This season of Bravo’s Project Runway brought nothing but the crème de la crème. The lauded panel of judges lent their impeccable taste, unbeatable track record, and eye for top talent to the 19th season of the acclaimed fashion competition series.
The judges include ELLE Editor-in-Chief Nina Garcia, journalist and New York Times bestselling author Elaine Welteroth, fashion designer and creative director Brandon Maxwell, and revered mentor and—Project Runway season 4 winner—Christian Siriano.
Under the gaze of this powerful group, gifted designers from across the globe sew their way to success. The last contestant standing is awarded a quarter of a million dollars (courtesy of Pilot FriXion Erasable Pens), a runway show at the iconic New York Fashion Week, a photo spread in ELLE, and more. It’s fair to say the designers have a lot at stake, and the judges have a grand decision to make.
Joining a Zoom call with the Project Runway judges felt like sliding into the extra seat at a lunch table filled with a group of laughing friends. Together, along with finale guest judge Tommy Hilfiger, they told ELLE.com all about their heated backstage battles, the runway moments that induced tears of joy, and what the fashion industry desperately needs right now.
This season of Project Runway brought sophistication, innovation, and flare like no other. What was the most awe-inspiring moment from this season you can’t help but reminisce about?
Elaine Welteroth: For me, it was the unconventional challenge. What they made with absolutely random materials they just found somewhere at a bar completely blew me away! It was one of the only times that I full-on cried—yes, cried—when I saw what one of the designers put down the runway. I was completely enamored by Shantall [Lacayo, Nicaraguan-born designer] and the dress that she made out of straws. It was completely made out of black straws that she hand-sewed together and made this beautiful textile.
I feel like that was the turning point for her that actually re-routed her directly to the final four. After Christian saved her with his Siriano save, she came back with vengeance. She came to win. And she ended up in the winners’ circle! I love a redemption story and that’s exactly what we got from the unconventional challenge.
Christian Siriano: The challenge with Coco [Rocha, who served as both guest judge and a model-muse for the final five designers] was so amazing. That is why we have the final four of these unbelievable women. What they made in that challenge in basically a day was insane!
Nina Garcia: In 100-degree weather, I might add!
Brandon Maxwell: It was not even 100, it was 130!
Christian Siriano: It was so hot, and they were amazing! It was so beautiful to see what they made. That was my favorite moment.
With no shortage of brilliance walking down the runway, it’s no wonder things could get a little heated when deciding which designer to send home. How did you come to the same conclusion when you had strong conflicting opinions on who should be in and who should be out?
Welteroth: Everyone sees the designers battling it out on the show. What you guys don’t see is how much we battle it out behind the scenes with each other to arrive at that unified front and to make that final decision.
We take our jobs really seriously as judges. Sometimes, usually, Nina has to say, “We gotta wrap this up, you guys!” She forces us to make a decision. In the end, we always feel good about where we land. But it is a process, and we don’t always agree.
Maxwell: All of us always have different opinions. Always. Hands down. All 15 models can have the same black dress on and we will still disagree. We will disagree about the earrings or about the hair. But we will find something to disagree about. If you leave it to us, we can talk about it for 15 hours.
What is one piece of advice you were given that you would want new trailblazers in the fashion industry to know?
Maxwell: My grandmother gave me my best advice. She always said, “Don’t listen to anybody, just do what you think is right for yourself.” I didn’t realize until I got much older just how applicable that advice really is.
That’s exactly what happens a lot in the fashion industry, especially when you’re starting out. There are a lot of conversations about who you are, who you should be, and who you shouldn’t be. It is really easy to lose yourself in all of that.
We have such a talented group of designers in the finale. Of the many things I love about them is that they each have such a strong sense of self. They each have a strong identity both in their person and their work.
So my advice would be to stay true to who the hell they are on this journey forward, whether or not they win, stay true to that.
What role do you think sustainability needs to play in the future of fashion?
Garcia: A very important one. I mean, I’ve been in this business for a very long time and I am very optimistic about the future because I see how differently this new generation of designers thinks about fashion and thinks about the industry. They think about how to be more transparent and how to think sustainably. So, it is of utmost importance that we continue to think in this way so that we can protect our industry and our Earth.
When I see the graduating classes of FIT or Parsons, when I see their curriculum, when I see what we do at ELLE to support sustainability, I see that the industry is moving toward that direction. Maybe not fast enough, but we’re getting there.
What excites you most about the direction the fashion industry is heading in?
Tommy Hilfiger: Inclusiveness is paramount. I really believe that if we’re not sustainable, we’re going to harm the Earth even more than we have already. Those two things have to be the main focus of companies with an awareness of what needs to be done in the future.
We at Tommy Hilfiger have planted a flag into the ground heralding sustainability and also inclusivity. We really believe that those two paths are the paths that every company has to take. And every designer has to keep that in mind in doing what they’re doing. Look, the competition is exciting, the ad campaigns are exciting, the fashion shows are great, but there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that are maybe even more important than all of that.
The Project Runway season 19 finale airs on Feb. 3 on Bravo at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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