When Project Runway tried to do punk

Shortly after Dom Streater’s unexpected but not undeserving Project Runway win, the programme’s latest ‘All Stars’ series is upon us. Greta remains in hibernation; Tom and Lorenzo, citing fatigue, have opted out of coverage. It falls to me then, I suppose, to talk about it for the moment.

‘Your first challenge starts right now’, contestants from past seasons were informed as things began, ‘and it features one of the biggest trends of the year; punk!’ Alyssa Milano, Heidi Klum’s less German counterpart for All Stars, deserves praise for delivering this line without a shred of irony. Punk isn’t punk, near-necessarily, if it’s a trend – mass producing its aesthetics for commercial gain perverts literally wholesale an intrinsically anarchist, anti-consumerist approach to art and fashion.

Project Runway in particular is everything punk isn’t: corporate, profit-oriented, concerned with ‘looking expensive’ over ‘looking cheap’. It prizes quality designs tailored expensively from costly fabrics, favouring ones its experts see ‘flying off the shelves’, offering luxury technology, gainful employment and thousands of dollars to its winners – emerging triumphant from the current series, we were told within an instant of the ‘punk’ task’s introduction, will mean $750,000 worth of rewards.

It’s a series, moreover, whose stylistic impulses are painfully mainstream. Runway punishes clothes in which its wispy models are found to look ‘fat’, which bear overtly sexual overtones or aren’t ‘age-appropriate’, or which appear the products of untrained, inexpert, do-it-yourself labour. How any well-received design it featured could conceivably be punk is hard to know. Guest judge Debbie Harry, as she perused the challenge’s results, noted how high-waisted most ensembles were, suggesting the preferred ‘hourglass figure’; you wouldn’t see it in such excess, almost certainly, on visiting a punk bar, and a collage of women’s footwear there, we can be sure, wouldn’t look like this.


How many women in the punk scene wear high heels like these? And isn’t it time Runway had a ‘flat footwear’ challenge – sneakers, sandals, Doc Martens, Brogues? (Images: Lifetime)

The real challenge here was to approximate – actually, appropriate – punk in a catwalk-friendly way, drawing on its outer hallmarks while in keeping with the fashion industry’s particular ideals, eschewing any deep sense of counterculture. That’s a hard balance to strike, and no doubt a harder one to judge. How do you mark designs consistently with Project Runway‘s main criteria (flawless and expert execution, saleability, a veneer of wealth) while asking that they mimic a style deviant by definition from those aims?

Contestants’ work and comments on it, perhaps due to this paradox, both ended up all over the place. Even the top-ranked trio of outfits looked wildly different from each other.


Third season winner Jeffrey Sebelia‘s design was, true to his roots and to his credit, the only one that really looked punk. That’s why I might well have sent him home for it.

I see a real punk woman wearing this dress; I see her making it herself, and I watched a bona fide punk rocker cut it. It looks pulled together from found material, sewn in a cellar with a foot-powered machine or else by hand; it’s owner didn’t buy it, dons what she likes and doesn’t care about what’s in.

It does not look like a winning Project Runway dress.

The shoulders aren’t even; the peplum seems pointless, and pointlessly huge at that; it looks lumpy, formed from disobedient fabric which is probably one textile too many here. The leopard print lapels are similarly shapeless, and Jeffrey had to fight pre-catwalk to press them into serviceable shape; the organza skirt looks amateurish, added perhaps to cover up an error in the black skirt underneath, and doesn’t seem to go with them or the black leather of the jacket. Though it doesn’t show up in this image, its finish looked rough and ready on the programme, nowhere more than in its messy-looking hems.

It’s a great dress by punk standards, but a misfire by Project Runway standards (at least, those which it usually applies). Crucially, the fact it sails so far into authentic do-it-yourself aesthetics means it fails to tread the fine line between punk and catwalk which this challenge demanded.


Seth Aaron Henderson, winner of season seven, had the opposite stumbling block. I see some punk here – the tartan and the braces in particular – but it feels obvious to the point of superficial gimmickry, and the rest has serious problems for me.

