Hot couture

How the aspiring designers and models on "Project Runway" are giving fashion -- and reality TV -- a brand new look.

By Bruce Stone

Published February 9, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

"Project Runway," now past the midpoint of its 10-week run on Bravo, bills itself as "the first ever reality series focusing on fashion designers." The claim feels like an oxymoron compounded, yoking "first" with "reality series" and "reality" with "fashion," and like many bids for originality, this one is symptomatic of an identity crisis.

The series' title is a hand-me-down from "Project Greenlight," one of Bravo's new acquisitions, and the plot -- in which 12 aspiring designers and 12 winsome models compete to gain a foothold in a treacherous industry -- borrows compulsively from every other reality production, from "American Idol" and "Survivor" to the televised galas of Victoria's Secret. At one point, the confusion seems to persuade cast members that they have stumbled onto the set of "The Apprentice." But beneath the wool of its knockoff premise, "Project Runway" reveals the lace and the underwire of a singular vision: a sleek, artful addition to the overstuffed reality lineup, as sweet and seductive as the girl next door.

Set primarily in the workaday basements of Parsons School of Design, "Runway" takes viewers inside the art of couture, where the goal is as much to be seen as worn. Hemmed in by merciless deadlines, tight budgets, fraying nerves and occasionally loopy project specifications, the designers manqué vie for a chance to hawk their wares on the bigger stage of New York's Fall Fashion Week 2005. The winner also earns an apprenticeship in Banana Republic's design studio, as well as the tidy sum of $100,000, which can feather a lot of boas. On its face, a series about dressmaking promises to have all the demographic flexibility of an Ortho Evra commercial, but there's something irresistible about talented people tragically invested in what they do. Add in the presence of "Runway's" coltish models, and this show might stir attentions in the reddest of red states.

Each episode starts with the designers assembled before an unadorned and paparazzi-free runway, where host and executive producer Heidi Klum discloses the week's design challenge in her pert Teutonic accent, prompting murmurs of dismay among the gallery. From backstage, the models trot out in identical black-pearl silk negligees, all knees and bare shoulders, and the designers choose them one by one like, well, vegetables.

The models are pedigreed, attached to some of New York's poshest agencies, but they also have a stake in "Runway's" proceedings. As the number of designers inevitably shrinks each week, so too does the number of models, and the last one standing wins a photo spread in Elle. The two-way competition gives these inaccessible girls an incentive to loosen up, playing to designer and camera alike; as an added bonus, it allows each episode to begin with a weepy, model-limbed goodbye, reminding viewers of the ultimate fragility of this photogenic ecosystem.

After a round of foraging in some of Manhattan's tucked-away fabric warehouses, vintage clothing stores and, in one case, even a supermarket, the designers retreat to the drawing tables at Parsons where they yelp and bicker their way through the creative process. Unlike the bigger network productions, "Runway" preserves a documentary feel, and never quite relinquishes a blue-collar ethos despite the rampant stylishness (prepare for occasional belching). The overcaffeinated camerawork keeps the action from stagnating, and the show buzzes along, vibrant and nervy, from segment to segment.

"Runway" answers an eternal question: Yes, designers do stow pins in their mouths, bandolier-style, before skewering an uncomplaining mannequin. They dip textiles, artificial roses and, often, themselves in ubiquitous dyes. They wield fabric shears and wheel razors (like pizza cutters) at their design stations, suspect sabotage when pattern pieces go missing, cauterize stray threads with cigarette lighters and worry their garments with fussy fingers and a skeptical eye (the other fixed squarely on the clock).

Parsons fashion director Tim Gunn checks in on the designers' progress, dispensing choice words of charity and abuse for the fledgling garments, but order rarely prevails. A backroom, stocked with temperamental Singer sewing machines, yields a surprising amount of gore. One designer breaks off a needle in her finger, and we get a glimpse of the offending metal embedded in flesh before the others rush to her aid, extracting the shard with a tweezers. It's a minor theme reprised elsewhere in the action: After a hard day's work the competitors set out on a drunken escapade, and an athletic cast member, in a fit of bravado, scales a New York scaffolding to perform a high-bar routine. He cracks his head against the pavement on the dismount, which requires two scalp staples from the emergency room. No one asks if there's a design lesson here, but these bloody vignettes add a layer of convenient drama within the more rarefied framework of the competition.

