The challenge in Project Runway's "Like Totally '90s" episode may have drummed up nostalgia for the old-school days before Y2K, but the season so far has been rough for anyone who longs for the old-school days of Project Runway. The show's 20th season was billed as a return of the best of the best, from Season 1 to Season 19, but as of this week, four of the five eliminated designers have been from the show's first nine seasons. Not even winning the first challenge of the season could buy Kayne Gillaspie much time, as his '90s garment got him bounced from the competition in 10th place.
The sense that the O.G. designers aren't being given a fair shake has spread throughout the workroom. In Episode 4, Korto (originally from Season 5) and Rami (Season 4) expressed their feelings that the judges weren't as warmly inclined toward them as they had been to the more recent alumni, and Korto was already making note of the fact that the first two eliminated designers were old school.
The vibes got dark real fast after Episode 5's "Seeing Red" challenge. What was on the surface an impish Christian Siriano assignment tasking the designers to use the same bolt of red polyester fabric turned into a cauldron of resentment and grievance. Anna's crinkle-cut embellishments were declared by the judges to be among the best of the week, while at the same time several of her fellow competitors deemed Anna's look unacceptably derivative of her previous work. Korto and Kayne (Season 3) were among Anna's most vocal detractors, as they wondered aloud what the point of this competition was when repeat looks could get waved through.
While that frustration dissipated some in Episode 6, Kayne's elimination will probably be seen as further confirmation that the OGs are on thin ice this season. But is that perception accurate, or are the more recent alumni just better situated to pick up where they left off? Primetimer's senior writer Joe Reid and TV reporter Brianna Wellen are determined to get to the bottom of this question.
Joe Reid: Numbers don't lie, Brianna! Four out of the first five eliminated designers have been from the first 10 seasons. I am perhaps more sensitive to this because I eventually drifted from Project Runway during the bloated and same-y Lifetime seasons, but I hold those first several years close to my heart. I knew designers like Korto and Kara Saun would do well, and they have (though after recently re-watching Season 1, it is a strange experience to watch Kara Saun struggle even a little bit). But I was so excited to see that Nora from Season 1 was brought back, like re-connecting with an old friend; that friend who used to have a punky haircut and would go out drinking with you, and now there's B-roll of her fixing lunches for her kids. But what was the point of bringing Nora back if her 15+ years away from the show were going to be too much to overcome.
I initially thought Korto and Rami might have been a little bit oversensitive when they talked about the judges not being very effusive towards them, but Kayne really was the last straw. Kayne came out of the gate so strong, winning the first challenge, nearly winning the second challenge, and showing himself to be an even more accomplished designer than he was when he was first on the show. The years have been good to Kayne, and I'm not just talking about those wildly successful hair plugs he got. But what did that early-season success buy Kayne? Absolutely nothing. The moment he started to struggle, he might as well have started to pack his bags. Designers like Bishme or Brittany can struggle; hell, Laurence can give up on a challenge entirely; but the judges seem to have faith that they'll turn it around, so they get some leeway. Kayne, seemingly, did not. What say you to this? Am I a paranoid Gen-X cusper or what?
Brianna Wellen: Joe, did you see that skirt? Kayne was absolutely the one to go in this challenge based on that alone. It’s nothing new on Project Runway for an early winner to go home just as quickly — the show is just as much about stamina as skill. And even in Season 3 Kayne was an uneven designer. I think the disadvantage that many of the O.G. contestants have is that most of them have a well-established career, ones that have allowed them to get away with doing exactly what they want to do without necessarily pushing it to the next level. Kayne, a self-proclaimed king of gowns, is great at just that. But when he tried to step out of that comfort zone, it didn’t work. Maybe if he had done a beautiful 90s gown, he’d still be here.
This is why I’m upset that Korto and Kayne came for Anna for doing something she’d done before with the ruffles. The judges didn’t like both ruffle designs because they like people from Season 19 more. They liked them because Anna executed them well. She knows what she’s good at and wants to show the judges she has a signature style, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Korto found the same success when she returned to creating an African-style gown, proving that maybe the newbies are onto something. How else would you explain her success?
