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If you could take a humble pilgrimage to the site of a crushing defeat and redeem yourself, would you? Now, if a reward were involved—let’s say it’s $250,000 from Pilot FriXion Erasable Pens—might that influence your decision? Such an enticing conundrum might never present itself to your average plebe, but for this season’s crop of Project Runway designers, it’s the literal challenge: All the contestants are Runway alums, invited back for an all-stars brawl after scooping up their dashed hopes from one of 19 previous seasons. Some familiar faces return from recent chapters; others haven’t opened the cap on an erasable pen since the Heidi Klum era. The only judge who’s encountered every one of season 20’s designers is ELLE editor-in-chief Nina Garcia, who tells the contestants in tonight’s two-part premiere that they’re the ones she wanted to see again.
So, anyway, we’re back! Welcome to our first recap of Project Runway season 20. After an hour-long introduction to the designers, these 14 energetic, hopeful faces—not yet world-weary with pricked fingers and bloodshot eyes—are challenged to assess (and radically reinvent) the look that once got them eliminated. Most of the designers aren’t exactly thrilled to confront their failures, but it’s season 17 contestant Bishme Cromartie who struggles the most as his cohort begin their feverish sketching. During his first Project Runway appearance, Bishme’s sister was sick; now that she’s since passed away, revisiting his final design is only accentuating his grief. He soon decides that this new, revamped look will serve to honor his sister—and incorporate the avant-garde streetwear aesthetic he’s mastered since season 17.
At Mood Fabrics (the only other Project Runway institution that’s lasted as long as Nina, or so mentor Christian Siriano notes), the crew dash for black tulle and pale pink silk and orange zippers, the last of which Christian gives his signature side-eye. They then scurry into the workroom, where the camera flits between stations in the hopes of capturing some idle gossip. Designers Nora Caliguri Pagel and Kara Saun switch models so Kara Saun can pay proper homage to her mother; Johnathan “Kayne” Gillaspie near-panics when he realizes he’s missing his horsehair fabric; and Mila Hermanovski avoids the apparent drops of blood (?!) on her mannequin, but that’s all the drama the premiere can muster so far.
It’s only once Christian arrives to distribute his first round of feedback—“You love it? So much?”—that the premiere starts to hit its stride. Christian is no Tim Gunn, but he doesn’t need to be; he has his own effervescence from which to draw. He can balance his most cutting remarks beneath ample charm, plus his genuine generosity toward the designers keeps him grounded. “Do you need anything from me?” he asks Bishme.
Bishme considers this. “A kiss.”
“A kiss next week,” our PR mentor promises, and promptly saunters off.
He then reveals his long-awaited “twist”: This season, there’s no immunity. That means that any designer can be booted off the show any week, even if they clinched the win in the episode prior. In season 20, the immunity perk of yore will be replaced by other rewards, such as the premiere’s big incentive: $10,000. (Sorry, but why haven’t the producers been doling out cold hard cash the whole time?!)
The next morning marks the start of runway day, and season 9 contestant Viktor Luna has a problem: His model, Ren, decided not to show up. We’re never given any explanation for this absence, so I’m choosing to believe she simply chose to spend the day catching up on VPR instead. Regardless, Viktor will now be working with (and refitting) an entirely different model for his gladiator-style harness-and-glitter ensemble. (The terror on his face would be comical if it weren’t so sincere.) He takes a puff of his inhaler to refocus as everyone scissors, stitches, and shouts around him, ushering their models into the TRESemmé hair salon and Bobbi Brown makeup studio for branding—err, styling.
Finally, the judges assemble, and the runway show begins. I jot down my initial reactions as the looks come down the catwalk:
- Anna Yinan Zhou: My beloved returns! Those of you who read my season 19 recaps will remember my undying affection for Anna, and my commitment is rewarded this week as her sharp-shouldered brocade gown shimmers across the screen. It’s big, bold, completely impractical, and perfect. My favorite detail is the halo of tulle around the model’s head. So editorial.
