Project Runway Stars Who Sadly Died

There have been about 300 contestants over the course of "Project Runway's" 19 seasons. We've seen designers from all over the world and from all walks of life bring forth their ambitious, unique, and sometimes outrageous ideas. While some designers make it farther in the competition than others, even the designers who were eliminated early on in the competition hold a special spot in our hearts. During the course of a season, we learn about every designer's goals, desires, and backgrounds. We fall in love with each designer's humor, sense of style, and outlandish personality. In many cases, the contestants become celebrities to the dedicated viewers of the show and the world of fashion.

Unfortunately, four "Project Runway" contestants have died over the course of its 19-season run: Wendy Pepper from Season 1, Mychael Knight from Season 3, Chris March from Season 4, and Kooan Kosuke from Season 10. We watched these designers grow in their creative processes and technical design skills throughout the course of the competition and now we celebrate the mark these designers have left on "Project Runway" and the world of fashion. They will be remembered for their ambitious designs, big personalities, and the inspiration they bring to aspiring designers who want to make it in the cut-throat business of fashion. By their close friends, family, and communities they will be remembered as the wonderful imperfect humans that they were. Each of their legacies remains in our hearts and minds and will never be forgotten.

Before Wendy Pepper was Wendy Pepper

Before her fashion design career took off, Wendy Pepper was Anne Eustis Pepper. According to Middleburg Life, Wendy was born in Dayton, Ohio, but grew up in Washington. Pepper always embraced her creative side. During college, she decided to study abroad in Nepal where she learned about textiles and became fascinated with clothes and design. In the 1990s she moved to Middleburg, Virginia, where she would eventually raise her daughter, Finley Stewart.

Before "Project Runway," Wendy ran her own business making hand-stitched wedding dresses and couture gowns. Pepper felt a strong connection with her community in Virginia. She organized auctions for charity events and ran an art camp in her front yard. In an interview with The Picket, Pepper said, "I like to live and work in my community, I feel like it's an open door for people to come in and experience the world of fashion" (via Middleburg Life). Wendy opened her doors to her community, becoming a beloved and valued member.

Stewart spoke to Middleburg Life about growing up with a mother who had an abundance of passion, creativity, and love. She described growing up with Wendy as "the greatest adventure. Creativity was always the most important thing, and it showed up in everything we did. We were a team ... My childhood was a never-ending play date with my best friend." Her daughter admires her mother for her ambition to take on any type of creative project. 

Wendy Pepper starred in Season 1 of Project Runway

Wendy Pepper was on the first season of "Project Runway" in 2004, during which she was a final contestant and showed her collection at New York Fashion Week. Pepper was unliked by many of the contestants and struggled to connect with the younger designers. She was primarily pitted against fashion designer Kara Saun, who also made it to the finale of the show. Saun didn't believe Pepper deserved to be at Fashion Week, and famously gave Pepper the silent treatment in the days leading up to the big finale. However, being cast as the villain of the season did not hinder Pepper's success.

In the overall competition of "Project Runway's" first season, Pepper came in third place. According to Middleburg Life, Pepper told The Picket, "There will always be people who love or hate your work ... It's important to create one's own sense and hold on to it." During the show, Pepper won challenges that gave her the opportunity to sell one of her designs to Banana Republic and design Nancy O'Dell's Grammys dress.

In 2012, Pepper appeared in "Project Runway: All Stars" where her peers welcomed her as a "Project Runway" icon. During the show, many of the other designers went gaga over the "Project Runway" alumna and welcomed her with open arms. While some contestants were initially skeptical of Pepper, once they got to know her, almost all the contestant gave her high praise; some even described her as "the nicest person ever."

Wendy Pepper had continued success before her early death

Post-"Project Runway," Wendy Pepper ran her own shop, Wedding and Belles, where she created made-to-order wedding dresses out of her basement in Middleburg, Virginia. According to Middleburg Life, Pepper also had a collection of brightly colored children's riding clothes that were sold online and at a local store, Highcliffe Clothiers. 

However, Pepper wasn't just a fashion designer — she was an artist with a range of special talents. Pepper's love of cooking and baking led her to launch a business selling artisanal cookies and soups at farmer's markets. Her artistic adventures were boundless, and included writing a book about mermaids and painting the steps of her walkway shimmering gold as a reference to the Yellow Brick Road from "The Wizard of Oz."

