As Project Runway concludes its 16th season, it’s not uncommon to find yourself disagreeing with the judges’ final pick. I still think last season’s winner, Erin Robertson, was more of a stylist than a visionary, someone who really knew her way around a glue gun. But what makes this year’s finale unique is that, even with four contestants set to show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, there isn’t a single designer I’m backing. I’ve been underwhelmed with this whole crop of designers. Even now, with dozens of looks to choose from, I’m struggling to come up with even a handful of “wow” moments, as Zac Posen might say.
I’m well aware of the irony of complaining that all of these creatives—who are gifted with a talent I do not possess and who crafted these looks under tight time constraints—failed to move me this go-around, especially as I sit here typing in an Old Navy dress. But that’s what these talent shows/reality competition series do: turn viewers into arbiters of taste, even if they don’t have the final word. So in that spirit, I’m just going to ignore whatever decision Heidi Klum, Nina Garcia, and Zac Posen—with special guest Jessica Alba!—reach and declare Liris Crosse the real winner of Project Runway 16.
Although many previous seasons have included a “real women” challenge that required the designers to work with someone who wasn’t a size zero or two, season 16 made a serious push into body inclusivity by mixing in women who were size 14 and up (to 20, that is) with the “conventional size”—such an ugly term, but it’s an industry one—models. From the first challenge on, Crosse, who’s been called the “Naomi Campbell of plus,” proved how smart that decision was. She didn’t just hold her own among the models who represent the dominant body types in her line of work; she outshone them at every turn. Even when working with designers who were taken aback by her proportions, or when she had her own concerns, Crosse walked like she was rocking some Isabel Toledo.
Crosse is a professional model, so what else was she going to do, right? But whenever she did speak up, the designers took her observations to heart. I don’t mean to take anything away from workroom guru Tim Gunn, but Crosse has offered valuable insight to the designers she works with every week. She’s been supportive, but not unwaveringly so, making sure to point out when something just isn’t working for her plus-size figure. But whether she was over the moon about an outfit—like say, the petal-inspired body-conscious dress Kenya Freeman made—or, as in the first challenge, skeptical, she still sold the looks in a way that no other model has, “conventional” or otherwise.
She was the first model to work with Brandon Kee, who emerged early on as the frontrunner. His increasingly playful take on minimalism resonated with the judges from the outset, and his missteps were few and far between. His aesthetic doesn’t jibe with mine, as I don’t care for layering crop tops over hospital gowns and having some stray straps that will get caught in the closing doors of an el train, but he’s clearly talented, and what’s more, focused. But when the competition began those 16-odd weeks ago, Kee was feeling awfully unsure of himself. The Utah native’s background is in men’s fashion, and he doubted his ability to make women’s clothes.
If he’d been working with one of the more lithe models, Kee might not have stressed about altering his tailoring methods so much. But when presented with Crosse’s gorgeous, hourglass figure, he had some serious doubts about how to stay true to his alternately shapeless and streamlined constructions while also creating a flattering look for his model. Because of her familiarity with the plus-size fashion industry, she gave him pointers during the first challenge. While she was somewhat skeptical of his ultimate combination of a high-slit skirt and billowing top (which she worried hid her figure more than anything), she gave none of that away on the runway. And that was the beginning of a months-long appreciation of this season’s breakout star.
When models are described as “clothes hangers,” it’s meant to be a compliment, because then the focus is solely on the design (I’m sure the sizeism within the industry plays a factor, too). But Crosse moved beyond being a mere vehicle—or, as the “hangers” description suggests, a display rack—for someone else’s vision to become more of a collaborator. Every time she hit the runway, regardless of the quality of the designer’s work, she lit it up. Crosse was so exceptional that even the judges singled her out for helping whatever designer had been lucky enough to dress her with her confidence.
The producers of Project Runway may have caught on belatedly to the additional drama and excitement that the models can bring to the show, but these professional strutters now have their own Model Mirrors segments that let them fully weigh in on the designers’ creations. But even outside of that forum, Crosse showed her considerable knowledge in a way that was always confident but never obtrusive. And in a season that otherwise felt uninspiring, she made it work.