By the time “Project Runway” premiered in December of 2004, the show seemed like just another spawn of the megahit reality competition “American Idol.” As host Heidi Klum, wearing a Jennifer Aniston haircut, explained the premise of the show—unknown designers compete in weekly challenges until the finalists face off at New York Fashion Week for a grand prize—a bevy of would-be contestants were seen going through the audition process. “Who do you see wearing this besides yourself?” the panel of judges asked one hopeful, who was dressed in what appeared to be a toga with a chunk cut out of it replaced by a swatch of tie dye cloth.
But it quickly became apparent that “Project Runway” was a show more interested in the work than the drama. As mentor Tim Gun led the contestants past New York’s Garment District and into a grocery store to gather supplies for their first challenge—designing a glamourous and sexy look for a night out on the town—he announced everything used for the challenge would have to be purchased there on site. “You must innovate,” he told the panicked designers, as the camera zoomed in on a shrink-wrapped watermelon. “So be as unconventional as you can be in your thinking and,” he readied to deliver a variation on what would become his signature catchphrase for the show, “make it work here.”
What followed, as contestants grabbed at corn husks, beach chairs and trash bags, was a television arc of demystifying the creative process.
“I couldn’t really believe that ‘Project Runway’ would end up being a show that was really about the creative process,” Gunn later reflected in a 2013 interview. “I wanted to believe it, but fundamentally I had doubts.” When he was cast, Gunn successfully lobbied the producers that the contestants, not hired seamstresses, should sew their designs, and that the contestants’ workroom should close at night to shift more focus on the skill of the designers rather than their stamina to pull all-nighters.
Intentionally or not, the show presents creativity in the rubric laid out by English social psychologist Graham Wallas, widely credited for developing an architectural framework to explain the creative process.
Wallas, born in 1858, the year before Charles Darwin published On Origin of Species, was heavily influenced by the naturalist’s findings in his own work. Which is why in his 1926 book The Art of Thought, where he outlined his creativity rubric, he takes a somewhat Darwinian approach to the topic. His aim? To explain the title of his book through “scientific explanation.”
“More than 80 years later, Wallas’ model is still the most famous and influential proposal for understanding how creative thinking unfolds as a process,” observed researchers Glenn Griffin and Deborah Morrison in their 2010 book The Creative Process Illustrated. Even though nearly a century has passed since Wallas published his thoughts, the four (sometimes five) stage approach to the creative process he laid out remains entrenched in the way we discuss creativity.
The stages are easy to identify in the show:
- Preparation requires the time and effort to acquire research and experience necessary to arrive at a new idea. This stage largely happens off-screen, although the contestant interviews often provide their respective backstories and professional resumes.
- Incubation is often rushed on screen, as the contestants don’t have the luxury of time to stew over their thoughts before they must move on to reach…
- Illumination, where a point of clarity and inspiration—the “Aha” moment—presents, tangibly, in the work room as a concept comes together.
- Verification, where it’s confirmed that a new idea checks out, for better or worse, on the runway and with the judges afterward.
Seventeen seasons and multiple spinoffs later, part of the fascination around watching the creative process unfold on “Project Runway” is perhaps due to its long-perceived opaqueness. A field of scholarship has built around Wallas and his theory, starting with James Webb Young, a titan of the American advertising industry. He references the social psychologist in his popular 1940 book A Technique for Producing Ideas, where he, too, made the argument that creativity was something tangible that could be studied and analyzed: “The production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; the production of ideas, too, runs an assembly line; in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled, and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as in the effective use of any tool,” he asserted in the text.
For much of Western history, however, creativity was linked to divinity. “God the Creator,” as scholar Irina Surkova puts it, was credited with making something from nothing; the Muses of ancient Greek mythology midwifed ideas. “Hence,” she writes, “up to the 20th century, it became a dominant orthodoxy that creativity had a divine origin and creative results appeared from nowhere.” The implication was that you had to be chosen to be creative, it wasn’t something that could be fostered and cultivated. Classism came into play here, too. If creativity were divine, elites could claim only they were worthy of being graced with this gift.
Where “Project Runway” excels is in democratizing the creative process and showing the human ingenuity behind the design process. On-screen interviews not only show the Wallas’ framework from idea to execution, but also capture the different contestants’ progression over the course of a season as designers hone their creative skills.
Critics picked up on “Project Runway”’s commitment to showing the work early on. “[A]rtistic talent is more tangible on this show than on most,” New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley was already observing during that first season. “Sometimes with as little as 24 hours, each designer has to come up with a sketch, buy supplies, sew, cut and adapt an outfit to a runway model who parades the creation before a panel of judge.”
Viewers also were hooked. Word-of-mouth and a smart marketing plan by Bravo, which just kept re-airing episodes, boosted viewership until the ratings from the show’s first season finale certified “Project Runway” a bonafide sleeper hit.
The show’s eagerness to look at creativity as a tangible concept might be why the franchise is still a force to be reckoned with. “Project Runway” has now been saved from impending death three times; after that first season, longtime fans will remember its fate was up in the air once more when it got caught in legal limbo after making the move from Bravo to Lifetime. Now, it’s been rescued again, plucked from the crosshairs of the fall of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent bankruptcy of the Weinstein Company.
It returned on Bravo last week with a revamped format and new faces. Klum and Gunn are out, departing to launch their own show with Amazon; supermodel Karlie Kloss as host and Christian Siriano as the mentor are in. Veteran of the show Nina Garcia is now joined on the judging panel by magazine editor Elaine Welteroth and designer Brandon Maxwell.
For all that’s changed in reality television and the fashion industry, two episodes in the new season offers a reassuring return to form. It’s trying to communicate it’s more of the times; you can now buy the winning design and fan-favorite of many of the challenges on Bravo’s website. There’s also a pointed effort to present a more socially conscious “Project Runway” experience (the season premiere welcomed the first transgender model to walk its runway this episode).
But the fun of “Project Runway” remains in watching creativity come to fruition on screen. As a new batch of contestants tackle the challenges put before them, the audience gets a tutorial in the soup to nuts of getting to the runway walk. In essence, to quote Gunn, just what exactly it takes to “make it work.”