Project Runway may never have earned the same blockbuster ratings as broadcast contemporaries like The Bachelor, but when it debuted in 2004, the fashion-design contest set the template for creative competition series on Bravo and beyond. Without Runway, there would be no Top Chef (with which it shares a production company, Magical Elves). There would be no raft of other spin-offs and rip-offs themed around every conceivable art form, from RuPaul’s Drag Race to the Netflix glass-blowing contest Blown Away. There would be no shoppable Amazon series Making the Cut, starring original Runway hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn. In fact, without the show, Gunn might still be the world’s best-dressed academic. The host, known best for his Runway catchphrase, “Make it work,” was still teaching at New York’s Parsons School of Design when he made his television debut. And who knows what would’ve become of Christian Siriano, who in 2019 replaced Gunn as the contestants’ mentor and is now one of the most recognizable names in fashion, had he not won Project Runway season 4?
In retrospect, the extent to which Runway arrived fully formed in its first season seems incredible. The avuncular Gunn was an overnight star. With his kindness balancing out hilariously blunt critiques from judges Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia, the show’s producers smartly trusted that the creative process alone would provide enough inspiration and conflict to fuel engaging story lines. But the real magic was in the casting. From Old Hollywood glamour-puss Austin Scarlett to openly antagonistic villain Wendy Pepper to fame-ambivalent victor Jay McCarroll, Runway season 1 delivered some of the most memorable characters in the history of reality TV. A game-changer for queer representation, it also made history as one of the first shows to carve out space for art in a genre better known for trash. —Judy Berman
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