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12 Reasons Project Runway Season 1 Was the Best

Photo: Bravo

You’re either in or you’re out, and from the moment Project Runway hit American television screens, it was clear the show was in. Its first season is a perfect time capsule of mid-2000s reality TV, a niche-market competition show that struck a perfect balance between drama, compelling design, and hilarious contestants. Take a time machine back to the land of Austin Scarlett’s lip gloss and high-fashion postal-service outfits with these 12 reasons why Project Runway’s first season was the best.

12. It demystified the fashion world for a wider public.
Before fashion bloggers were quickly making their way from Instagram accounts and Wordpress pages to the front row of Fashion Week, the world of high fashion was a gated one. But Project Runway brought basic-cable-owning Americans into the world of dressmaking and runway shows, making “Olympus Fashion Week” a household name in the process. Suburban teens, meet S&M-inspired swimwear!

11. The judges were true experts.
It’s not often in the world of reality TV that a show lucks out immediately with an excellent crop of judges, but supermodel Heidi Klum, then–Elle fashion director Nina Garcia, and designer Michael Kors were perfect for the show. Garcia acted as the levelheaded critic, Kors the salesman/artist, and Klum the ideal customer. No one was combative; each just had his or her fashion game down.

10. It ushered Bravo into an era of design-heavy TV shows.
Believe it or not, the pre–Real Housewives Bravo featured a whole lot of Cirque du Soleil reruns. But with the explosive success of Project Runway in the mid-2000s, the cable network completely revamped itself by creating other design-oriented TV shows in niche categories. Although shows like Work of Art (props to Vulture’s Jerry Saltz), Top Design, and Blow Out never reached the same success as Project Runway, they created an image of Bravo as a network that lived and breathed luxury and pop culture, which still holds strong even now, when Project Runway lives on Lifetime.

9. Contestants’ personalities didn’t feel forced …
Just as the judges were picked for their talent, so were the contestants, a choice that set the early days of Project Runway apart from other TV competitions. There were decadent hyperromantics like Austin Scarlett and cynical, funky craftsmen like Jay McCarroll. Everybody was wildly different in tastes and experience, and their personalities were natural rather than cartoonish. Kara Saun was already a successful TV-show stylist, but Nora Caliguri was a recent Pratt grad. Everyone was entertaining but not in a way that screamed, “Put my quotes on a T-shirt!”

8. … Except Wendy, who eventually became the perfect reality-TV villain.
It became clear throughout the show that lil’ ol’ West Virginian mom Wendy Pepper had the sewing skills, but she failed to understand that Project Runway was more about design than ruthless competition. Contestants would catch her talking to herself outside the sewing room, and she would steal models for no reason other than proving she could. And though her taste was sometimes questionable (she thinks future teenagers will dress like Pocahontas and basically made a Big Bird–inspired red-carpet look), she ended up in the final three.

7. Jay McCarroll’s asides were priceless.
When he wasn’t chain-smoking in a faux-fur stole, winner Jay McCarroll was busy becoming Project Runway’s fan favorite. He said what everyone was thinking but couldn’t say (“You think for the last challenge, Wendy, you could’ve put lipstick on”), and waving around phalluses constructed out of leftover scraps, Jay’s often-borderline-inappropriate antics and sassy ways made him a real charmer.

6. It introduced Tim Gunn to the world.
Hardly anyone outside of Parsons knew who Tim Gunn was before Project Runway. But his monotone drawl, complete lack of poker face, and endearing “Make it work!” accidental slogan made him a reality-TV-show star by the season’s end. PR devotees might remember Santino’s classic impression of Gunn in semi-erotic fan fiction in season two. Even the least fashion-conscious viewers knew: When Tim Gunn was worried about a designer, you should be, too.

5. “Morganza”
It was hardly America’s Next Top Model, but the first season of Project Runway was just as much a competition for the models as it was the designers. The scenes where designers picked their models, the last of whom was sent home, were a big part of the show. But one model in particular, the tearful, perpetually screaming and hung-over Morgan, was so bonkers, the contestants dubbed her “Morganza.” They insisted she had a fantastic walk, but after partying in (and ripping) Kevin’s swimsuit before it could hit the runway and giving Jay hell during the wedding-dress challenge, she was booted.

4. When there was drama, it was very, very good.
Who could forget the episode soon after Kevin’s departure wherein a photo of Wendy’s daughter was vandalized? At the reunion, he denied involvement; to this day, nobody knows who did it. There was also Kara Saun, who had her shoe-designer friends gift her shoes made explicitly for her final collection (while Jay and Wendy had to pick from what they were given). A show about sewing is expected to be low on drama, but you’d be surprised just how maddening stolen dye can become, or how many tears can be shed while hunched over a Singer.

3. The show was more about making great clothes than zany reality-TV antics.
While later seasons would have contestants making dresses out of car parts and outfits for dogs, the first Project Runway season featured totally reasonable challenges that never went over the top. Tests like redesigning the Postal Service uniform or a group-effort collection for the year 2055 stretched the contestants’ abilities in teamwork and practical design. Still, nobody can forget that first ridiculous grocery-store challenge, in which challenge winner Austin Scarlett made a corn-husk dress that women would actually wear.

2. The clothes were often straight-up brilliant.
Project Runway
wouldn’t have worked if the contestants weren’t, well, good. There were some bad apples (like creepy Daniel Franco or lousy seamstress Vanessa Riley), but most of the contestants had the chops. From Nora’s electric-blue chair-dress to Kara Saun’s military-chic “Envy” dress, this season’s designs were wearable and hold up even by 2014 standards. It’s not easy to make an excellent dress in only 24 hours, which made these creations even cooler.

1. The finale was truly unexpected.
As season one progressed, it became pretty clear that the final three had to be Kara Saun, Austin Scarlett, and Jay McCarroll. But in a disastrous and confusing final challenge, Wendy won with a horrendous design, and Austin was booted for a sort-of-okay one. When the final collections went down the runway, it still wasn’t clear who would win. The judges’ disappointment in Kara Saun’s costume-y, Gucci-esque final collection was absolutely warranted, so the prize eventually went to Jay, whose hypercolorful collection had everything from embroidery to quilting to oversize knits, all done by hand. In the ten years since, nobody’s final collection has ever even come close to comparing.

12 Ways Project Runway Season 1 Was the Best