Elie Saab at the launch of 'Project Runway ME' in Dubai. Image Credit: MBC

Five months after making the announcement, broadcaster MBC Group formally launched Project Runway Middle East, an Arab version of the hit fashion reality show, with head judge Elie Saab on Sunday in Dubai.

The iconic Lebanese designer will be joined by Tunisian model and actress Afef Jnifen with a third surprise guest judge every episode. Saudi fashion and design consultant Faris Al Shehri will mentor participants while Lebanese-Australian model Jessica Kahawaty will serve as presenter. The first episode of Project Runway ME will air on September 17 on MBC 4 and MBC MASR 2 at 10pm UAE.

Guest judges confirmed include former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris Carine Roitfeld; US model and actress Milla Jovovich; German model Toni Garrn; Lebanese singing superstars Haifa Wehbe, Nancy Ajram and Elissa; legendary Egyptian actress Yousra; Kuwaiti actress and director Haya Abdulsalam; Syrian actress Sulafa Memar; and Egyptian TV presenter Wafaa Al Kilani.

Project Runway premiered in the US in 2004, with supermodel Heidi Klum as host. Designer Zac Posen and fashion journalist Nina Garcia are the current judges along with Klum while fashion consultant Tim Gunn continues as mentor to the contestants. On each show, contestants are given a fashion design project and are judged on their work. One or two participants are then eliminated each week. Versions of the show are also in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Jamaica, Latin America, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to celebrate my success with the people of my country and the rest of the Arab region, so I am very optimistic about Project Runway ME,” said Saab, during Q&A session held at the Dubai Design District (d3). “I have great respect for every contestant who took part in season one because they all come from regular backgrounds [the majority with no specialist fashion training], and so I know it has been challenging for them.

“Back in the day there were no classes or fashion schools in the region, and so with this programme, I am keen to teach and open the doors for future generations in order for them not to experience the difficulties and challenges that I had.”

A total of 15 contestants have been shortlisted from across the Middle East, via online applications, and will battle it out over 13 weeks with one designer announced as victor in the grand finale, to be aired live from d3 in December.

The winner will receive a cash prize of $50,000 (Dh183,600) from Maybelline New York, a one-year contract for his/her own fashion house within the d3, a one-year membership to Dubai Design & Fashion Council and a cover feature on Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.

Saab also talked about his rise from international fashion stardom, saying it took a lot of hard work and dedication.

“I’ve never stopped believing in what I do, and I’ve never stopped striving for something better,” he said. “I’m constantly planning tomorrow. Our industry is extremely difficult and challenging; I present eight collections a year, so you have to be constantly planning and innovating in order to remain successful.

“I’m very critical of myself,” he added. “And I work a minimum of 14 hours a day. I advise young designers to work hard, remain humble and not let fame get to your head.”

Of the show, he said he would be honest, “but not mean”.

“It’s my dream to see the region become one of the world’s fashion capitals. I’ve been working to establish this for the past 20 years, and I’d love to see more of these rising designers go global.”

Jnifen, now a well-known TV presented in Italy, said she hesitated when she was told the show would be in Arabic.

“As you know Italian is kind of my first language now. But when he explained that part of the show would be shot in Lebanon, I could not resist. Lebanon holds a very special place in my heart, as I used to live there for a while.”

She said she was impressed by the professionalism on set and the talent of the designer contestants.

“Young designers here are very talented, but they need to work more on the little things — like paying close attention to details and trying to avoid going overboard. Personally, I believe that beauty lies in simplicity.”

Mazen Hayek, the MBC Group’s official spokesman, said the show was a “welcome addition” to its current roster of adapted reality shows. His company already has Arab versions of international reality shows such as The Voice, The Voice Kids, X Factor, the Idol and Got Talent shows. An Arabic version of Top Chef will be launched in two weeks.

Free-to-air channel Dubai One recently adapted an American reality show called Fashion Star in Arabic, with Lebanese designer Reem Acra as head mentor.