'Project Runway' season 15 premiere recap: Fashion takes center stage

Can TV's first fashion game show still make it work in its 15th season?

Project Runway is long past its prime, it's true. But Lifetime's stalwart reality series serves as a testament to how far a really good format can go in the reality TV genre. Including spin-offs, there have been 21 seasons of Project Runway to date — with plenty more on the way.

There are dashes of the familiar everywhere in the premiere, from the same hosts (Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn) to the first challenge: the series' signature unconventional materials challenge. In this one, the contestants must disassemble the decorations at a season launch party and use the resulting materials for their looks.

"How the hell am I supposed to sew through candy?" one contestant named Kimber asks. This is almost played as a joke: Any Project Runway fan knows that several designers have sewn through candy in the past, to great effect. But that's kind of the theme of the premiere: In its 15th season, Project Runway has become something of a commentary on itself.

To further explore that, let's dive into the 16 contestants' garments for this unconventional premiere challenge, from the worst to the best, and get to know our new designer friends.

Ian and his lookMic/Lifetime

16. Ian: "I do all ready-to-wear," says Ian, who looks very much like a hipster version of Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He is, in some ways, a stand-in for the last several seasons of this show, and the best representation of how committed the show is to change.

If you'll forgive a brief digression into Project Runway history: Around season eight, when the earthy, minimal Gretchen Jones beat grandmaster of quirk Mondo Guerra, Project Runway changed. The casting strategy seemed to shift toward seeking out the biggest drama queens who could sew some standard, department store-worthy looks.

The result was consistent overpraising of designers who churned out lovely-but-basic looks. With a couple of exceptions (season 12, which produced an incredibly talented top five, and the remarkably refreshing Project Runway: Junior), Project Runway lost its luster, heralding ready-to-wear and drama over high-fashion from quiet artists. Hipster Jesse Tyler Ferguson seems to be very much cut from that same cloth. 

Yet it's he who is sent out the door in the very first episode, and deservedly so. His dress is shapeless, and the fringe in the front is random. Auf wiedersehen, Hipster JTF.

Rik and his lookMic/Lifetime

15. Rik: Rik, a forgettable fellow with few minutes on-screen in the premiere, is like Hipster JTF in his failure to create either appealing ready-to-wear or high fashion. His dress made of blank Polaroids is undeveloped (pardon the pun). He'll surely be an early out this season.

Kimber and her lookMic/Lifetime

14. Kimber: Kimber is the designer who was scared by the idea of sewing candy. Seeing her shapeless, dull gold dress, one has to assume that her fear is more about her own technical limitations than anything else.

Linda and her lookMic/Lifetime

13. Linda: This is a big ol' "nah." Linda, filling the near-requisite designer-over-50 slot, creates something that looks like a parody of capital-F Fashion. She'll also be out the door soon.

Sarah and her lookMic/Lifetime

12. Sarah: Credit to Sarah, who seems overwhelmed when first faced with the challenge, for using interesting materials in wrappers and Chinese lanterns. Unfortunately, the final product looks like an art project, not fashion.

Laurence and her lookMic/Lifetime

11. Laurence: Former model Laurence designs the best of the all-white dresses, but she is not nearly innovative enough with her materials. Using beads as a necklace? Groundbreaking. That said, the corset she makes out of toothpicks suggests that there's something more to her work waiting to be tapped into.

Alex and his lookMic/Lifetime

10. Alex: For such a soft-spoken guy, Alex gives good soundbite, as evidenced by the number of times he is used as narrator through his confessional segments. Unfortunately, his design is as loud as he isn't. There are too many ideas here, and thus the look is not cohesive.

Mah-Jing and his lookMic/Lifetime

9. Mah-Jing: Mah-Jing steals flowers from fellow designer Cornelius when they are ransacking the party, then promptly doesn't use them and instead smashes a bunch of trash into a basic dress form. Visually, his look appeals, but it's not anything to write home about.

Roberi and his lookMic/Lifetime

8. Roberi: Roberi is a sweet Venezuelan designer (and former architect) who serves as something of a lightning rod in the art vs. clothes debate. He designs a dress made of twisted Chinese lanterns, and it's a really compelling idea. The craftsmanship is there — he just whiffs by not looking at the whole picture. As a result, the dress does a disservice to the technique. The skill is there, but he needs to think about fashion as the result, not just the process.

Brik and his lookMic/Lifetime

7. Brik: Brik's top shows a great understanding of technique. Yes, his pants (which are just muslin with glitter glued on) are rough. Yes, the whole look, from hair to top to bottom, is a bit of a mismatch. But the treatment he gives the shoulders is legitimately sit-up-in-your-seat surprising. He wasn't worthy of his bottom placement, but he seems like a likable character. He'll stick around for a bit.

Nathalia and her lookMic/Lifetime

6. Nathalia: Credit is due to eco-conscious designer Nathalia for the faux fur sleeves on her dress. Those are stellar, as is the skirt made of placemats. What keeps the look from higher placement is the top, which looks unresolved.

Jenni and her lookMic/Lifetime

5. Jenni: Loud laugher Jenni's jacket, made out of boas, is nothing short of fantastic. The effect is so cool, especially paired with the hand-painted backpacks that make up the bust and shorts. The only thing that keeps this from the highest echelon of the list is the top, which is bizarrely cut.

Dexter and his lookMic/Lifetime

4. Dexter: Dexter's Inuit look speaks to the "risks" he wants to take on the show — and it pays off, landing him in the top two. But for all the praise lavished on this (much of it deserved; that skirt is a dream), it feels like a good idea not taken all the way. Still, he's got the chops — he'll surely win a challenge very soon.

Cornelius and his lookMic/Lifetime

3. Cornelius: This dress, made of green plate rims and enhanced with fake flowers, probably just misses the judges' top three because the flowers are sloppily placed on the back. But this is a stunner. It's also really refreshing to see vibrant color — especially in a challenge like this, a vibrant palette is quite eye-catching.

Tasha and her lookMic/Lifetime

2. Tasha: Admittedly, Tasha's look is less well-executed than Dexter's. But it's still pretty impressive, and the impact is even more so. The Shreveport, Louisiana, native is an early favorite for her likable personality and candor on the runway, and she has the actual design ability to back that up. I get the girl she's designing for clearly, and I'm excited to see her grow in the competition.

Erin and her lookMic/Lifetime

1. Erin: There are lots of red flags when it comes to Erin early in the episode. She says she "grew up partially Mormon," which is both perplexing in its phrasing ("partially"?) and because she admits she missed out on influences from the internet and culture growing up. She also just graduated, and seems to be running out of time throughout the challenge. 

Yet her dress is a fucking knockout. Judge Nina Garcia is right: The color could so easily dip into Big Bird territory. But Erin's look looks like a yellow cousin to Rihanna's "Love on the Brain" Billboard Awards look. The materials used, especially the sliced gumballs making up the straps, speak to an ingenuity and resourcefulness that will serve her well in the challenges. This is a winner, in both the literal and figurative sense. 

In an episode all about bringing art back to the forefront, Erin is a reminder that at its best, Project Runway brings forth brilliant young designers with interesting ideas about fashion. There's much of the season left to go, but Erin's got me excited about what's to come.