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'Project Runway's' Season 17 is more inclusive because the fashion industry is (finally) evolving

Many paths in the fashion business today are different than they were before, and the key is to be your authentic self.
Image: Christian Soriano, Meredith NewFront 2018
Christian Soriano attends the 2018 Meredith NewFront in New York on May 3, 2018.Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for MEREDITH file

With fashion today, I think a lot of people finally feel like they can be themselves and wear what they want to wear; there are no rules any more. If you're a boy, if you're a girl, if you're non-binary, you should be able to to wear whatever you want to wear. It's just clothes, in the end.

The new season on "Project Runway" is an effort to reflect what's happening in our world right now; obviously a lot has changed and a lot's happening in fashion and in the fashion industry, and we try to represent that in the whole season. We're celebrating the body and celebrating women, in part by having models in all different sizes and shapes, and we have our first trans model of the show — she's amazing.

In addition, the judges are really making sure that every model feels comfortable in what she's wearing on the runway; that was a lot of the conversation. The idea that model's job on the show is to represent the work rather than themselves makes them more like a figurehead; we are using that process to really get at how the fashion works on a person. All of this is intentional, and to reflect our culture as it is right now, because the whole point of a show like ours is to set the designers up for success afterword, and all these scenarios will come up.

Take, for instance, the "real women" challenge of previous seasons. The reason why the "real women" challenge is always hard is not necessarily the bodies (and, this season, because the models are not all the same size, the designers are already prepared that they're going to be dressing people who are different than the average model) it's the opinions of the women who aren't there to just represent your work. The challenge is dealing with a customer, and real women often say things like, I don't like my arms or I don't want to show my legs; those are very specific directions which can make the challenge difficult but, then, it's more true to life.

I've been lucky in my career since the show, especially in terms of the celebrities I've been able to dress — some of whom have had difficulties with other designers. I like to work with people of whose work I'm a fan, or people that I love; I don't think about working with people in any way other than Oh, I would love to dress you. We don't even really ask what size you are before we say yes (though we have to ask later, because if we're sending you clothes, I need to know). But we just don't make someone's size our focus when we take on clients; it's my job to send someone a fabulous dress, not find someone who's fabulous for a given dress.

Image: 91st Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Billy Porter attends the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland in Hollywood, California on Feb. 24, 2019.Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

That's part of why it was so amazing to work on Billy Porter's Oscar look: Billy came to my show during Fashion Week and he said to me, I'm going to the Oscar's, I need a look, and I want to wear a gown. I didn't even think about it; I was like, Okay great; he is so lovely and amazing and talented. He came to the office and we tried a few things, I threw a jacket in — it was so easy, we didn't even have a fitting. I think we knew that it would be an emotional thing for some people, but I don't think we knew it would be what it became in the culture, or that people would find it so very inspiring.

What I like to tell people about fashion and the fashion industry is to be authentically you, to be yourself, and to put yourself out there however you want. There are a lot of paths in the fashion business now that are very different than they were before, and you can be successful in different ways that weren't the norm when I was coming up; there are a lot of young entrepreneurs being very successful just doing different things differently.

In the end, keeping an open mind is the number one thing you need to make it in this business. I think that's the reason that I am still kicking. If I get a request to design for somebody, it might be a bit outside the average, but I'm always like, Oh, that might be cool, let's try it.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.