Coupled with the belts’ chunkiness and the deeply un-punk PVC-esque sheen of the jacket’s fabric, the fact we’d see bare breasts on its removal drives things overtly into sex shop territory. There’s nothing wrong with this, particularly – plenty of well-made fashion hints at kink – but since clothes like the ones evoked here (fitted, rubber, explicitly sexual in function) are found mainly in commercialised kink, on sale in red light districts, and not worn day-to-day, it teeters into looking costume-like.

The gothic horror style of the sleeves, straitjacket-like, and their red, Dracula-style lining doesn’t help – and costume qua costume, especially the kind one pays to rent and wear, isn’t a punk reference point.

More positively by far…


…I’ve no dispute at all with Elena Slivnyak being named the winner. Initially unsure of how to give her look an edge, she turned the jacket backwards when her model mentioned wearing clothes the wrong way round from time to time. See the reverse:


Perhaps what I like best about this concept is that while not focusing too much on the details, one could almost think the model – typically slender and small-chested – was facing forward, before noticing seemingly twisted, mutilated limbs.

That subtext’s gruesomeness means the outfit somehow speaks to the tortured, mangled aesthetic collision of the challenge, as if Project Runway itself had to be twisted out of shape to make punk work. The implications of violence and, again, a straitjacket give the garment an air of confrontation and discord at total odds with its colour palette, that of a Twister ice cream.

That aggression, channelled into style and grace despite itself, is definitively punk – a clear winner.


A close second for me was Christopher Palu‘s design. Ordinarily, I’d say judges were right to rule this ‘safe’, but the absence of anything else I liked beside Elena’s look bumps this up into my top category, even if still a rank below her design.

It might have been a winner, had Christopher not snatched defeat from victory’s jaws by overworking it so much – the entire getup, an intriguing jeans-and-cardigan-of-post-apocalyptic-future number, was simply in dire need of edition.

Credit indeed for making something interesting and graceful out of safety pins, rather than using them for use’s sake (see below), but between those, the asymmetric layering, the the cape effect, the unorthodox hem of the grey tunic and the strange chain cross-formation, there’s just too much going on here.

Things only get more hectic when the model turns around:


Christopher. Really. Edit.

A good catwalk piece nonetheless – perhaps the attire of a drama student in the eighties, punk-inspired dystopia of Mad Max.

The judges’ other picks for safety were, to quote Bill Bailey, about as punk as Enya.


Daniel Esquivel made a fitted black trouser suit! Not that he’s ever done that before.

Don’t worry, though – he put a garish, hot pink bale of straw around his model and a stripe across her face to stop us noticing. Somehow, I still did.

If anything this is futuristic, but even then, it’s only because of those details and the over-the-top shoulders. Very well made, but the thousandth time round, who cares? It’s not interesting, and it’s definitely not punk. Clear bottom two material for me, and might very possibly have gone home – I’d certainly rather see more from Jeffrey than from Daniel.


Neon straw does not a punk aesthetic make, Irina Shabayeva, nor tortured ribbons around wrists.

This was a confused look. The hair is punk, the ribbons reminiscent of Avril Lavigne ten years back and the dress more goth in my eyes than anything. Points here too for using zips interestingly, but they feel arbitrary. Without that pattern of clenched metal teeth, what would be punk about this?

The crisscrossing straps don’t help, and things take a serious turn for the worse from the rear view.


Those points for using zips interestingly? Lost, for failing to use one as, well, a zip. That undone fastening looks like the model got caught undressed, perhaps with an attractive stranger, fleeing the scene without stopping to do things up. (Punks don’t flee, and when they show things, it’s on purpose.)


Film noir Amy Winehouse, bouffant drearily deflated. Earnestly though, this silhouette says fifties housewife and the details on top do nothing to obscure that.

The collision of a pleated-looking skirt, sultry cutouts and chains in the back is jarring, too.


Nul points, Korto Momolu.


True of Korto’s chains and just as true of Mychael Knight‘s safety pins, holding a bodice together that appears to be made from low grade serviettes. Impeccably cut perhaps, but this is a cocktail-cum-sundress with steampunk eyewear, and ‘steampunk’ isn’t ‘punk’.


Melissa Fleis made something I liked, and which felt punker by far than most of its competitors. Like Daniel’s work here, of course, I liked it the first five times I saw from her too, but something about the dress – its mixture of print and asymmetry, perhaps? – very much works, and the jacket frames it edgily.

