down in tears over the seasons, and some couldn’t handle the pressure and drama of the competition. Some were pushed so far that they decided to quit the show, like Season 7 contestant Maya Luz.

Maya Luz works on a design in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

Luz voluntarily left the show despite her obvious talent. She said she lost her confidence during a challenge where the designers were asked to create red carpet dresses for Klum. Luz felt she wasn’t up for the challenge or any future challenges and approached Gunn to leave.

Switching It Up

Early on in Season 19, designer Meg Ferguson quit the show after racial tensions surfaced during a discussion about the models with other designers. Ferguson tried to voice her support for Haitian contestant Prajje Oscar Jean-Baptiste’s designs and his desire to use a Black model.

Meg Ferguson talks to the camera in a still from Project Runway.
Source: Bravo

Ferguson overdid it and ended up detracting from Jean-Baptiste’s concerns. Jean-Baptiste ended up swapping models, prompting Asian designer Kenneth Barlis to ask Ferguson if she would switch models so he could use an Asian model for his Asian-inspired designs. Ferguson agreed to the swap.

A Bad Moment

The swapping models became a problem when Ferguson told Barlis, “It’s f***ing bulls**t that you’re doing this now.” She continued to be hostile, telling her model, “Apparently, I can only design for white people.” It ended in a massive fight in the workroom.

Ferguson and Barlis talk in a still from the show.
Source: Bravo

Barlis left the room in tears, and everyone got mad at Ferguson. She walked off the set, and the other designers were informed that she had dropped out of the competition. People said she tried too hard to be an ally, but it blew up in her face.

Tim Gunn Didn’t Agree

Although he is the show’s mentor, Gunn hasn’t always agreed with the judges’ decisions. During Season 8, Gunn felt Gretchen Jones shouldn’t have won. He believed Mondo Guerra was the rightful champion, and he didn’t hide his opinions on the matter.

Tim Gunn takes part in an interview.
Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

After the finale, Gunn made disparaging remarks about those in charge of picking the winner, calling some of his colleagues “crack-smoking judges,” and Klum wasn’t happy about it. She said, “I’m a mother. I’m a citizen of a community. And I want to go on record that I’m not a crack smoker.”

Unhappy Contestants

Season 3 wasn’t the only season marked with cheating. Season 16 became memorable when a contestant was disqualified for breaking the show’s rules. Contestant Claire Buitendorp won a challenge, and her fellow contestants were upset about the victory, with one person walking off the runway.

Claire Buitendorp gets upset on the show.
Source: Bravo

In the following episode, Michael Brambila told Gunn that Buitendorp ripped off other designs. The complaints were brought to Klum and the other judges, who decided she hadn’t done anything wrong. Later, the contestants confronted Buitendorp about keeping a measuring tape in her room.

She Was Disqualified

Buitendorp admitted to having and using a measuring tape in her room. Gunn then got involved, confirming she was using it to measure clothing from her wardrobe to use as a guide for her designs in the competition. This was not allowed as per the rules.

Contestants comnfront Claire Buitendorp about her measuring tape.
Source: Bravo

After the episode aired, Buitendorp claimed she didn’t mean to have the measuring tape and didn’t use it to measure her clothes. Although she didn’t think it was a big deal, she was disqualified from the competition because it was just like using a pattern book.

It’s Unrealistic

Season 4 contestant Jack Mackenroth called Project Runway’s validity into question after he left the show because he developed a staph infection. Years later, he told Paper magazine that many aspects of the show were fake and the competition didn’t do much from a professional perspective.

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klumlooked shocked.
Source: Bravo

Although the show promises to help designers kick off their careers in the fashion industry, it had the opposite effect. Many professionals looked down on Project Runway and didn’t take the designers seriously. Most people went back to struggling after their time on TV.

More Inclusive

Project Runway has had its fair share of scandal, but something positive came out of it. Thanks to Gunn, the show became more size-inclusive. During Season 3, the series made progress by adding an “everyday woman” challenge to show inclusive clothing on the runway.

Judges review the contestants work.
Source: Bravo

It helped the designers prepare for the real world, where the average size of a woman is larger than the mannequins they had been working on. However, Gunn wanted more inclusive sizing, so he pushed for plus-size fashion and models of all shapes and sizes in Season 16.

An Intense Crossover Episode

During Season 19, Project Runway collaborated with the Real Housewives for a challenge where designers would create their reunion looks. However, there was tension behind the scenes of the crossover episode because of all the large personalities in the room.

The Real Housewives cast walk the project runway stage.
Source: Bravo

Orange County stars Gina Kirschenheiter and Shannon Beador, as well as Dr. Wendy Osefo, Gizelle Bryant, and Karen Hunger of Potomac, joined New York stars Leah McSweeney and Luann de Lesseps in the studio. The designers were not prepared for the powerful housewives.

