The Best (and Worst) “Project Runway” Seasons

If you haven’t watched Project Runway in a while, I understand. The show is no longer the cultural beacon it once was, but if you’re like me, you just can’t quit it. Every season, it takes only one “Designers, a word of caution” from Tim, one “Horrifying!” from Nina, and I’m invested again, pretending I know even one iota about fashion.

In its twelfth season, the show is rewarding this devotion. Format changes have made runway deliberation more dynamic and less frustrating, Zac Posen’s gigantic mouth is becoming more acidic (even though he’s still no oversized Bit-O-Honey making pooping fabric references), and we have upwards of four legitimately talented and likeable people this season. Four! That’s pretty good!

But whether you are a PR lifer, stormed out after the Gretchen over Mondo debacle, or collapsed due to exhaustion circa Kenley, Project Runway has undoubtedly improved your life. Where would any of us be without “I question your taste level”? Poorer. Sadder. Uglier.

So now it’s time to give thanks. Let’s revel in the five seasons that have made the show great, while not overlooking its big fat wart, to confirm Project Runway’s status as almost perfect.

Top 5

5. Season 10 (Winner: Dmitry Sholokhov)

Project Runway Dmitry

Yes, there’s no beating the early seasons for quality, but never underestimate the sheer nonsensical hilarity of season 10, circus of the crazies. Elena was supposed to be the big villain, but her every erratic outburst and emotional metamorphosis only made her more mesmerizing and obsession worthy. Anyone who yells, “No one wears navy blue anymore, Dmitry!” while herself wearing navy blue is a hero in my book. Her Eastern Bloc sniping with Dmitry could have been its own show, and Dmitry gets major points for his general deadpan disdain, the most noble of personality traits.

Lest we forget, this season also featured a final four with actual diverse points of view. Usually, “different point of view” is Runway code for “exceptionally barfy and weird” (Hi, season 11!), but this time it was real. Dmitry, Melissa, Fabio, and Christopher put forth truly dissimilar looks, which made the runway shows more interesting than the usual parade of “art gallery owner goes to a cocktail party.” Insane people with enjoyably light-hearted drama eventually giving way to legitimate talent is the formula for a strong Runway season, and this one had it.

4. Season 4 (Winner: Christian Siriano)

Christian Siriano with Tim Gunn

Season 4 boasted the last of the deep Runway casts. Enough proficient designers populated the group that simply being technically sound and boring, like Victorya, was not in itself enough to guarantee a final spot. Even members of the delightful-personality coalition who had clear limitations, like Chris March and Sweet P, were understandably kept around for being strong at specific styles rather than solely as window dressing. Most importantly, though, season 4 gave us the image of Jack Mackenroth carrying Christian into the workroom in a tote bag like a little dog. Thank you forever, Project Runway.

The Christian, Rami, Jillian final three may rank as the most competitive in the history of the series, and both Rami and Jillian could have won nearly any other season. In the negative column, however, season 4 became a tad too self-conscious and transparent in its attempts to remain interesting and create hot topics. Let’s cast Elisa’s spit just because it’s weird! Let’s have a menswear challenge that will obviously go terribly! Let’s make “tranny” happen even though everyone’s uncomfortable with it! Trying too hard keeps this season a touch below its predecessors in spite of the talent level.

3. Season 3 (Winner: Jeffrey Sebelia)

Jeffrey Sebelia, Uli, Laura Bennett
From left to right: Jeffrey Sebelia, Laura Wright, Michael Knight and Uli Herzner

By the third incarnation, Project Runway hit its peak in the challenge department. This season featured the oft-repeated but never duplicated everyday-client challenge and couture challenge (featuring Catherine Malandrino’s blunt perfection), as well as the delectable fashion icon challenge in which Bradley knew nothing about Cher, Vincent may have thought Twiggy was dead, and Diane Von Furstenberg was having none of people pretending to know about Jackie Kennedy. Genius.

