LOS ANGELES – The season premiere of “Project Runway” will dazzle viewers with its usual display of eye-popping wardrobes. But the most memorable fashion statement comes when contestant Kovid Kapoor discovers he’s dressing the show’s first transgender model in the show’s 15-year history.
The revelation makes Kapoor, a gay designer from a Himalayan valley town in India, downright giddy. Viewers who believe the clothing industry is too focused on skinny white girls will be, too.
“This is the most inclusive iteration of ‘Project Runway’ that the world has ever seen,” said new judge Elaine Welteroth, former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. “At a time like this, when the world feels like it’s become very, very tumultuous from a social and political perspective, we all just need a reason to dream again. We all need a reason to laugh, to smile, to cheer someone on, to come together. It’s a really critical moment in time to have a show like this that really bridges the country together.”
In addition to Kapoor, who exudes the excitement of an audience member just selected to play “The Price Is Right,” there’s Jamall Osterholm, a gay black man dedicated to addressing gender and racial stereotypes; Samoan native Afa Ah Loo, who generously borrows from his heritage for inspiration; Renee Hill, the mother of nine children; and Frankie Lewis, who vows to focus on plus-size models with clothes that “hug every curve they’ve got.”
Five of the 16 new contestants were born outside the United States, including Colombian Jhoan “Sebastian” Grey, who worked as a housekeeper before making the cut.
With an expanded international scope, “Runway” doubles down on the show’s mission to make the American dream come true.
“I mean, I’m somebody who still doesn’t understand which fork to use at one of those fancy dinners,” said new judge Brandon Maxwell, who bills himself as Lady Gaga’s fashion director. “Because I didn’t have that background, I really latched onto this show.”
Maxwell and Welteroth, only the second African-American to earn an editor-in-chief title in the Condé Nast publishing empire, aren’t the only fresh faces on the series.
After a 16-season run, host Heidi Klum and consultant Tim Gunn have departed to launch a new untitled project for Amazon Studios.
“Tim and Heidi have been such a great part of this show since the beginning and really helped make it something that people fell in love with,” said co-producer Dan Cutforth, returning to the series after an 11-year hiatus. “They were really supportive of the new direction that we are going in.”
Stepping in as host is supermodel Karlie Kloss, who starts off rather wooden in the first episode before getting into the swing of things.
“Designers, it’s time for your first challenge,” she says, suddenly coming alive. “Oooh, that’s fun to say. I’m into that.”
Much more comfortable is Gunn’s replacement, Christian Siriano — and with good reason. He won the fourth season of “Runway.”
“I think if anyone can give them advice, it would be me, someone who won the show and then built something afterward,” said Siriano, who made Time magazine’s 2018 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. “What’s great about this season is, for the first time, the mentor for the designers is a real designer. Tim was never a designer. He never worked in the business. He was a teacher. So when the designers have a red-carpet challenge, I can give them real industry feedback because I just dressed people at the Golden Globes the week before.”
Another new addition is the show’s embrace of social media. Contestants will be partly evaluated on their Instagram stories. And viewers can purchase audience favorites online, even if the judges didn’t give them high marks.
“It’s one of the most important new aspects of the industry that we wanted to reflect,” Cutforth said.
One issue that producers and judges are wary of discussing is the exile of Harvey Weinstein, who served as executive producer during much of the show’s original run on Bravo and when it moved to Lifetime in 2009. After Weinstein’s empire crumpled, Lifetime axed the show, allowing Bravo to reclaim the series — but, of course, without the onetime kingpin attached.
In conversations last month, the “Runway” personalities avoided saying his name and were circumspect about how the show might deal with issues like sexual harassment in the fashion industry.
“Fashion has always been a reflection of what’s happening in the world, and this show will be a reflection of what’s happening in the world,” Welteroth said. “Without giving a spoiler away, you will see that we do not shy away from the conversations that are happening that affect women, in particular women of color, and we are very unabashed in our approach to tackling our conversations head-on.”
If the series proves to be as dedicated to addressing sexual harassment as it is diversity, it will have more than earned its new lease on life.