It might be that Melissa’s familiar aesthetic was just suited to this challenge, and I shan’t blame her for that. Top three for me, if the least of those three. Judges didn’t care for it, but I did.


Ari South. Oh Ari. You should not have gone home for this.

I’ll admit Ari – Andy when she placed third, prior to transition, in season eight – is a personal favourite of mine. I’d looked forward eagerly to seeing what she’d offer this time round, and will defend her to the death.

Granted, it’s far from exquisite. I don’t know what the swathe of lime green fabric there is doing, and I want to get rid of the necklace. The jacket has unmined potential. The shorts are well made, if not very punk.

I can’t agree with the judges that nothing here was punk in any way – the jacket’s collar and lapels feel vaguely biker, which developed further might have chimed with the relaxed shirt underneath. Turning what were trousers into the jacket’s sleeves was a stroke of brilliance; I only wish I could tell that’s what they were. (Some pockets or turnups featured there, say, could have saved this.)

In any case, this was competent if uninspired, and the styling hits the right note. This should not have placed in the bottom two.


Neither should this, Viktor Luna‘s equally pedestrian-but-inoffensive effort. I can’t say how much it pained me seeing him and Ari, two champions of mine, as bottom two.

Yes, there are definite problems with this. The styling – bag, hair, shoes – kills the entire outfit, particularly in the latter case. (Team those trousers with a sneaker and their punk potential would light up.) If the jacket had shorter or more fitted, that might have saved it, and as judges said, the copper details needed more establishment.

But this ensemble and Ari’s, worse than Daniel’s tranquiliser of a trouser suit? Irina’s era-confused party dress? Korto’s waitress-at-a-funeral, Mychael’s heiress in space, Seth’s kinky vampire sex pirate? Viewers were spoilt for choice as far as better candidates for offage go.

One can’t help wondering if the poorly-defined, paradoxical nature of the challenge allowed judges freer rein than usual to expel contestants of their choice, criteria for success being less clear and more open to debate than ordinarily they’d be.

Let’s hope for a return to normalcy next week. My verdict, in the mean time:

Winner: Elena
High: Christopher, Melissa
Safe: Viktor, Ari, Seth, Irina Mychael
Jeffrey, Korto 


  1. laurie says

    I agree with your conclusion on Daniel; as much as I’ve liked his work in the past, that outfit had nothing to do with punk, and tacking a bale of pink straw on the waist of a tailored suit is just strange.

    I disagree about Viktor’s work, I really thought he would be sent home after showing that. No spontaneity could be seen in it, and I’ve always thought of punk as more spontaneous and improvisational.

    I was also looking forward to see what Ari did, I really liked her work in the past and didn’t think she deserved to go home; the work didn’t fit the theme, but it was better than others.

  2. says

    Thanks for posting about this!

    I agree with almost everything you say, and you said it beautifully. I really enjoy your writing.

    I’m not sure if I’ll be able to watch another season of this. I might be reading too much into it, but I’ve gotten a sexist vibe from the start. Part of the original premise, it’s seemed to me, has always been to have men (Mondo here, Richard on Top Chef) return for the “deserved” win of which they were illegitimately deprived when they lost to a woman, with larger prizes.

    In this context, it bothers me that Viktor talked about how he was “robbed” – he tossed aside an opportunity in the form of a gorgeous print to show a humdrum line of sheer black blah. But it’s not really the contestants I have a problem with – of course most people will think they deserved to win – but the entire set up and the judges. I have no idea about Isaac Mizrahi as a person, but as a judge I find him noticeably sexist, when talking about the clothes and when discussing the designers. On All-Stars, the women are more likely to be eliminated at the beginning (only Uli – who deserved to win – and Kenley made it to the final four, IIRC), and it’s often been three women in the bottom and three men on top. It’s possible that this dynamic will change – it was refreshing to see a woman win the first challenge – but I had to smile wryly at the elimination. When the contestants were being introduced and I learned that Andy was now Ari, I laughed to myself thinking “Oh, now that she’s a woman she’ll be eliminated right off.” And so it happened, despite the fact that hers was by no means the worst look.

