The show is moving beyond token representation to the real thing. And designers who "just can't" design for plus bodies are being sent home.
Credit: Bravo

Since it’s premiere on Bravo in 2004, Project Runway hasn’t been what you’d call a trailblazer in plus-size or inclusive fashion. Over the years, designers have been tasked with a challenge to create an ensemble for a plus-size or “real woman” — just once a season, usually — that required them to go outside of their comfort zones. Usually, they failed. They'd look at their client, the way Ven did in 2012, and think that they couldn’t possibly design something chic for someone with that type of body.

Even former mentor Tim Gunn didn’t defend the show’s handling of fashion inclusivity. In a guest piece for The Washington Post in 2016, he said PR was “not a leader on this issue. Every season we have the ‘real women’ challenge (a title I hate), in which the designers create looks for non-models. The designers audibly groan, though I'm not sure why; in the real world, they won't be dressing a seven-foot-tall glamazon.” Three years later, and without Gunn in its ranks, the show seems to have figured out how to, as he might’ve said, make it work.

This season has seen Project Runway move from its second home on Lifetime back to its original home on Bravo with a few other notable changes. Karlie Kloss replaced Heidi Klum, Brandon Maxwell took Michael Kors’ place, former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth joined the panel in Nina Garcia's seat, and Christian Siriano brought a breath of fresh air to the work room as the new Tim Gunn. Each of these people brings something important to the table: strong opinions on fashion inclusivity.

Instead of focusing one challenge per season on creating for a plus-size or “normal sized” woman, this season the model casting includes the series’ first transgender model, Mimi, as well as plus-size models Kate and Asia. The group altogether reflects a range in terms of body type, height, gender identity and race, allowing for the designers to be challenged to design inclusively all season long, rather than as a one-off or token plus moment. As Kloss told The New York Times, “I’m really proud we have women of all shapes and sizes and the first transgender model in Project Runway history. Fashion should serve everyone.”

While our social consciousness has been shifting toward inclusivity for quite some time now, the concept isn’t sitting well with some of the designers this season — and the judges are not having it. In episode 3, where the designers are tasked with creating a look with only one print, Nadine Ralliford is immediately miffed at having to work with a plus-size model. After a fitting she says she loves her design, just not on her model. She finds herself on the bottom and, sure enough, places blame on the model, not her own handiwork.

Many contestants in the show’s history have sighed and grumbled, resistant to creating a look for a plus-size model because they just don’t know how. Mentor Christian Siriano addressed this in June of 2018, challenging those around him to do better. “Do we not think these women should wear our clothes? Do we not want these women to have beautiful things because we’re afraid they’re not beautiful? What is going on here? Of course it’s a process to make things in bigger sizes. The patterns are different. There’s more fabric involved.”

One designer, Tessa Clark, who specializes in minimalist clothing in black, white and gray, has been vocal about her distaste for the bigger models. In the April 25th episode “Elegance is the New Black,” designers were picked at random to choose a clear lucite handbag from Brandon Maxwell’s Spring 2019 collection that contained an item inside to inspire their look. When they chose their bag, they could also choose their model.

As it comes down to the last two, Tessa starts to look distressed. She notices that the last two models are both plus-size, and worries about designing for them, an excuse Maxwell rightfully doesn’t accept. He says being able to design for all shapes and sizes is a part of being a designer. "In life and in your businesses, when any woman comes to you, your job as a designer is to make her feel good.” When her black top and pants and gray sweater look hit the runway, it was blocky, loose, and ill-fitting.

Jamall Osterholm, too, has spent much of the season doing no favors for his plus-size models. In episode 2, “Backless to the Future,” he creates a shapeless puffer jacket for Kate that looks a lot like a duvet wrapped around her shoulders. In episode 6, instead of turning her into a superhero, he sends her down the runway in a suit, but without the intended blouse or bra on; a look that left the model feeling exposed and unsupported, and Maxwell inquiring as to whether a bra was available to him to use.

In Thursday’s episode, “New York City of Dreams,” Jamall flubs yet again. The remaining six designers are tasked with creating dream dresses for the “real women” of New York City: an EMT, a teacher, a waste collector, a policewoman, a mail deliverer and in Jamall’s case, a ferry deckhand. The 19-year-old explains to her designer that her dream dress would be a gown fit for a gala, and that she prefers to have her arms covered.

Cut to a poorly constructed gown that neither fit his client’s vision nor her body. His model was uncomfortable and it showed. As Elaine Welteroth points out, “Your execution on curvy women tends to fall short.” Guest judge Danielle Brooks, a noted voice in the plus-size fashion conversation these days, and model for PR mentor Christian Siriano, added, “It’s important for this next generation to feel included in the fashion conversation.” Importantly, it is she — and the other judges on the show — continuing to make that push for inclusion felt. Even when the designers whine. Even when they say they don't know how.

Jamall is eliminated for this failure, and says it’s been eye-opening being on the show and learning the importance of designing for different body types. Brooks, speaking as a woman who has struggled to find plus-size gowns in the past, encourages him to keep on learning. And that’s the glorious difference in this season.

Designers being taken to task over their refusal to design for the client before them has been one of the most refreshing aspects of a less than exciting season. It’s taken this long for the series to devote the screen time, and the dialogue, and the workroom hours that plus-size fashion deserves. And as viewers and consumers — we’d much rather see more of this new Project Runway than keep getting sent back to reruns.