Meet Hester Sunshine, the Queer Jewish Contestant on This Season’s ‘Project Runway’

My family and I were addicted to Project Runway when it first came out in December 2004. It was our Thursday night ritual, and I remained a loyal viewer until I went to college and sadly lost cable in 2011.

In the meantime, the show went through plenty of cast and network changes, but on March 14, it’s returning to Bravo for its 17th(!) season, hosted by Jewish model Karlie Kloss, no less. So it’s back on my watch list, especially considering one of the contestants will be the queer Jewish designer Hester Sunshine.

Hester is a rising star in the fashion world, recently launching her Sunshine by Hester line of accessories which features everything from bunny ears to berets with sassy sayings. Her designs are infused by the otherness present in her own life and in both her queer and Jewish identities.

It makes sense that Hester would ultimately make it to Runway, as fashion has always been a part of her life. Her grandfather was a furrier and her grandmother worked in the textile industry, and as a young child she “used to make clothing for herself and her dolls.”

Leading up to her time on Project Runway, I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Sunshine — who truly lives up to her last name when it comes to her warmth and kindness.

While Hester always felt tied to her culturally Jewish identity, she tells me her religious connection to Judaism surprisingly started to form when her family left Manhattan for Santa Fe in the later part of her childhood. In Santa Fe, she found “a queer Reform Jewish community that fit my identity and values.” Her favorite Jewish holiday was and remains Passover, with its themes of reconnecting to family and throwing off the yoke of oppression. Her parents are both bohemians who drew her away from the materialism of Hanukkah to focus on its spiritual meaning, making Passover actually more fun and meaningful for her. “I love the way that Judaism can be taken so many different ways,” she says.

Naturally, our conversation turned to her time on Project Runway. Hester told me “I have wanted to be on Project Runway since it came out basically, but it took me a really long time where I felt good enough and that I could handle the emotional stress.” Now she’s looking forward to an opportunity to push herself creatively without having to worry about toning down her style to make it easier to sell. “I’m just excited to see where everything goes and to test out some theories.” She is hoping that her time on Project Runway will encourage people to “shoot for the stars and be weird,” while giving the world a look at a more unconventional approach to fashion. “I want to show that fashion can be more than this all-black dressing and can be taken as something more fun.”

While Hester has not released a full line yet, she already has something in mind. The main holdup at the moment, she tells me, is that she would like it to be size-inclusive and suited to all bodies, which is not a cheap task. Still, she plans to release her line after her time on the show.

As her work becomes more prominent, she feels like she is representing Jewish women, especially culturally Jewish women. Hester says she did not grow up with these influences other than Fran Drescher, who she refers to as both a “national and Jewish treasure.” (Hard agree.)

I know I’ll be tuning in for the Project Runway season premiere to see what refreshingly fun fashions Hester Sunshine will whip up.

Alexandra Pucciarelli

Alexandra Pucciarelli is a writer based in New York. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a graduate student of the sociology of collective memory and trauma at the New School for Social Research. She has written for Tablet Magazine, The L Magazine, Blood + Milk, and Brooklyn Magazine.

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