How Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn Escaped the Shackles of ‘Project Runway’ to Launch ‘Making the Cut’
The 17-year love story of Heidi and Tim, who left the boredom, frustrations, and Harvey Weinstein storm cloud of “Runway” to launch the show of their dreams: “Making the Cut.”
Klum does a twirl, like a gawky-fabulous Gene Kelly. “It’s a beautiful morning…” she starts singing as she bounces towards Gunn, showing off that goofiness and grace that’s made her one of the most mainstream-famous supermodels in fashion history. Her former Project Runway pal, tailored to the nines, greets her with open arms.
They grasp hands and walk together, so buoyant they could float, to meet the fashion designers who will compete on their ambitious new venture, the Amazon reality series Making the Cut. The reunion is the first scene of the new fashion competition, which launches Friday on the streaming service, two years after Klum and Gunn walked away from Project Runway after 16 seasons.
“You know, Tim and I, we’ve been married for 17 years,” Klum says. “It’s the longest marriage I’ve ever been in. A marriage sometimes goes a little stale. You still love each other, but sometimes you need to just, you know, get a little fresh wind into that marriage. I feel like that’s what we needed.”
Klum and Gunn are connecting via a conference call from their respective self-isolations to discuss that fresh wind.
Making the Cut is arguably the biggest-scale fashion competition the reality TV genre has seen in the nearly two decades since Project Runway first launched. The show whisks already established designers across the world, from New York to Paris to Tokyo, to test their potential to not merely “make it work” in a sewing room, but to become a global fashion brand.
Each week, winning designs will be made available for purchase on Amazon, all with a price tag of $100 or less. At the end of the competition, the winning designer wins a whopping $1 million to invest in their brand.
The series has all the bones of what has made Klum and Gunn’s alma mater a continued success, but boasts an undeniable level-up in scale, production, and enterprising ambition. As Entertainment Weekly put it in its review, “Making the Cut plays like Project Runway if its rich aunt died and left the show her millions.”
The unusual circumstances under which Making the Cut is being launched are at the forefront of Klum and Gunn’s minds. Both stars say they’re feeling fine and “hanging in there” while diligently social distancing in their homes.
They know the severity of the situation. Earlier this month, Klum announced that she was taking an absence from judging America’s Got Talent after feeling sick, unsure if she was battling a seasonal cold or COVID-19. At the time she wasn’t able to secure a coronavirus test, so she put herself under self-quarantine. On Tuesday, she announced that she had been tested and the result was negative.
It’s not an easy or ideal task to launch the biggest television venture of their careers while under isolation and unable to flex the typical promotional muscle for a show of this size. But the duo also recognizes the opportunity for their project to be a welcome respite, point of distraction, and maybe even source of joy for a population stuck at home, anxious, and desperate to be entertained.
“I have to say, speaking for Heidi and for me, Making the Cut is such a wonderful antidote to these trying times,” Gunn says. “It’s feel-good television. You see a community being built. You see designers helping each other. It’s really...it’s much needed.” Klum couldn’t agree more: “We’re very proud that we can provide a little positivity and some distraction to everyone.”
With Making the Cut, they’re excited to do something big and ambitious, but they’re grateful to simply be doing something new. Project Runway blasted them out of a cannon to greater levels of fame and opportunity than they ever could have imagined for their careers. But the show was also, as the years went on, frustrating and constraining, and often not an entirely pleasant experience.
They were blindsided when the announcement was made that the show was moving from its second home on Lifetime back to its original network, Bravo. They were two weeks from filming Season 17 when Lifetime’s parent company, A+E Networks, cut ties with The Weinstein Company, which owned Project Runway, amidst the bombshell sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, leaving the show stranded before Bravo picked it up.
The whole thing kind of... sucked. Contracts had to be renegotiated, and weren’t great. The Weinstein storm cloud cast a horrifying shadow over everything. Going back to Bravo, they realized, would be going back to more of the same—and they’ve long had enough of that.
“You know, our brains were always constantly going and wanting to do more and be more relevant,” Klum says. “We always wanted to implement some changes, but we weren't really allowed to.” She lets out one of those exasperated giggles of someone finally revealing a long-held annoyance that’s been weighing on them, but not wanting to seem whiny.
“Heidi and I are extremely proud of Project Runway and its trajectory,” Gunn says. “We had a huge amount of confidence in what we’d already achieved and we thought, you know, let’s throw the dice. Let’s raise the bar here.”
The best way that Gunn can explain it is that Project Runway was like the undergraduate program at Parsons School of Design, where he once served as chairman. With Making the Cut, “everyone is going for their Ph.D.”
“I have to be really honest with you,” Gunn says, dropping his voice into the droll cadence that signals his “blunt knife” mode, as he calls it when he’s mentoring designers on Making the Cut. “Merely anticipating meeting Heidi for the first time, I was a complete and total wreck. Then actually meeting her, my knees were shaking so badly I could barely stand upright. I was just so starstruck.”