Joe: Look… I can't defend the skirt. That's fair. My thing is, if Project Runway is going to do a season like this, casting from the full breadth of the show's almost two decades on TV, then they have to make some concessions to the idea that they're dealing with designers with various levels of experience. Which doesn't just mean newbies and old hands. But if you're going to bother to cast people like Kayne, Nora, and Kara Saun, who have graduated to the point in their careers where they are established brands, as you say, or they don't really do the sewing anymore, then you can't immediately just decide that those different degrees of career experience place the O.G. designers at too much of a disadvantage to compete.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of this falls on the stylish shoulders of Nina Garcia. I say "unfortunately" because it is not my custom to criticize the former fashion director of Marie Claire and the current editor-in-chief at Elle. But right now, Nina is the only anchor on that judging panel to connect to the early seasons. Brandon Maxwell is a good judge, but he's only been on the show since Season 17. And Elaine Welteroth, god bless her, is too busy dressing up like she's in a TLC video to reach back into the old seasons. Nina is the one with all the institutional knowledge here. If this judging panel needs a little nudge to take in the full context of the O.G. contestants, she should be providing it.
I'm also glad you brought up the Anna thing, because while on the surface it did look like Korto, Kayne, and the others (new-schoolers too!) were bullying her after that "Seeing Red" challenge, it does seem like Anna has been rubbing people the wrong way all season. Christian Siriano seems exasperated by her emotional outbursts, and Brittany didn't seem to enjoy working with her at all. This could all still be bullying, of course. Anna doesn't seem to have done anything to warrant people being mean (and Korto, to her credit, said as much when she came to apologize to her in the latest episode). But I think you're seeing that, in the pressure cooker of a Project Runway competition, small personality quirks become unbearable. And I think if designers like Korto think they're drawing dead in a competition that will ultimately only value the recent seasons, their threshold for annoyance is going to get lower and lower.
I've thrown a lot at you here — call me Christian Siriano — but where do you come down on this?
Brianna: That most of the drama is sprouting from the old school designers (and let’s not forget that despite his connection as mentor to the newer contestants, Christian falls into that category as well) points to an entirely different divide among the old and new contestants. The spirit of the reality show shifted when it was revamped with a new panel of judges, host, and mentor in Season 17. Suddenly it became less about bitchy comments and designer rivalries — and capitalizing on the entertainment they created — and more about making sure every designer knew that they had something special. It comes through in the judging, too. Elaine and Brandon are significantly kinder judges than Michael Kors, Zac Posen, and Heidi Klum ever were. The O.G. designers still seem stuck in the more cutthroat way of doing things, which includes tearing other contestants down. In the end, though, that just becomes more of a distraction than anything. (As for Brittany’s bad attitude, well, I can’t speak to that.)
To that point, I can agree that there has to be a better way to meld the old and the new. There’s not necessarily a recency bias, just a difference of attitudes toward what the competition is supposed to be. I don’t know if that comes in the form of a sitdown about how the show does things from here on or what, but if that’s what it takes to make everyone stop picking on each other and just create beautiful clothes for me to look at while wearing sweats on my couch, so be it.
Joe: You make a good point about the evolution of the show. Top Chef, Drag Race, and Survivor have also undergone kinder evolutions to keep up with the times, albeit for different reasons (Top Chef seemed to want the show to be more about the culinary community coming together; Drag Race contestants just seem to be trying to avoid backlash from the show's psychotic fanbase). I can't imagine how a Wendy Pepper, god rest her soul, would have fared on a season like this. I am, as ever, just a selfish fan. When I'm on the couch in my sweats, I want to see my old faves! I wanted more of Viktor Luna and even Mila. I'm interested in how they've progressed as designers, but I also like the not-my-first-rodeo attitude they bring as well. I'm definitely loving some of the new-school designers too (Prajjé! My heart and soul!). But to be completely honest, I was drawn back to the show this season by the promise of Kara Saun, Korto, Viktor, and, sigh, Nora all sharing space, even if the space is no longer Parson's School of Design, and Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum, and my sweet, bitchy Michael Kors are no longer haunting those halls. I was promised a battle of the seasons! And at the moment some seasons feel more favored than others.
Brianna: It’s still early in the season and there’s still plenty of time for the O.G.s to level the playing field and get more newbies kicked off. And for the record, three of the five winners so far have been OGs: Kayne on the first challenge, Viktor on the unconventional materials challenge, and Korto on the royalty challenge. Until we see who goes to fashion week, it’ll be hard to know for sure if the judges have been playing favorites all along. I think we can both agree that when it comes to the designs, there have been very few flops this season, so we can count on all the contestants bringing some interesting looks to the table up until the very end, no matter what season they came from.
New episodes of Project Runway air Thursdays at 9:00 PM ET on Bravo and stream on Peacock the next day. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.