Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Joe Faris & his  collection at Fashion Week

In the double narrative that is Project Runway, Joe was eliminated last week and will not be going on to show his work as one of the final three clothing designers in the show’s competition at Fashion Week in Bryant Park. In reality, Fashion Week was two weeks ago and Joe has already shown his collection at Bryant Park, as have some other designers whom we will be asked to think of as “losers” and whose collections we won’t see on the air. The show’s producers do this, of course, so as not to give away just who has been eliminated in advance of the final broadcast. But it’s  a practice that has some risks. In the show’s first season, many of the attendees at Fashion Week liked the collection of Austin Scarlett best, tho he’d already been eliminated. Scarlett has subsequently gone on to become the most successful of former Runway participant and is currently the creative director of the Kenneth Pool bridal collection.

This season, the timing of the show was such that six – count ‘em, 6 – designers actually got to show. Whether they will pretend it was really just three on the air or give us more – they gave the audience three and a half, last year, with two contestants showing collections to get to the final three (in reality, five were at Bryant Park). At least this year, you can see the Bryant Park collections of all six on the show’s website.

Scarlett was eliminated in season one of the show so that the series’ “villain” – a stock role that has evolved in reality TV fare – Wendy Pepper, a much weaker designer, could be presented as having a shot at winning. Over its seasons, tho, Runway has shown that it doesn’t need the artificial drama of a villain to make the program fascinating. It’s the one reality show that presents genuinely creative people being creative, albeit with some curious constraints. But it hasn’t yet dropped the pretense of the Final 3.

This season, the show’s fifth, has been the hardest to anticipate – it’s the show’s last on Bravo before it relocates to Lifetime (and moves from New York to LA) next year. For one thing, this has been the weakest group of designers the show has had. None of the current contestants would have made the final three in more than one other season. For example, I was able to identify who the final three would be by week four last season, simply because there were some standout talents in that group. At one point this year, I thought that just maybe the final three would involve Kelli Martin, Terri Stevens and Korto Momolu, an all-gal finale. Kelli won the very first challenge, making a dress of items found in a supermarket, winning that challenge by staining her materials to create some tremendous textures, making a halter top of sorts out of coffee filters. Terri is a hip urban black whose designs always present attitude. Yet Kelli was an early elimination, guilty of having been uneven in her work on the wrong challenge. Terri flamed out in a “team challenge” – all the designers hate working collaboratively – when her “assistant,” a contestant who had already been eliminated, simply walked out on her.

It was only last week, when Joe’s design of a hideous suit for a woman heading out onto the job market got him tossed, that if finally dawned on me that the final three will be Korto Momolu – a Liberian-American woman who often brings in fabulous colors & textures into her work (and who has been at risk of elimination when her designs have gone over the top); Leanne Marshall, a Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandise grad from Portland whose styles tend to be sophisticated (too much so for TV, which favors the use of loud colors over the visual presentation of subtle detail) & Jerell Scott, a Houston native with an off-again / on-again Jamaican accent who, like Marshall, does things that look too subtle for TV, tho they look as if they would be fabulous in person. This means that the next two to be eliminated would be Kenley Collins, a young designer who is into everything retro, talented in her way but aesthetically a one-trick pony, and Steven “Suede” Baum, the oldest of the remaining designers, but also the sloppiest & least consistent. “Suede” has been on the brink of elimination so many times that it has to be effecting him emotionally. He talks of himself in the third person and is one of several designers who actively resists any coaching from mentor (and Liz Claiborne creative director) Tim Gunn.

If it’s been difficult to find contestants to root for on the basis of sheer talent, it’s been equally hard to do so in terms of who the contestants are also. Christian Soriano, last season’s wunderkind champion, may have been the most egotistical & obnoxious of that bunch, but he had the chops to back it up. Week after week he offered up breath-taking designs. Conversely, nobody’s been a true villain this year either. Joe Faris may have made a few homophobic jokes, but he’s also clueless in so many other ways. Blayne Walsh may have been obnoxious enough for several seasons, always adding the suffix –licious to every third noun – but any 23-year-old who’s never heard of Sgt. Pepper has been living in a cocoon. And the women all trash talk one another to a degree that I’ve not seen so widespread on previous seasons. There’s no solidarity here.

So who ought to win? Who do I want to win? I’ve been successful at identifying the winner twice in the previous four seasons, usually much earlier than this. This time I think it’s a crapshoot. No, that’s not really true. But if I say that I think this time it will be Leanne, it’s because I’ve already seen the final collections. That in itself undercuts the narrative of what’s on the air, tho frankly I appreciate Bravo putting the photos up on its website. But this rather lackluster group makes me hope that the move to LA can breathe some fresh air into the show, and that it will finally drop the pretense of the double narrative. If not, I fear it won’t be that long before the one decent reality show on TV itself gets auf’ed.