At the dawn of the millennium, a deluge of reality competition shows suddenly, quite unexpectedly entered our collective consciousness. In 2001, the Amazing Race had teams racing all around the world. That same time, Fear Factor put its contestants (and viewers) under duress by having them undergo either highly dangerous or supremely grotesque tests. A year later, American Idol set out to find the next biggest pop star. And then there was, The Bachelor, a show that promised a man true love from a pool of 30 women.
But in fashion—a highly insular industry that’s mostly cloaked in intrigue and mystery, and underscored by fear—any insight into the goings-on of what it takes to “make it” was murky. Opaque at best. So when Tyra Banks hosted America’s Next Top Model in 2003 (and then got a reboot in 2016 with Rita Ora as its new host), curiosity fueled its immense success—and derivatives, like 2009’s The Fashion Show with Isaac Mizhrahi and Kelly Rowland or Nigel Barker and Naomi Campbell’s The Face in 2013. As entertaining as it was, competitive modeling only lightly grazed one aspect of the industry. In 2004, Project Runway, co-hosted by Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, was meant to be entrenched in it, offering aspiring designers the chance to become an established household name.
Only one ever did: Christian Siriano, who once remarked on the show’s inability to produce successful designers, pointing to the lack of support from the network. “I think Heidi has done more clothing collaborations than any other designer that’s come off the show,” he said. “Heidi is amazing and very talented at what she does building her brand, but wouldn’t it be nice if another designer gets a great collaboration or a cool project out of the show?”
And therein lies the difference between these fashion competition reality shows versus fashion prizes that honor emerging talent in the industry: Not only does the latter carry more weight and legitimacy, but its winners—whether it’s the LVMH Prize, Loewe Craft Prize, Andam Fashion Award, or the International Woolmark Prize—go on to become incredibly successful designers. (Case in point: The first winner of the Woolmark Prize was Valentino Garavani as a teenager in the 1950s; Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent have also won awards.)
Now, almost two decades later, a fresh crop of fashion competition reality shows have arrived. From Netflix’s Next in Fashion that’s co-hosted by Tan France and Alexa Chung to Making the Cut, Klum and Gunn’s new project launching on Amazon this month, the runway has never been closer to the TV. But it’s hard to fully understand today’s reality resurgence without looking at what happened to Project Runway, which still lives on to this day with a panel of judges.
At its peak, Project Runway was incredibly popular. To see what designers could pull off under time and material constraints never failed to impress. It was cutthroat. It was exhilarating. It won Emmys (or at least the hosts did). But after switching networks (Bravo to Lifetime, and then eventually, back to Bravo again), along with increasingly stale challenges and the unavoidable fact that no one actually found stardom (save for Siriano), the show plateaued. Fourteen years since the first episode, Klum and Gunn made the decision to cut their losses.
“After 16 incredible seasons, I am saying Auf Wiedersehen to Project Runway, a show that I was honored to host and help create,” Klum said in a 2018 statement. “I am incredibly proud of the show, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I am so appreciative of the dedicated fans, and most of all, I am grateful that we could shine a light on creativity and help launch so many talented designers’ careers.”
A reason for its decline or its irrelevance could be attributed to the rise of Instagram—self-made designers no longer needed traditional outlets to garner recognition or fame. Social media gave designers a platform, a voice, and a medium to shape their own narrative. The democratization of fashion means that the industry is no longer as impenetrably exclusive as it once was, which renders Project Runway’s original purpose completely pointless. Add to that the show’s inability to keep up with the pace at which the industry was evolving: the demand for diversity and inclusivity. Collaboration over competition. Amicability over animosity.
So in a day and age in which viewers have endless programming options to watch, how can fashion competition shows be made over to feel fresh, exciting, and most importantly, relevant again?
Klum and Gunn set out to achieve just that, pinning all their hopes on a new panel of judges for Making the Cut: Naomi Campbell, Nicole Richie, Carine, Joseph Altuzarra, and Chiara Ferragni—a rather impressive group that blends perennial icons with Internet-y personalities.
For Project Runway’s return to Bravo, the show features new hosts—Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano—and judges that include Brandon Maxwell, Elaine Welteroth, and Nina Garcia. There are a few notable differences between the competition of yesterday and today’s iteration. First, the winner will not only receive a prize of 0,000 (a significant jump from 0,000, a spread in a magazine, and a NYFW show), but also a mentorship by the CFDA; second, the show’s models are of all shapes, sizes, ages, and gender identities; third, the contestants are incredibly diverse, with different backgrounds, which makes for compelling storylines, and; lastly, it’s competitive, but also, nice.
“Overall, the long-perpetuated (and, frankly, outdated) idea that fashion industry professionals are supposed to be scary and intimidating feels much less present on this version of the show,” wrote one reviewer.
And that brings us to Netflix’s Next in Fashion (guest judges include celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart, Instagram’s Eva Chen, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, and Prabal Gurung), which also showcases camaraderie above all else. Similar to reality shows like The Great British Bake-Off or The Circle—during which contestants become friends and remain friends long after the show is over—the designers on Next in Fashion are more human than ever before. They tear up when others cry, they root for one another (which in turn, makes viewers root for them), and they help each other out, offering advice or support. And, in fact, in the first half of the season, the contestants are forced to work in pairs.
In one episode, France breaks down when the judges can’t unanimously agree on who to eliminate: “This is a very, very, very difficult decision for us all, so we’re going to spend as much time as we need to make sure we make the right decision,” he tells the designers, his voice breaking. “I want you to understand that me and Alexa do this, we’re designers too and we know how important it is for you, and we really do care for you, and we want to make the right choice.”
Similar to the new Project in Runway, the contestants are all diverse, hailing from every corner of the world. The prize feels more substantial, too: 0,000, along with the opportunity for the winner’s collection to be sold on Net-a-Porter. And even though everyone’s already a designer, with some having already dressed A-list celebrities like Beyonce, none is a household name—a fact that Next in Fashion hopes to change with Netflix’s massive reach. Perhaps this is why fashion competition shows, after nearly two decades, are seeing a surge in popularity: It not only caters to today’s binge-watching culture, but this newer, friendlier version hits us at an emotional level.END
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