“I’m just happy that we’re back to our original polish and glory,” Tim Gunn, co-host of Project Runway, which returns with season 15 on Thursday, Sept. 15 on Lifetime, says. On set while filming the 10th episode -- on judging day, no less -- Gunn gets candid with ET and The Insider about last season’s competition. “I was not a fan of season 14.”
Last season, which saw Ashley Nell Tipton come out on top with an entirely plus-size collection, was slammed by the co-host and mentor, who told Entertainment Weekly he “hated it. I felt that other than a couple of designers, they weren’t working up to their potential. The whole thing was lackluster.”
Citing laziness among the contestants and “underwhelming work” week to week, Gunn says “there just wasn’t a fire.” “It’s true. Last year, they were always crying and moaning,” Heidi Klum, the reality competition’s longtime co-host, judge and executive producer, adds. “[They were] outside smoking instead of working.”
“The group of designers in season 15, they each have a huge fire,” Gunn says, with Klum admitting that she would even hire one of the “super-talented designers” to be part of her own design team.
Even judge Nina Garcia agrees with that sentiment. “There are some designers here that have produced clothes that walked down this runway and could go right into a store and be sold,” she says. “That’s how precise, that’s how meticulous and that’s how good they are.”
In addition to a new crop of talent, the show will be packed full of star power. Guest judges for the season include Priyanka Chopra, Emily Ratajkowski, Nina Dobrev, Jaime King and Shiri Appleby, as well as Today anchor Savannah Guthrie, Project Runway Junior judge Kelly Osbourne, model Lucky Blue Smith and Marie Claire editor-in-chief Anne Fulenwider.
While season 15 will offer plenty of fashion, excitement and drama (“You will be shocked,” Garcia says), it’s hard not to look back on Project Runway’s enduring appeal, which premiered in 2004 on Bravo and has continued to be a lasting hit on Lifetime.
“What’s so incredible about this show is that it’s evolved without losing its soul,” Garcia says. “We see it in this show every episode, every season: There is endless creativity out there and we are tapping into it. The show is a testament to that.”
Judge and designer Zac Posen, who admits he “had big shoes to fill” when he replaced longtime judge and fellow designer Michael Kors, says the entire experience has “been a blast.”
“I feel like it’s my first season, and it’s been five years,” he says.
Part of the show’s appeal was that it was an original concept -- not brought in from overseas and adapted for an American audience -- but it was also uncharted territory. When asked if she could have imagined how big Project Runway would become -- the franchise now includes All Stars, Under the Gunn, Project Accessory, Threads, Junior and Fashion Startup, in addition to international editions -- Klum wasn’t so sure at first.
“To be honest, when we were filming it, no,” Klum says. “But when I saw it cut together, then I was like, ‘You know, we’re really onto something. I think this is really going to work.’”
“I went to so many meetings in trying to sell the show, and then we finally did,” she continues. “Here we are 15 seasons later. It’s really because of all these designers and their talent.”
Easily the most famous winner to come out of the series is Christian Siriano, whose profile continues to rise with headline-making designs and partnerships. “He works so very hard,” Klum says. She and all the judges were proud of what Siriano has become -- and for coming to Leslie Jones’ aid when she was unable to find a designer to dress her for the Ghostbusters premiere in July. “He seizes an opportunity he feels is something that is on brand and allows him to help someone who needs something great to wear,” Gunn adds.
At the end of the day, Klum is still in awe of Siriano and the rest of the contestants for being able to make something on a $100 budget look like it costs thousands of dollars in just one day. “That’s why, every year when I’m looking at these clothes, I’m still in awe of what these people can do,” she says before Gunn chimes in: “I’m going to remind you of that today.”
“Oh, was it not good?” she asks.
“We shall see,” he responds.
“Really? Oh, that means no! Not good? Oh no,” she says.
Project Runway season 15 premieres Thursday, Sept 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.