Pepper died in 2017 at just 53 years old from pneumonia complications during her months-long battle with cancer. At the age of 18, Finley Stewart mourned her mother's death alongside her grandparents, her three uncles, aunt, and several cousins. Wendy Pepper's obituary in the Washington Post describes her as dying "surrounded by her loving family" and "an artist who proudly forged her own path." While Pepper's life was short, she made a profound impact on her community, friends, family, and the world at large. We'll miss her spunky, adventurous spirit, her tenacious ambition, and of course, her sense of style.

Mychael Knight starred in Season 3 of Project Runway

Mychael Knight was born in Nuremberg, Germany, but grew up in Montgomery, Alabama and graduated from high school in Washingtonville, New York. He earned a degree in apparel design and merchandising from Georgia Southern University. According to NBC News, before becoming a contestant on Season 3 of "Project Runway," Knight interned at Wilbourn Exclusives, a fashion studio in Atlanta, Georgia, and in 2002 he began his career as a fashion stylist for musicians. While he did not win "Project Runway" in 2006, Knight was voted fan-favorite for his personality and chic style, which translated into the clothing he designed. His collection was shown at New York Fashion Week, and he came in fourth place in the overall competition.

In an interview with Ebony magazine, Knight stated that his favorite kinds of designs to create are those that "pique interest but still read as wearable and relatable." Knight's friend Jerris Madison told NBC that he believes "Project Runway" helped launched Knight's career as the designer garnered celebrity clients and grew his brand. In 2009, Knight returned to the show as a contestant on Season 3 of "Project Runway: All Stars," in which he placed eighth overall. 

Mychael Knight saw great success before his untimely death

Following his run on "Project Runway," in 2007, Mychael Knight introduced his self-named label on BET's "Rip the Runway" (per Obvious Magazine). In 2008, he launched a lingerie line for both men and women, called Kitty & Dick. Knight's career included designing custom tees for Starbucks, launching his fall-winter line in 2010, and launching and ralaunching a second line called MYKA. According to an interview with Ebony, he was working on a dress line a few months before his death in October 2017. He's worked with a variety of celebrity clients such as Sherri Shepherd, Keri Hilson, Toni Braxton, Ciara, Keke Palmer, Jessica White, Claire Sulmers, and more.

Mychael Knight was just 39 years old when he passed away in 2017. The family did not release his cause of death, but the designer had been open with the public about his struggle with intestinal issues. He had been struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for about five years and suffered from symptoms such as abdominal pain and extreme fatigue. After the announcement of his death, celebrities shared pictures of themselves wearing his creations to honor Knight and his legacy (per People).

Knight's friend Jerris Madison published a piece reflecting on his friendship with Knight in Obvious Magazine. Madison described Knight as being a "mama's boy" and a "passionate, outspoke, direct, kind, and unapologetic" artist.

Chris March was a costume designer prior to Project Runway

Chris March was born in Alameda, California, and grew up in Northern California with his three brothers. According to The New York Times, Chris was born with the urge to design, and loved making elaborate Halloween costumes when he was in high school. Before "Project Runway" the designer had success as a costume designer. When he lived in San Francisco, he designed costumes for a long-running musical revenue, "Beach Blanket Babylon." The show ran from 1974 to 2019. A New York Times article that celebrates the show before it closed describes the show as a "pun-and-sight-gag-filled show has a feather-thin plot — Snow White, looking for love, wanders the world encountering famous people who sing pop song parodies, often about politics and celebrity." The show was a perfect match for March's wild imagination. 

The Times describes a Martha Stewart-themed headpiece March made for the show, which included a pie, a lobster, and a pot of sunflowers. According to The Hollywood Reporter, March worked on the show for ten years before becoming a "Project Runway" contestant. 

Datebook recounts March's involvement in the drag scene. In 2001, he won a Drama Desk Award for his Shirley Temple costume in the drag show, "Christmas With the Crawfords." March had always had a flair for theatrics, but while he loved the stage, he loved fashion even more.

