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How genre is inspiring the Season 18 Project Runway competition

By Emma Fraser
Project Runway

Space might be the final frontier when it comes to exploration, but it has long inspired many creative endeavors here on Earth. The link between intergalactic travel and fashion has a long and storied history, stretching from the work of Paco Rabanne in the 1960s to Alexander McQueen’s iconic collection, Plato’s Atlantis. The latter recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and is a mind-bending viewing experiencing, blending contemporary and mythological references.

Picturing what humans will wear if we ever vacate this planet is something storytellers have been imagining for over 100 years. It doesn't matter if it is kitsch plastic attire or sleek minimalism; innovative space looks have taken on a variety of textures and forms outside of the quintessential spacesuit. The new season of Project Runway leans into the different elements of intergalactic fashion in its opening episode, which is quickly followed by a genre film challenge. Science fiction and fantasy have never been more on-trend.

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In the mid-century, air travel became more accessible to the masses, and the space race allowed people to dream big. In 2019, these aspects still influence the runway, with the new season of Project Runway kicking off at the recently opened TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in Queens, New York.

Originally opening in 1962, the TWA Flight Center was designed by Eero Saarinen, capturing the glamor and innovation of the period. Like most things, everything old is new again, and the TWA Hotel is now a retro-glam hotspot, which hosted the Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 runway show earlier this year.

Louis Vuitton

Sophie Turner later wore a Barbarella-leaning dress from this collection at one of the many Dark Phoenix premieres. Season 18 of Project Runway utilized this incredible space (excuse the pun) to introduce the new contestants to the audience, and each other, over cocktails. The historical landmark provides the jumping-off point for the challenge, tying together the theme of space and tourism, as 1962 was also the same year John Glenn became the first American to successfully orbit the Earth.

Designer Christian Siriano is now in his second year as Project Runway mentor, combining his experience in this competition (he won in 2008) and as a top designer working in fashion today. He mentioned that one of his recent collections was inspired by futurism, noting the recent Louis Vuitton Resort 2020 show and the iconic McQueen Alien-influenced runway. Space tourism rather than exploration was the theme, which asked the designers to team up in pairs to create a jumpsuit day look and a happy hour cocktail dress.

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Vacationing on the moon still sounds light-years away, but movies are revealing how normal this kind of travel might become. Set in the not-too-distant future, the recent Ad Astra shows a future in which the moon is a destination location, but one that is probably pricey (a pillow and blanket will set you back $125 on the journey there). Brad Pitt as Roy McBride doesn't get any vacation time to sip cocktails at happy hour, but the terminal on the moon features a Hudson News and an Applebee’s. Meanwhile, Ruth Negga as Helen Lantos wears the most luxurious-looking cashmere on Mars, so there is definitely a precedent set for space tourism attire.

In fact, Negga’s Ad Astra character would look great in either of the top two jumpsuits that get picked as the best looks of the challenge. Brittany Allen’s PVC cuffed and belted number (below) was praised highly, which included the highest of compliments: an elevated garment suggesting Audrey Hepburn in the future. She created a jumpsuit that is both timeless and nods to the Futurism element of the challenge.

Geoffrey Mac’s utilitarian flight suit (below) was also strongly received by the judges, which is serving function and form (and a great vizor). A lot of the more unsuccessful entries leaned too hard into metallic cliches, including bandeau elements, and some plastic pieces that were not as impactful as Brittany’s subtle touches. Designer Helmut Lang is referenced — whose influence you can see in the costume design of Gattaca — but not all of these garments should be packed for an out-of-this-world vacation (or even one here on Earth).

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Not content with turning to genre for the first challenge, musical and the soon-to-be-released Tom Hooper adaptation of Cats was the trendsetter for the second outing. "Cats of the Urban Jungle" was a little more tenuous in its connection to the source material, which asked the designers to make a garment with a fresh new take on animal print. Cats the movie is putting a spin on the beloved musical, hence the link. Siriano and host Karlie Kloss explained that animal prints are timeless, but in asking the competitors to make a street style design they are after a chic twist on a popular print.

In the movie Cats, Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy appears to be wearing a skinned version of another feline, and Idris' fedora is a step too far (yes, even for this aesthetic it is too much), so maybe taking a less direct sartorial reference from the movie is wise.

What followed during the runway was the usual mix of garments that hit the mandate, while others totally missed the mark. One of the designs in the bottom was criticized for looking "too costumey" and like something you would see on a Spice Girl.

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Perhaps the most Cats-indulgent aspect of the episode came courtesy of the giant doorway that welcomed the designers in the workroom, which had the effect of making this space look off-kilter. It was an unnerving and fun element, mirroring the experience of watching the trailer.

In these early episodes of Season 18, Project Runway showcases the strong bond between innovation and creativity alongside science fiction and fantasy. The links between fashion and genre are broad, stretching as far and wide as a galaxy.