    Regarding punk: I too laughed at Milano’s description of the challenge, for the same reasons you did. At the same time, while punk as a style and musical aesthetic offered opportunities for opposition, it was always vulnerable to this sort of capitalist cooptation (which is why I’ve always seen myself as part of the de Cleyre and Kropotkin anarchist tradition and not the punk rock tradition, though I like some of the music).

    I know that if the designers were the sort to use this challenge to say something about consumerism, sweatshops, classism, the frivolity of fashion, or planned obsolescence, they wouldn’t be there. But I hated that so many saw using nonblack leather (gasp!) as somehow subversive. I would have made use of this challenge – using the animal skins available at Mood – to do something subversive about the oppression of other animals in the textile industry.

    The prize of a year’s “supply” of bottled water? I can’t even.

  3. Tethys says

    Hooray, for blogging about this! I spent the entire episode in disbelief. Punk? As a member of the first punks, very little of what walked down the runway qualified.

    Those shoes, arrgh! Everyone knows that the proper footwear for punk are boots.

    Elena was the best and I’m glad she won.
    I quite liked Melissa’s design. It had the right vibe for punk.
    Christophers was at least in the punkish vein, but went way overboard with odd embellishments.
    Those chains on the back of the jacket sleeves. Why?

    My bottom three would have been JS (so hideous), Mychael, and Daniel.

    I would have loved to see Daniel go home for that stupid suit thing. It was ugly when he did it in bright yellow and made his model look like big bird. It’s still ugly, and Daniel still makes boring clothes, no matter how well tailored they are.

  4. says

    I still can’t get over Daniel’s. It’s pretty much the exact same suit* he made for the first episode of his own season (which was lovely, though not terribly original, despite the fact that I think they were supposed to express their personal vision). He’s just replaced the poufy peplum with that neon nonsense. It has zero to do with punk. I’m laughing imagining him squeezing that suit into every challenge: Unconventional materials candy challenge? Black licorice will do! Children’s school uniforms? They’ve been crying out for some petite sophistication! US women’s ski team? It’ll look chic with snow boots and a turtleneck!

    I certainly hope he doesn’t go that route, but it would be funny.

    *Linked to above, under “done.”

  5. Greta Christina says

    So glad you’re doing this! Are you going to keep it up?

    Yeah, pretty much what you said. I do get that punk, somewhat by its very nature, doesn’t get to be clearly defined by anyone — there’s no template or set of standards, nobody owns it, that’s part of the point. But whatever punk is, Project Runway isn’t it. Punk is compatible with many things, but not product placement for QVC. In general, while I have profoundly mixed feelings about punk being adapted by high fashion, I also do think that serious high fashion is a serious art form, and I cut a lot of slack for serious art forms taking their influences wherever they can find them. But the work on Project Runway rarely rises to that level.

    And hell, yes — Daniel should have gotten the auf. I can’t believe he wasn’t even in the bottom. The only way that look would have been punk is if a fourteen-year-old girl had found a trouser suit at Goodwill and started wearing it ironically with some sort of industrial insulating material wrapped around her waist. Maybe with high-top sneakers. Oh — and Irina’s dress looked like every cocktail dress on every twenty-something former sorority girl getting hammered on sugary cocktails and screaming, “Woo!” Zippers don’t save it from that, nor do black ribbons wrapped around one wrist. (And good point about the zippers: if you can’t use them functionally, you don’t get to use them decoratively.)

    The one point I’ll make is that “crappy commercialized fetish and sex-shop wear” was very much a punk thing. Two words: Vivienne Westwood.

    Oh, and you know what I would have loved? Remember in Season 10, how Sustainicorn insisted on only buying remnants from Mood? That would have been perfect for this challenge. “You have a $200 budget, but you have to spend it on remnants.” Better yet — no budget. What punk spends $200 on brand-new fabric? They should have had ten minutes to dig through a pile of remnants in a dumpster. With a supplementary $20 budget to spend at Goodwill.

  6. says

    @Greta Christina (#7)

    And this is why you’re better at this than I am. (Not sure whether/how much I’ll keep doing it. Really depends if I have something to say.)

