‘Project Runway’s star judges aren’t just great friends—they’re career cheerleaders

Karlie Kloss, Elaine Welteroth, and Brandon Maxwell attribute much of their professional growth to leaning on each other

Anecdotes about television show co-hosts whose seemingly warm relationships last only as long as the cameras are running are numerous. And in an industry like fashion—where the stereotype is that mean girls (and guys) run the show, so to speak—one might expect the behind-the-scenes drama of a fashion reality show to be all the more tense.

That couldn’t be further from the truth for the co-stars of Bravo’s revamped Project Runway franchise, a competition show where a panel of star judges decides which contestant is America’s next great fashion designer. Three of those judges—model-turned-tech-entrepreneur Karlie Kloss; fashion journalist and social-justice advocate Elaine Welteroth; and luxury-womenswear designer Brandon Maxwell—spoke about life on set and career building, at points literally arm-in-arm, during a recent event at WeWork Now in New York City.

While it’s touching to see the trio so amiable on a personal level, they also attribute much of their career growth (and the decision to join the new Project Runway, an early-aughts hit show that initially featured star designers like Michael Kors, but fizzled in part due to network changes) to leaning on each other and others for everything from finding their purpose to on-the-job guidance.

“Success is defined by finding and building your tribe,” Welteroth said when asked how she has evolved in the fashion industry. Welteroth, Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief from 2016 to 2018, is credited with transforming the title from a kiddie version of American Vogue to a magazine with a progressive political and social focus, with fashion sprinkled throughout. The transformation under Welteroth’s leadership made the magazine hugely buzzy, until it shuttered its print product shortly before the California native left.

“True icons, in fashion or in any other career, are those who find their tribe, find their audience early,” Welteroth said, “and find people who believe in them and are willing to get behind them.”

Welteroth—who has built her career in part upon representing black women and other marginalized groups whose voices have not historically been represented at legacy fashion magazines—is reminded of her purpose when she interacts with her communities. Those communities, especially black women who look up to her as part of her 336,000-person Instagram following, ground her when it comes to making meaningful career choices. When it came to joining the cast of the reality show—which she said gave her pause at first; she was unsure of whether it was the right choice for her career—it was the platform and opportunity to drive the conversation about inclusivity, plus a bit of nudging from Kloss and Maxwell, that ultimately led her to join the Project Runway team.

“It has taken me a long time to find my voice, to find the comfort I have now in my skin. I think what has given me that is the tribe of women I know I’m representing,” Welteroth said. “Whenever I feel that isolating feeling of being the only one in a room who looks like me or comes from where I come from, I know that responsibility that comes with it. I remember all of the people I’m speaking up for, and I have that constant reinforcement on social media.”

Meanwhile, between sips of wine and fits of laughter between the three musketeers of fashion television, Maxwell also identified a reliance on peers and mentors in the fashion community to help him achieve his goals. “Everyone starts a business, and nobody knows [how]—that’s the truth,” Maxwell said. Before launching his eponymous luxury label in 2015, Maxwell spent years as a celebrity and editorial stylist, perhaps most famously as Lady Gaga’s fashion director.

A year after his label debuted at New York Fashion Week, Maxwell won the CFDA Swarovski Award for womenswear design, though his rising star didn’t necessarily mean he had everything figured out behind the scenes. “How I’ve survived is to call [other designers] on the phone and ask them, ‘What’s your balance sheet look like?’ You know, I don’t know how to do this,” he said. “Obviously, I know how to make a dress, but I don’t know how to do math, really. So I’ll ask, ‘What’s this look like?’ or ‘Who are you calling?’”

It might seem all-too obvious to ask for advice from people who seem to be making it all their own. For many, including 26-year-old Kloss, who still works as a top model but has also parlayed that public success into a national coding education startup for young girls, Kode with Klossy—which is hosting its flagship camps at WeWork locations across 10 U.S. cities this summer—it’s not automatic behavior. But pivoting toward something new also meant trying something new: asking for help. “Seek someone, even just one person to be vulnerable with,” Kloss said. “You’d be surprised how many people want to share and want to help you grow and take pride in that. Reach up, reach down.”

Or as Maxwell—beaming with exuberance, not because of a couple of cocktails on a Thursday night, but more likely because of his nearby friends and career allies—put it: “Phone a friend, guys!”

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