In Depth

‘Runway’ Has Really Taken Off

Reality Series Demonstrates Growth in Both Ratings and in Contestants’ Design Skill

Being spoofed on “Saturday Night Live” is a sure sign that a TV program is becoming entrenched in pop culture. But Bravo’s “Project Runway,” which concluded its fourth season earlier this year, has blown past that signpost with a slew of other accolades. It has been nominated for an Emmy for reality competition program in each of the past three years, and recently won a prestigious Peabody Award.

It’s not just a critical favorite. The fourth season scored the show’s highest ratings to date, averaging 3.8 million viewers an episode, making it cable’s top-rated reality series.

But “Project Runway” also has been in the news recently because it is slated to leave Bravo for Lifetime Networks, which plans to air it beginning in November for its sixth season, pending a lawsuit filed by NBC against the show’s producer, the Weinstein Co. “Project Runway’s” fifth season begins on Bravo in July.

On-screen drama takes place every episode, when the field of designer contestants is narrowed down after they are given fashion challenges. That culminates in a runway show judged by host Heidi Klum, designer Michael Kors, Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia and often an esteemed guest designer.

From its low-budget beginnings, with the line producer sleeping on an air mattress in the studio, “Project Runway” has become a high-fashion career launch pad for several of its winning contestants.

“The most obvious evolution of the show is in the quality of the work,” said Dan Cutforth, one of its executive producers. “There have always been good designers, but we see them more and more. It has become its own place in the zeitgeist as a result, to the point where we can book Victoria Beckham to do the finale.”

“The work is superbly executed,” agreed Tim Gunn, who mentors the designers and measures their progress in the workroom of the Parsons New School for Design. “Whenever anyone wants to debate how good season four is from the viewpoint of design, I tell them go back to season one and examine the fact that almost nothing that went down that runway had a sleeve. And then look at season four. We have linings and jackets. I mean, it’s incredible.”

“The bar gets higher and higher,” said Jane Cha, one of the show’s executive producers. “As much as we love it as a TV show, it is gratifying that we helped people who really need the platform.”

Season four’s winner was the youngest contestant, then 21-year-old Christian Siriano, who walked away from the show with $100,000, a new car, an ad featuring his clothing in Elle magazine—and spreads about him and his designs in publications ranging from US Weekly to the New York Post and In Touch.

“Christian really had not had the work experience but was clearly a major talent, and you could tell from his presence in the room and his level of execution,” Ms. Cha said. “Once he won ‘Project Runway,’ the outpouring of support and requests from celebrities were something he probably couldn’t have achieved in a couple years. He’s done stuff for Becki Newton, Heidi Klum, Victoria Beckham, Eve, and he’s been on ‘Ugly Betty’ and he’s costuming for a movie. Really major things are happening.”

For Mr. Gunn, chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne, acting as a mentor to the increasingly sophisticated and experienced contestants creates unique challenges.

Still, he employs his signature catchphrase, “Make it work,” as he exhorts them to do their best during timed challenges throughout the season.

Most of the exercises involve rushed trips to choose fabrics at the store Mood and then racing back to the workroom to complete garments that will later be paraded down the runway in front of the program’s judges.

Satisfying Dialogue

“I had to recalibrate how I approached the designers because they simply didn’t need my technical help,” Mr. Gunn said. “And actually, I mean as a definitional matter, I can’t tell them how to do something anyway. Since the work was so well executed, my dialogue with them, my engagement with them, was really about design content. And for me that’s much more satisfying and it’s a much more substantial conversation. And I enjoy that more. I’m happy to tell them that there were loose threads, but how deep is that conversation? I felt that I was with peers more than I felt that I was with students.”

Mr. Gunn, who has his own Bravo show entitled “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” said being an Emmy contender early on erased the fashion industry’s initial snobbery about the show. “I was in my office and the Emmys were announced, and I went hurrying through the hallways at Parsons screaming, ‘We’ve been nominated for an Emmy, we’ve been nominated for an Emmy,” he recalled. “And the feeling was, ‘Take that, everyone, with your snarkiness, take that.’ And it was a great, incredible moment.”