After some questionable decisions in the middle of the season, the judges actually got it right in the end this time, giving us the ideal final five with a mix of lovable (Uli, Michael, Kayne) and lovably severe (Laura, Jeffrey). Laura Bennett’s whole existence was undeniably fascinating, with the architecture career and the brood of children she clearly despised, and the dichotomy between Jeffrey’s and Uli’s styles made for a challenging and controversial final decision. The season does lose a few points for spending too much time early on with genuinely irritating people like Keith, Vincent, and Angela who weren’t even reality love-to-hate types. They were just . . . stop.

2. Season 1 (Winner: Jay McCarroll)

Jay McCarroll and Austin Scarlett
Austin Scarlett (left) and Jay McCarroll

Ah, simpler times. The first season is nearly unrecognizable from what we see today in almost entirely the best ways. Now, episodes have a mass-produced quality where each one follows the exact same pattern and story beats, but season 1 possessed an endearing roughness. It would suddenly jump to the hotel laundry room for a poorly lit argument or to the back of a stairwell to watch Morganza fall apart. It was a quainter era in which the theme of a challenge could simply be “envy” instead of “Yoplait. Yoplait. Yoplait. Make a dress.”

The season ran a paltry ten episodes, yet it seemed longer because we were allowed much more time to get to know the characters, from Austin Scarlett’s fantastically affected manner, to my beloved Kara Saun and her no-nonsense impatience with these goobers, to Wendy Pepper and her preposterous mood and identity fluctuations. This was a group of actual humans with story arcs instead of a group of sound bites milling around trying to be the sound bitiest. It felt special, and we still remember these looks better than any others: Austin’s cornhusk dress, Kara’s postal service and futuristic outfits, Jay’s Chrysler Building dress and completely win-worthy headphone collection. Plus, we met Tim Gunn for the first time, and none of us have ever been the same.

1. Season 2 (Winner: Chloe Dao)

So, what could beat season 1 then? Only the best overall cast in reality competition history. Case in point: Zulema. It was eight years ago and she finished seventh, yet I still say, “I don’t care if you cry and cut, but you need to cry and cut at the same rate” on a weekly basis. Offer me a billion dollars, and I couldn’t tell you who finished seventh in any other reality season ever.

Zulema cry and cut
Zulema (right) tells Kara Janx she better “Cry and cut.”

The group deserved to be there based on skill, yet also inspired genuine hilarity (“Andrae, you really embarrassed me tonight at Red Lobster”) and collectively understood exactly what we want out of reality television, which brings us to the mother*cking walkoff. Of course you needed to have a walkoff between the following three models, Zulema, and we also needed that as a society. And as with any fine work of literature, my feelings about the motherf*cking walkoff have changed as the years have passed. At the time, I was pro-Nick and anti-Zulema for taking his model. In retrospect, no. And also, no. So you had to work with a new model. Cry me a river, and stop making a lady’s suit for Daniel Vosovic, okay? Okay.

Look how strongly I still feel about this! I have actual emotions about season 2 to this day. That’s impressive work.

Bottom 1

Season 11 (Winner: Michelle Lesniak-Franklin)

Project Runway season 11
The Season 11 cast

Oooh, an upset! Believe me, I thought it would be season 6 (Los Angeles) too, but honestly, season 11 was even feebler and just edged it in the “Do I still watch this show?” department. Season 6 will never be forgiven for forcing Tim Gunn to go to the beach (You don’t do that to Tim! He’s not indigenous!), but the more damning offense is season 11’s cynical team premise.

Dear Project Runway, this may come as a shock, but we don’t actually like team challenges. We really don’t. They are desperate, clawing attempts to manufacture stale drama, and a whole season of them coupled with the most deeply untalented cast in the show’s run could result in nothing but problems. Season 11 contained only one good designer/enjoyable person in Michelle. Fortunately, she won thanks to Tim, but that’s not enough because . . . Patricia, everybody. She will be panting, “My fabrication, my fabrication” in my nightmares for decades. Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t know cutting out a blue rectangle and gluing some mangled construction paper to it counted as inventive now, Heidi. Go to a second grade classroom. It will blow your mind. But this? Automatic bottom of the barrel.

Now you go. What Project Runway moments make it almost perfect for you? Remember, choose your seasons thoughtfully.

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