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Project Runway Season 20's Frontrunner Could Be Thwarted By Her Own Success

The fate of an early fan favorite is hanging by a thread.
  • Kara Saun in Project Runway (Photo: Zach Dilgard/Bravo)
    Kara Saun in Project Runway (Photo: Zach Dilgard/Bravo)

    [Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Project Runway Season 20, Episode 2, "Project Redemption!"]

    When Bravo announced the “all-star” designers who were returning for Project Runway’s 20th season, one name stood out among the rest: Kara Saun. Not only was the return of a contestant from the show’s very first season exciting, it also offered a chance for redemption for the fan favorite. Saun appeared on the inaugural season with an already established reputation as a costume designer, having made outfits for the likes of Queen Latifah and Eve, and she quickly became the “golden child” of the competition because of her impeccable tailoring and instantly recognizable style. She won the most individual challenges and even her fellow contestants seemed convinced she would run away with it all.

    That’s not to say her journey wasn’t without a few stumbling blocks. She was nearly eliminated from the competition in the challenge leading up to the finale, and during Fashion Week, she made the ultimate heel turn during “shoegate,” when she obtained free custom-made footwear for her collection as a favor, something that was strictly against the rules. Even now, 18 years later, Reddit users are still wondering if things would have turned out differently had she properly paid for the shoes.

    Coming into Season 20, Saun has even more celebrity clientele to her name — Zendaya, Zoe Saldana, Snoop Dogg — and an established relationship with Disney, designing TV and film costumes as well as consumer merch for the gigantic brand. She and fellow returning Season 1 designer Nora Pagel have had the most time to build a career off their exposure on Project Runway, which in many ways is a huge advantage. But in the first challenge it became painfully clear that those accomplishments could lead to Saun’s downfall.

    It’s clear that Saun’s design skills have not waned, but she’s now competing against a different caliber of contestants than she did back when the show was still trying to figure things out. As mentor Christian Siriano and judges Nina Garcia, Brandon Maxwell, and Elaine Welteroth often repeat: There is no room for error.

    Where Saun seems most likely to stumble in Season 20 is in her construction. No matter how brilliant an idea for a dress may be, if it’s not stitched to perfection, the judges will spy that on the catwalk. While that was never a problem for Saun in the past — in fact her excellent sewing skills were often what put her above the rest — it’s suddenly one of her biggest hurdles. As a designer who’s been successful for nearly two decades, she no longer regularly sews garments — she has people who do that for her. It’s something she admits right away, along with her strongest ally, Pagel, who says it’s been at least nine years since she’s sewed something of her own.

    During the first challenge in Season 20, Episode 2, “Project Redemption!,” designers are tasked with redesigning the look that got them eliminated in their respective seasons. In Saun’s case, that was the dress that almost got her eliminated, a copper asymmetrical dress over orange wide-leg tuxedo pants made for the Nancy O’Dell Grammy Dress Challenge in Season 1 (looking back on some of these designs is a reminder of how much fashion has changed since the early aughts).

    Instead of trying to recreate any real part of the look, Kara Saun instead draws inspiration from her mother, relying more on an emotional story than a well-made look. The slit of her bright blue, mermaid-esque dress is too high and there are too many baubles tacked on — ferociously sewing a garment up close makes it more difficult to step back and use an editing eye, it seems. The look lands her in the bottom two alongside Pagel, who ultimately is eliminated for, you guessed it, poor construction.

    Though Saun and Pagel entered the competition with more time in the real fashion world under their belts, it just meant they were further away from their time in the Project Runway trenches. Contestants from more recent seasons — like Season 18’s Bishme Cromartie, who ended up in the top — have a better handle on returning to the pace and pressure of this particular competition. The tight turnaround is a distant memory for Saun, and her many years of success since just might be her biggest weakness.

    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.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Project Runway, Bravo, Brandon Maxwell, Elaine Welteroth, Kara Saun, Nina Garcia, Nora Pagel