The more extroverted of the pair, Klum recalls the introduction as more purely ebullient. “It was just a love fest from the beginning!”
Back in the halcyon beginnings of the show, she didn’t have a dressing room or anywhere to get supermodel-ready to host a network fashion show, so Gunn offered up his Parsons office for primping. “And boy did I use his office,” she says. “Like, I turned it into my closet, my makeup room, my everything.”
At the time, Klum was a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model and one of the legendary Victoria Secret’s “Angels,” whose bombshell sex appeal, coiled in this rubber ball of zany humor, had started to land her TV and movie roles and a fixture spot on the talk show circuit.
Gunn was an educator, having served on the faculty at Parsons since 1982. He was the epitome of togetherness, dressed as if he stepped out of a tailor shop every morning and eloquent about fashion in a way that was both aspirational and accessible.
“People always looked at us like ‘The Odd Couple,’ and we’re like, we are?” Klum says. “You were like this distinguished, super knowledgeable person. I learned so much from you. And you know, I’m kind of like this goofball that bounces around. It just was the perfect match. I guess maybe it’s a little strange to people, but because we couldn’t be more polar opposite, that’s what made our marriage work.”
Their successes were, from then on, intertwined. Suddenly they were the faces of a Peabody Award-winning show and cable ratings hit. Each minted a pop-culture catchphrase: “one day you’re in, the next day you’re out” and “make it work.” In 2013, they won an Emmy together for Outstanding Host for a Reality Competition Program.
“It was all of a sudden,” Klum says. “That bonds you in a different way. You know, at the Emmys, for example, both of our little knees are shaking. We’re behind the curtain and we’re holding our sweating, little palmy hands. There’s so many moments that you live together that no one else understands.”
Part of that shared experience were the frustrations that built over the years by having those “sweating, little palmy hands” tied by the formula of Project Runway, a reliable mold that producers, the studios, and the networks refused to break.
There was a look to the show that they didn’t want to change. A rhythm to the episodes they wouldn’t alter. A slavish devotion to sponsors that they couldn’t afford to rupture. (Suffice it to say, no one on Making the Cut is awkwardly singing the virtues of Dixie Cups or creating a look out of Saturn car parts. If you took a drink every time Amazon was mentioned, however…)
Klum and Gunn felt like their imaginations were growing bigger than what they were being allowed to do. So when the network change happened after the Weinstein news broke, those “sweating, little palmy hands” linked again and they jumped ship.
They shopped around a little when they decided they wanted to launch a new show on their own terms, first meeting with Netflix. But Amazon became the obvious new home. The company, they realized, could revolutionize the relationship viewers have with the show by making the designs available for purchase each week on the same platform.
Their strongest endorsement of the concept is that they both plan to buy several of the looks themselves once they’re available. “Even I do, for friends,” Gunn says. To wit, the most common praise from the show’s judges—actress Nicole Richie, designer Joseph Altuzarra, former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld, influencer Chiara Ferragni, and icon Naomi Campbell—is, “I want to buy that.”
For Klum and Gunn, the opportunity to start a new show also meant an opportunity to think about the culture they wanted to create on set.
As Weinstein’s connection to Project Runway continues to make headlines—a former Runway production assistant is among the women who testified at the disgraced mogul’s trial that Weinstein sexually assaulted theml—the pair was strategic while searching for a showrunner for Making the Cut.
They went to Sara Rea, who had been showrunner of Project Runway for 11 seasons, specifically for that reason. “She’s been part of that other show, so she knows what not to do,” Gunn emphasizes.
From there, they were all shocked to learn there was almost no limit to what Amazon would greenlight on the show. One pipe dream of having the designers sew on private jets while flying from one fashion capital to another was dashed because of logistics. But everyone happily settled for having some of the most iconic landmarks in the world as backdrops for fashion shows.
“I remember standing with Heidi when we had our first fashion show in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower, just saying to her, are we certain this isn’t a green screen?” Gunn says. “It almost looks too good,” Klum agrees. “It’s almost like I don't think people are going to believe us that this was actually shot in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower.”
Gunn proclaims with certainty in Friday’s series premiere that the next global fashion brand is in the show’s work room, which is upgraded here to a gorgeous Paris atelier. It’s the natural next chapter in an evolving conversation between the fashion industry and everyday people, many of whom never thought fashion could be “for them” when they began watching Project Runway 17 years ago. Now, he hopes, they will tune in to Making the Cut as well.
“I think it’s been undeniably profound,” he says. “I’ll never forget the time that Jimmy Fallon said to me, ‘Watching Project Runway has given me a vocabulary to talk about clothes.’ I felt greatly honored by that.”
“The industry had been shrouded in the sort of mystery and intrigue and glamour,” he continues. “Project Runway lifted the veil off and said, ‘Look at it. It’s dirty. It’s gritty. It’s daunting.” But they always, then as they do now, somehow make it work.