They Moved Networks and Locations

If you were a longtime fan of the fashion competition, you might remember that the show was filmed at Parsons School of Design in New York City. However, during Season 6, the show briefly relocated to the West Coast when the program moved to the Lifetime network.

Season 16 cast poses on the New York skyline.
Source: Bravo

Executive producer Jane Cha was hopeful about the move because LA is important to the fashion industry thanks to celebrities, film, and television. But the move didn’t last long because the show returned to filming in New York for Season 7.

He Loved Being on the Show

During Season 19, Olympians Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski made a special appearance for a celebrity client challenge. The designers were asked to create special looks for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Weir was excited to be a guest because he had watched the show for many years.

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir walk the runway.
Source: Bravo

Weir said, “Just being able to celebrate young talent and people that maybe didn’t have the right circumstances to make their fashion dreams come true, putting it all on the line, I always admired that about Project Runway. It gives young designers a chance.”

Strict Rule

When it was time for the contestants to face the judges, they were not allowed to do any more work on their garments. The second day of filming for an episode consisted of the designers helping their models prepare for the runway.

Sabrina Spanta dresses her model in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

The designers were not allowed to make any finishing touches to their garments while the models got dressed, and production was strict about this rule. Once the models were dressed, they were separated from the designers. Their creations had to go no matter how the contestant felt about the look.

The Drama Is Real

Although viewers might have said they watched Project Runway for a look inside the fashion world, the drama is often more appealing than the actual competition. The drama was one of the most authentic aspects of the show, and producers didn’t have to fake anything.

Tim Gunn looks over a contestant’s design very intensly.
Source: Bravo

Season 9’s Anthony Ryan said, “It’s you getting us fully. We’re filmed 24-7, so if you see me have a breakdown, I’m having a breakdown. It’s not necessarily drama; it’s me being a person.” The designers couldn’t hide their raw emotions from the cameras.

They Rarely See the Judges

One of the things Project Runway strived for was keeping the judges subjective. Therefore, a judging system had to be designed to make it more likely that the right person would be eliminated each week. But that was hard because the judges are human and unconsciously form biases.

The judges watch the final runway.
Source: Bravo

The producers tried to prevent this by keeping the designers and judges apart as much as possible. Season 10’s Gunnar Deatherage revealed, “We only see the judges during judging. No off-camera relationships, no contact.” The designers had little interaction with the judges.

He’s Very Talkative

Sometimes judges on a competition show seem like they are acting a certain way for the cameras. However, former Project Runway judge Michael Kors was just as talkative and decisive on and off-camera. During a Project Runway Roundtable, a News Week reporter got to speak to Kors.

Nina Garcia and Michael Kors talk abou the contestants.
Source: Bravo

The reporter shared that Kors was just as talkative in person and perfect for a judging role. He had many decisive opinions on large and small topics and wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. Kors is a successful designer who knows what he’s talking about.

Controlling the Dialogue

Although contestants were allowed to be authentic and raw, the producers exerted a great deal of control over them. Therefore, there is no way to know that the words coming out of a designer’s mouth are their own. But producers tried to keep it minimal, only banning specific words.

A contestant works on her design.
Source: Bravo

Season 7’s Jonathan Peters told Entertainment Weekly that he was told not to use certain words in front of the cameras. He shared, “I started referring to it as a game show when I was getting kicked off, and they were really angry. They were like, ‘It’s a competition.’”

They Need to Have Talent

Although producers loved the drama between contestants, they didn’t cast people just because they thought someone would play into arguments. Designers who wanted to be on Project Runway had to have actual design talent to get cast. Talent always came first in the casting process.

Contestants talk in the workroom.
Source: Bravo

Executive producer Sara Rea told The A.V. Club, “We have a process of what we look for. Talent is first and foremost.” Personality is also considered, but someone wouldn’t have been picked for the show if they had a big personality and mediocre design skills.

The Producers Don’t Have a Say

While the producers controlled many aspects of the show, they had no say in the judging process. Since viewers only saw a few minutes of the deliberations, it’s natural to wonder if the producers got to weigh in. However, they did not influence the judges.

The judges have a laugh while filming.
Source: Bravo

According to Rea, “I’m not going to tell Heidi Klum what to do. That just doesn’t work. The judges decide. We would lose integrity if we started basing it on, ‘Well, so and so…’” Therefore, whoever the judges picked was who they thought deserved to leave the competition.

It Didn’t Help Many People

Project Runway might have seemed like a great opportunity for aspiring fashion designers, but the truth is, it didn’t help many people. Most of the contestants have remained unknown. Only a few people have made names for themselves, and they weren’t even winners.

Season 19 contestants pose together.
Source: Bravo

Besides Christian Siriano and Michael Costello, one of the only other famous names is Santino Rice. After Project Runway, Rice became a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race for six seasons. The winners don’t get a leg up in the fashion industry, and the show failed to do what it claimed it would.