As plot devices, the challenges are well crafted, constantly realigning the personal and sartorial dynamics and periodically whisking the cast off to the snooty citadels of the fashion establishment. But they're a bit of a mess in principle. You can tell the real challenge is on the producers to engineer plausible tests of a chronically ambiguous skill set, to distinguish genuine vision from mere dressmaking and fakery. In search of audience approval, the show sidesteps matters of craftsmanship in favor of common-denominator issues like who works well with others, or who can complete a passable design with only the barest essentials of time and material.

Some projects seem destined for failure: Asked to draw inspiration from the abstraction "jealousy," one designer carves a gown in monstrous green, festooned with stuffed-hose tumors, to symbolize this cancer of the character. But "Runway's" greatest surprise is that each designer's identity has a way of emerging, with endearing clarity, from the pleats and cuffs of their impossible tasks.

Collectively, "Runway's" ensemble reveals an array of compromised solutions to the highly public problem of self-invention. Against Klum's 6 feet of purest sunshine, all of the contestants seem outclassed, but if these self-portraits suffer at all on-screen, it's from an excess of typecasting. Kara Saun, a self-confessed military brat, might be the most grounded of the competitors, possessing an easygoing confidence, the relative worldliness of her 37 years and an inarguable talent, perfectly reflected in her creations. Charged to style a look for the year 2055, using only vintage materials, Saun produces a sexy, militant and convincingly futuristic topcoat, overlaid with a leather vest qua bodice and feminine epaulets in hypnotic earth tones, and underwritten by boots, bared thighs and cream satin -- all topped off with a martial, face-shielding muffler. The whole outfit feels effortless and radiates an equally compelling biography of its maker.

Passing through the step stages of the other competitors -- men and women with unequal portions of skill and naked ambition -- at the other end of the spectrum is Austin Scarlett. A 23-year-old costume designer by trade, he threatens to skew the audience in the direction of countercultural glam: a wispy figure, dusted in cosmetics, with theatrical blond hair. At times, the competition brings out the worst in Scarlett, leading him to oversell his personality and considerable stylishness; in crisis moments, he can vanish behind a perfumed cloud of affectations, enunciating with an excess of simper and gasp. And excepting his visionary first entry, a dress in woven corn husks that's like a sunburst, his designs too sometimes scramble beyond the pale of ordinary good taste as his creations gush with floral ruffles and retro-fluffiness.

That we can witness a transformation, from likable decency to gross parody, in a person this overproduced is a triumph of the show's boundary-testing vision. In one of "Runway's" sweet throwaway moments, filmed after hours when the competitors bunk down in their shared living quarters, Scarlett faces off with Rob Plotkin, a buff charmer with enough charisma to make organza seem masculine, each of them caked in a cucumber-y facial mask. They improvise a dumb-show, mirroring each other's movements, as if they were identical twins. A tremor of genuine human contact underlies the clowning, capturing succinctly our experience of the show: Despite the dolled-up circumstances, we find ourselves bonded to the cast.

More striking is the fact that "Runway's" producers are fully in charge of every nuance of these character sketches. They indulge in many of the new-verité's clichés. Eager to expose hypocrisy, they juxtapose moments of the action with offstage backbiting from the interview footage. With the commercial sophistication of an infomercial, they allow product placement and dramatic expedience to masquerade as the cultivation of talent. (The first designer to fall on "Runway" suffers less from any deficiency in skill than from a pathological inability to relax in front of the camera.)

The most obvious of "Runway's" pleasures is its calculated sex appeal. In preparation for the runway show, where the weakest design will be exposed and its designer sent to the curb, the models gather in the makeup room to have their hair torqued and faces etched before donning something less comfortable. This cosmetic ruckus also involves a rapid sequence of last-minute design alterations, in which the young women check the security of their intimates, hefting breasts and inspecting rear ends with professional candor.

