Just about every element of Bravo’s rebooted Project Runway screams new. There’s a new workroom for the fledgling designers to craft their couture in. There’s a new runway for the models to strut down. There’s a massively upgraded $250,000 “at stake for the winner,” as host Karlie Kloss says. She’s new, too, as are judges editor Elaine Welteroth (late of Teen Vogue) and designer Brandon Maxwell.
Mentor Christian Siriano is technically old — older, at least. He was a contestant on the show way back in season 4, during the series’ first run on Bravo. (He was also a judge on the short-lived but ultra-cute Runway spin-off Project Runway Junior.) That was, of course, before it was shipped off to Lifetime as part of a complicated legal dispute between Bravo and the show’s producers in the now-defunct Weinstein Company.
But now that the show is back on Bravo, Siriano is taking on the new role of mentor for the designers, replacing longstanding legend TIm Gunn. (Gunn and former host Heidi Klum are off in greener pastures now). The only part of the whole enterprise still standing from the previous 16 seasons is de facto head judge Nina Garcia, now editor-in-chief of Elle magazine.
Well, I should clarify: Garcia is the only visible element remaining from the old model. There’s a very crucial team working on Project Runway for the first time since the halcyon Bravo era: production company Magical Elves. And it is their presence that is making Project Runway great once again.
If you’re a fan of Top Chef or Nailed It!, you’ve almost certainly seen the Magical Elves logo at the end of one of those series’ episodes. The company, founded by producers Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz (though they’ve since left), produced the first five seasons of Project Runway. The company is masterful at building reality competition series; with Runway and Top Chef alone, they built two of the strongest and Emmy-friendliest reality shows on the air.
The challenge structure seen on Magical Elves shows is subtly genius: host gives challenge, contestants shop for fabric, they get one or two days to complete a look, every outfit walks the runway, judges judge, one designer wins, and one competitor is eliminated. The simplicity is a feature, not a bug, because it allows all the intrigue to come from the task itself. For example, on Project Runway, designers in the past have had to make wearable clothes out of car parts, create avant-garde masterpieces, dress drag queens and wrestlers, and more.
Now, this challenge and judging format — three high scores, three low scores, everyone else safe — can be seen everywhere from RuPaul’s Drag Race to half of all Food Network programs. But back in the mid-2000s, Magical Elves pioneered it.
When Bravo lost Project Runway in 2008, the show lost Magical Elves. Lifetime went with Bunim-Murray as producers instead, the team best known for The Real World. To say that Bunim-Murray didn’t get Project Runway is an understatement. They produced the show thinking of the personal drama first, ignoring that the best drama in the early seasons — because there was plenty of it — came from the design process. Season 1’s Kara Saun and Wendy Pepper fighting over Kara Saun trying to avoid paying for the shoes in her final collection! Season 2’s Zulema Griffin telling Kara Janx that if she’s going to cry out of stress, she’s got to cut while she cries! Heidi Klum verbally sparring with cat thrower Kenley Collins over whether or not the petals on her evening gown were elegant in season 5!
Fashion was a catalyst for conflict in the Magical Elves version of Project Runway, while in Bunim-Murray’s, fashion was what was happening in the background as bitter personalities fought. Season 9 was the worst offender, with contestants like Josh McKinley verbally berating his competition. The show also became obsessed with the contestants’ backstories, even crafting winner’s arcs out of them (like with season 9’s Anya Ayoung-Chee and season 14’s Ashley Nell Tipton) instead of letting the designs speak for themselves. Sure, the show was still using the same episode and judging structure as in the Magical Elves days, but without compelling challenge design — god, how many “make a red carpet dress” challenges did we sit through? — the structure didn’t work.
Flash-forward to today, and Magical Elves is making that format magical once more. The second episode of the season saw designers work as teams to create looks that would fit people wearing body modifications. Strange? Sure! But it was so futuristic, so forward-thinking, that it made the designers think outside the box. And the winning garment — Sebastian Grey’s white, tentacle-esque gown, was nothing short of breathtaking.
When people say they’re excited to see Project Runway back on Bravo, I believe what they’re really saying is they’re happy it’s produced by Magical Elves once again. Yes, it’s nice that Bravo is giving the producers a proper budget to work with; it’s a breath of fresh air after all the cost-cutting on the Lifetime variant. But Magical Elves is the group making the show feel like itself again. No matter how many new elements the show adds to keep itself fresh, the core — the very heart — is strong. Amid all the flash of New Project Runway, what’s truly making it shine once more is the oldest thing about it.
Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.