    Good point on sex shop chic – I suppose my feeling was that rather than looking like an incorporation of gimpy synthetic elements into high fashion, it literally just looked to me from the waist up like something bought in a sex shop, albeit quite a gentrified one. If, say, the trousers had been a bit less commercial-looking, I might have bought it. (By which I mean approved of it. Although.)

    Also, from a practical, Joanna Coles standpoint, reservations about using an outerwear-style garment with nothing underneath as a top. I’d actually quite like that jacket, I think, as a jacket, but if it’s being pitched as something under which nothing else is worn, what happens when she wants to take it off? What happens, conversely, if she’s cold or it’s raining and she wants to wear a proper coat – does she then wear two jackets at once and look rather odd? (Though, actually, I can see that reading as punk.)

  7. pacal says

    Thanks for reminding me what a total bore shows like Project Runway are. It is nice to know I have missed nothing by not watching them, however it is said to know I lost out simply by knowing that such a show exists.

  8. jonathangray says

    Nothing more punk than capitalism, the first and still the best engine of total subversion: “[It] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation … All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life …”

    “I wanted to sell loads of trousers.” – Malcolm McLaren


  9. khms says

    “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life …”

    What a naive view of capitalism.

    Look at the US’ 1%. This kind of system just ossifies other relations. And there are enough holy concepts, such as that invisible hand that’s beloved by people who never read Adam Smith.

    Capitalism makes a good servant, but a bad master. You need quite a bit of regulation to get good outcomes.

  10. jonathangray says

    Old Charlie Marx was naive about many things but not this. The invisible hand tears apart organic societies; it’s sublimely unconcerned about what new, transitory artificial hierarchies emerge as a result. What’s naive is to assume subversion facilitates egalitarianism, as though the arc of history tended towards justice (or one particular view of it). And if some privileged white kids want to protest against the system that produced the 1% — capitalism is there to serve them. XD

    Only complete civilisational collapse will destroy this. I for one welcome our new feudal overlords.

  11. Greta Christina says

    And this is why you’re better at this than I am.

    Alex Gabriel @ #8: Oh, piffle. You pick up on stuff that I missed; I pick up on stuff that you missed. Your whole analysis of what’s wrong with this challenge — and how it was judged — was spot-on, and not something I would have thought of. I’m really glad you’re doing this, you’re awesome at it, and I hope you keep it up.

    BTW, I vividly remember “leather jackets with nothing underneath” from when I was a young queer in SF in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (You young queers these days, you have no respect for your elders! Now, back in my day…) It was a big part of punky queer ACT-UP/ Queer Nation style then, along with Day-Glo stickers on the leather jackets, and fishnets under ripped jeans, But you’re right that it renders the look unwearable for anyone other than a runway model or a queer street activist in 1991.

    Thanks for reminding me what a total bore shows like Project Runway are. It is nice to know I have missed nothing by not watching them, however it is said to know I lost out simply by knowing that such a show exists.

    pacal @ #9: Actually, while Project Runway has definitely jumped the shark, for many seasons it was a smart, genuinely insightful exploration of an important art form, and garnered much critical acclaim. Aficionados mark the end of its glory days as the season when it moved from Bravo to Lifetime after Season 5. But before that, it was well worth watching, and was widely perceived as the reality TV show that demonstrated that the form could actually be valid. I’ve written about this more on my own blog, if you’re curious — A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway. (Sorry for the self-linkage, but it really is relevant.) If you’re at all interested in seeing why so many smart, thoughtful people like Alex and me care about the show (and mourn its shark-jumping), Season 4 is, IMO, head and shoulders above the rest, and is the best place to start.

    Or else you could just be snarky and dismissive. That’s also an option.

  12. M can help you with that. says

    The only “reality show” contestant I’ve ever seen develop a runway “punk” look that actually worked was Nina Flowers.

  13. kaboobie says

    I am a TLo junkie in withdrawal, so thank you for taking this up, Alex!

    Most of the “all stars” I don’t remember very well, and I’ve watched every season (started with 3, at the same time Tom & Lorenzo started blogging, but went back to watch 1 and 2).

    I still harbor an extreme dislike for Jeffrey Sebelia. Ulli was robbed (and then robbed again in the last All Stars, as SC pointed out).

  14. katybe says

    Re Greta’s self-linkage at 14 – sadly it’s linking back to this same article, rather than the one suggested!


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