But raw feminine pulchritude, however precious, hardly qualifies as groundbreaking. "Runway," to its credit, goes further, treating us to lurid doses of reality here on fantasy's factory floor. In the swimsuit challenge, a designer asks model Erin, an impossibly thin beauty, if she's ever worn a bikini so undersized: Erin answers, speechlessly, "Uhn-uhn." Likewise, when another model, cherubic Martinique, asks for more coverage from an ill-constructed thong, we pass in an instant beyond some velvet threshold of anatomical intimacy.

It's less about voyeurism, I think, than it is a welcome reminder that these women, however nebulously glamorous they aspire to be, are beings of ordinary flesh and bone. We see the red scrapes appear on Julia's skin as she submits patiently (and toplessly) to the bondage rituals of Jay McCarroll's bikini, and we hear Olga's pained, unflattering broken English as she complains of the allover itching of Kevin Johnn's wedding dress. After decades of carping about the body images these women promote, it's undeniably refreshing that "Runway" opts to portray them as they are, amid the everyday trials, intimate discomforts and inevitable humanity of their industry.

The runway show itself is an artful trompe l'oeil, as the labored camerawork and très chic soundtrack (not to mention the eternity-parsing gazes of the models) allow us to forget that this performance is playing to an empty house: an altogether more satisfying arrangement than the overdone staging and creepy theatricality of, say, "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search." A panel of industry heavyweights stands by -- designer Michael Kors and Elle magazine's Nina Garcia are regulars, cast in the roles of "American Idol" judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul -- preparing to grill the designers about their clothes, and the panel's commercial heft, like Klum's star power, lends an air of legitimacy to the fretting of the novices. As a result of the judges' deliberations, the challenge winner receives an exemption, à la "The Apprentice," and the task falls to Klum to pronounce the loser definitively "out," a sexy and brutal umlaut hanging over the "u."

This snapshot of the industry's critical vocabulary leaves us worrying that fashion is as empty-headed as we sometimes fear. The adjective "froufrou" occurs with distressing regularity. For all the talk about "design philosophies" on the show, nothing much of substance survives the final edit. An attractive design is termed, in high praise, "completely complete," and the designers spout similar vagaries to explain their visions. One gushes over his swimsuit look, "I swathed her in gossamer and winds and rains and the ocean ..." trailing off into the earthly delights of salesmanship. The costume began as four yards of stretch fabric.

If the critical apparatus buckles under an excess of style and a dearth of sense, fashion is no worse off than the other fine arts, just more effete in its miscues. On some level, perhaps "dowdy" is a revelatory verdict after all. But "Runway" only grazes what might have been an interesting story -- to shine a light on the aesthetic nuts and cultural bolts of fashion design, unencumbered by any political agenda. That's not the tale this show has to tell, and the competition might be less fun if it were. Instead, we're left, like the designers, to wrangle with the opacity of the critiques.

Still, we can't help raising an eyebrow when the question of influence makes a cameo appearance during the judging; one contestant is ousted for copying a Missoni design, while another is exalted for a "Gucci-esque" vision. The contradictory standards are less remarkable than the bigger irony -- that the judges themselves cast their verdicts within a framework of recycled television ideas. "Runway" is an earnest sweet-nothing built from the remaindered ends of other people's wardrobes -- or series. As the designers get scalded by the notion of artistic originality, we're invited to measure the show -- with its skilled cut-and-pasting of more evanescent materials -- by the same criteria in the meta-design challenge of reality television. If the judges are oblivious, the producers might have an inkling that something rare arises from this crosshatching of matter and medium. Self-consciousness might be the last thing reality television needs. But if the genre won't die, it might as well evolve.

As the final episode approaches, the cast thins out, an odds-on favorite emerges, styles wilt and the show's human substance gains greater depth. It's anyone's guess if a brand name awaits the victor beyond the show's final credits, but another kind of afterlife is guaranteed: "Runway's" entire season, true to Bravo's form, will air again in mid-February. The encore, in this case, is well deserved. "Project Runway" makes reality television feel like a cottage industry again. Fashion, it seems, is back in style.

Bruce Stone

Bruce Stone teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay.

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