- Prajje Oscar Jean Baptiste: The actual cut of Prajje’s color-blocked midi dress is pretty—the plunging-V neckline, in particular, is a nice touch—but I find the fabric choices puzzling. I trust Prajje’s vision, yet the patchwork plastic effect here? It feels stifling on the runway.
- Laurence Basse: Haters might call this look too safe, but it’s executed so that I’m inclined to disagree. Laurence’s cropped leather jacket and pants are tailored beautifully; the subtle shimmer adds dimension; the back cut-out is chic and modern; and the beads adorning the jacket’s shoulders add an element of play. I think I love it?!
- Rami Kashou: I would buy this today, right now, immediately. The chartreuse and violet color mix, the pattern play on the trench coat, the gorgeous draping of the dress—all of it feels wearable and commercial without sacrificing the designer’s own artistry.
- Kayne: The silk skirt thrown over Kayne’s model’s shoulder initially overwhelms her; once she tosses it back, the resulting train effect is stunning. The dramatic impact is just subtle enough to retain its elegance, and the asymmetrical cut of the long-sleeved black top feels young and on-trend.
- Nora: I was worried about this look from the moment Nora brought her fabric into the workroom. To her credit, she isn’t helped by the hair and skin tone of her model: The pale pink silk of her mini dress washes out the woman wearing it. The concept itself (a remixed wedding gown with 3D floral embellishments) is clever, but the rushed construction is evident in almost every seam.
- Fabio Costa: The impact of Fabio’s striped tunic over shiny wide-leg pants is relaxed, understated, and sleek, but still high-fashion; I could easily mistake this look for a real luxury house’s design. (Switching the jacket around was a brilliant move.)
- Korto Momolu: I like—but I don’t love—the ivory corset and shorts poking out from beneath Korto’s lime coat. Still, the metallic details woven into the lining speak to a penchant for risk-taking, and that’s a creative instinct I can appreciate.
- Viktor: I’m surprised by how much I ended up enjoying Victor’s final look, given how messy it appeared pre-runway. I still think Christian is right: The bandeau and skirt feel useless and tacked-on, but the gladiator straps themselves are impressively crafted.
- Bishme: I’m so happy for Bishme. He deserved to do his sister proud this week, and his resulting streetwear-style magenta coat is indeed a work of art. The ruffles, the hoodie strings, the billowing effect—it’s audacious but not intimidating, making it an ideal RTW piece.
- Mila: Maybe it’s the quiet little minimalist buried (deep) within my psyche, but I relished every element of this look. The leather details on the overshirt and bandeau are attractive on their own, but it’s the side slits in the wide-leg pants that really made this design sing.
- Kara Saun: Kara Saun’s fabric, as Christian noted earlier in the episode, is beautiful. But there’s far too many other elements competing for air in her “Barbara by the sea” gown. Between the loud fabric, the fringe beading, the über-high leg slit, the cape train, and the bracelets … the elegance is subsumed by the excess. I see the vision, truly, but only if I squint.
- Hester Sunshine: It’s cool! Really cool! Hester’s is a design I could picture getting photographed on the streets outside a NYFW show. Perhaps the bottoms look a bit too much like a pair of Spanx smothered with tulle, but whatever, who doesn’t love tulle? Still, it’s the sheer top with the pasties that earns my real affection.
- Brittany Allen: I doubted her, I did, but Brittany pulled off the butterfly dress! Her styling restraint, especially, is on great display here: She seemed to intuit that the pink lace itself is loud enough not to need much in the way of extraneous details. Plus, the “activewear” concept—the magenta undergarments underneath the sheer pink—feels unique compared to tonight’s other styles.
Finally, the judges whittle down the options to select their favorites (Bishme, Kayne, and Fabio) and least favorites (Nora, Victor, and Kara Saun). Ultimately, Kayne takes the $10,000, and it’s season 1’s Nora who’s forced to pack up her sewing needles. Given how little time she had to prove her mettle, I’m genuinely sad to see her go. But that’s the point of Project Runway: It’s an obstacle course, not a nurturing creative space. Whether that framework can really result in “all-star” designs this season is yet to be determined.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.