Chris March was a fan-favorite in Season 4 of Project Runway

In 2007, Chris March became a contestant on "Project Runway's" fourth season. Chris created an extravagant collection that included the use of human hair and leopard print. Unfortunately, he was cut from the competition before he could show off his collection at New York Fashion Week, finishing fourth in the overall competition. However, he was voted fan-favorite because of his larger-than-life style, witticism, playful personality, hearty laugh, and outlandish creativity. GoldDerby reflects on some of our favorite March one-liners, like: "Look! Joan Rivers carved her name here when she was a little girl!" He also suggested that a "Project Runway" perfume would smell like "a mixture of fear, sweat, and Chinese food," and once, when annoyed at his fellow contestant Christian Siriano, said, "Someone needs to give him a bottle and send him to bed." We always love a good Chris March zinger.

In an interview with Media Beat, March admitted that he was surprised how much people took a liking to him on "Project Runway." During the airing of the show, there was more activity on his website than ever before, and his inbox was filled with emails from fans of the show. March didn't realize the effect being on television would have on his career. In 2009, Chris March was a contestant on a "Project Runway" special, "Project Runway: All-Star Challenge" where he came in third. Then in 2014, he appeared on "Project Runway: All Stars" for the show's fourth season and placed 12th.

Chris March's reality TV presence brought him success as a fashion designer

Chris March's reality TV presence and success as a contestant on "Project Runway" brought him fame as both a fashion designer and a television personality. He went on to star in his own reality TV series, "Mad Fashion" in 2011. During the show, March made outrageous outfits for celebrities such as Jennifer Coolidge, Ruthie Davis, and Jene Luciani. His designs on the show included a dress made out of shoes and a dress made of bras. He made an appearance on "The Real Housewives of New York City" to make Sonja Morgan a dress in preparation for her masquerade ball.

According to The New York Times, Chris went on to design clothes for celebrities on tour, like the futuristic one-piece bathing suit he designed Beyonce in 2009, and the long studded cape-like motorcycle jacket he designed for Lady Gaga in 2011. In 2010, Meryl Streep asked March to design her dresses for the Oscars and Golden Globes. March was honored and told People, "I wanted to faint! I have always wanted to design something for someone like that, and it was a great and amazing opportunity." Streep's dress was not like March's usual over-the-top designs, but she looked stunning all the same.

Chris March experienced medical complications that led to his unfortunate death

In 2017, Chris March had a terrible fall. He was on the floor for four days before he awoke and made it to the hospital. He was put in a medically induced coma for two months. When he awoke, he found that he was partially paralyzed in both of his legs and one of his arms and hands. March started a GoFundMe page to help with some of his medical expenses, which included leg braces, specialized physical therapy, a hearing aid, and a new living arrangement.

March's GoFundMe page explained, "I have recently run into several setbacks in my recovery, the biggest one being that my medical insurance went up 500%" (via People). March also admitted to his fans that he'd been having suicidal thoughts due to his medical condition. Bravo television host Andy Cohen encouraged people to donate to the "Project Runway" alum's GoFundMe page and donated to the page himself. The GoFundMe raised $59,954, more than halfway to March's goal of raising $100,000.

In 2019, March died of a heart attack at the young age of 56. Many people in the fashion world mourned March's death, including his "Project Runway" competitor and famous designer Christian Siriano, who posted on a picture of the two of them to Twitter, along with a caption that read, "Chris you brought so much beauty into this world and will truly be missed. It was an honor to share a very special experience with you. I hope you are resting someplace beautiful dressed in one of your unbelievable creations."

Kooan Kosuke starred in Project Runway's Season 10

Kooan Kosuke was one of the contestants on "Project Runway's" tenth season. He was known for his fun and outlandish designs. However, the Japanese designer decided to leave the show during the fourth episode of the season after discovering that Andrea Katz had pulled out of the competition in the middle of the night. Kosuke told the other designers, "I thought about it for three days, and I think I should go" (via "Today"). While the other designers were saddened to see him go, there was nothing anyone could say to convince him to stay. Kosuke had to make the decision that was right for him. The pressure of the show was just too much for Kosuke to handle.

However, his fashion career did not end there. In 2019, the designer produced a free runway show at Central Park in New York City in honor of Japan Day. In 2020, Kosuke's friend posted on the designer's Instagram that Kooan Kosuke had died of encephalopathy (FreshersLive). We will miss his vivacious personality and unique designs as his legacy lives on in his fashion.