Arts & Entertainment

'Project Runway' grows new curves in its 16th season

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn pose with some of the models working in the 16th season of Lifetime's <em>Project Runway</em>.
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn pose with some of the models working in the 16th season of Lifetime's Project Runway.
Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

Project Runway, which opened its 16th season on Wednesday night, has fiddled with its structure from time to time. But this season, the producers decided to make a change to the competition itself. Specifically, the collection of models for whom the designers are designing are a variety of sizes. As Tim Gunn says, they range from size 2 to size 22.

Runway has a long tradition of periodic challenges, roughly once a season, that require the designers to design for what the show typically calls "real women." They might be moms or friends or women who want makeovers, but at least some, if not all, are bigger than runway models.

This has led to some ugly moments for designers who think plus-size women are too inconvenient, ungainly or hip-equipped to deserve clothes. Some of them honestly seem on the verge, at times, of shouting, "WHO CARES WHAT UGGOS ARE WEARING?" In the best-case scenarios, the "real women" episodes have often become stories of how decent and admirable the designers are for boosting the self-esteem of women who aren't models. Too often, these "real women" are presented as either inspirational or pitiable.

This season, though, all the women are apparently models — and they all seem to feel fine about their bodies.

The show has added an element in which the models have a moment in a room with a mirror where they can give their thoughts on what they're being asked to wear. This seems particularly important when designers are working with body sizes they haven't dealt with before (although some have).

It also sets up the opportunity for some serious smack talk about hideous clothing. That didn't happen in the first episode but a girl can hope.

There is a body positivity aspect to all this, because it's sure nice to see a variety of models dress up in nice clothes and be treated as if they deserve to look beautiful. But more than anything, from a brutally pragmatic perspective, what this introduces is different things to opine about. Because opining from the comfort of your home and the slovenliness of your pajamas (note: might just be me) is what a show like Project Runway is all about.

Take, for instance, the outfit that Brandon, a menswear designer who had rarely worked with any women, let alone plus-size women, made for his model, Liris, in the season premiere Wednesday night. She is one of the plus-size models who says she's "known for [her] hourglass shape."

At first, Brandon acted as if he had been asked to make a snug-fitting swimsuit for a lumpy octopus. But he ultimately made a crop top and a skirt that Liris liked and the judges scored highly.

Here's the thing: I haaaated it. It looked to me like bafflement made flesh — er, fabric. It's like he said, "She's somewhere around this big," and then cut out a couple of templates and lashed them together. He got away with it, largely because he put a big slit in the skirt that made it look less matronly. Liris could have been shaped like an hourglass or a pint glass; you couldn't tell from that outfit.

What matters isn't whether or not you like the outfit. What matters is that this is a new debate.

Whether a woman who is a size 22 and loves her body is better off wearing clothes that emphasize her shape or camouflage it is something people really argue about. I've sometimes taken issue with Tim Gunn when it seems like he is advocating for everyone to look tall and skinny, no matter their actual bodies. When you've been talking for 15 seasons about mother-of-the-bride this and costume that, it's nice to get some new material.

That's not the only new element. There is a Muslim designer named Ayana who designs clothing she describes as "modest," but who busted out a gorgeous, shimmery, slithery silver frock in the premiere that, as she said herself, defies the idea that modesty has to mean either staleness or playing it safe.

With these kinds of changes, the show gets beyond "I like it" or "I don't like it" and engages with fashion in fresh ways. How do you combine modesty and edginess? How do you decide what you want to conceal and what you want to flaunt? And isn't it valid for different people to make different choices?

Most late-season changes to existing shows are terrible: the hidden immunity idol is the Cousin Oliver of Survivor, and I will never accept it. But giving designers something new to do and audiences something new to talk about? They've got something there.

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