Thursday, October 15, 2009

In episode 8, designers made new dresses
from the wedding gowns of recent divorcees.
This neo-punk creation by Gordana Gelhausen,
owner of the Goga boutiques in Charleston
& San Diego, won the challenge,
worn here by her divorcee.

In each of the five previous seasons of Project Runway, I have already known by episode nine which three designers should be in the “top three” and make it to Fashion Week in Bryant Park. In some instances, I’ve already known who I thought should win. I haven’t always been right – I’ve guessed wrong twice – but the most talented designers¹ haven’t always won either, and some of the most talented (e.g. Austin Scarlett in season one) haven’t even made it into the top three. The sixth season of PR, its first on Lifetime cable TV, has been a curious, not entirely satisfying affair. The reason isn’t the switch from Bravo or the move to Los Angeles (tho neither has helped), it’s just that the contestants this time don’t seem as strong as in previous seasons.

It’s not just personalities. We don’t have any infuriating badass contestants like Santino Rice or Wendy Pepper, but at the same time you can feel the lack of a brilliant designer a la Vosovic or Christian Soriano, who was crowned the pint-sized champion of season four after winning three of the individual weeks’ competitions. His all purpose adjective Fierce became nearly as much a byword of the show as Tim Gunn’s Make it work. And his ego could have humbled the likes of a Santino Rice.

And it’s not that there isn’t, or won’t be, a “top three,” that’s just grading on a curve. Rather, it’s that the top three this year won’t be nearly as strong as in previous seasons. If I had to guess today (and that’s why I’m writing this), I would project an all-female finals consisting of Althea Harper, Carol Hannah Whitfield & – most likely to win – Irina Shabayeva. If a man gets into the finals, it would have to be the wildly inconsistent Nicolas Putvinski.

In years past, PR has always shown a fourth (and in at least one case a fifth) collection at Bryant Park since they don’t want to telegraph ahead of time just who has been eliminated in the episode that airs after the event but before the PR showing of it. But this year the legal wrangling between Bravo & Lifetime over who owned which rights to Heidi Klum’s apotheosis of the reality contest form delayed the airing of this season by nearly a year. Did these designers conclude this thing last fall, last spring, or just in the most recent Fashion Week? I’m certain that the gap must be coming as quite a dislocating phenomenon in their lives right now given the degree to which to Project Runway propels the careers of its contestants.

Runway’s secret has always been that it’s the one true reality contest that focuses on the creativity of creative people, and that in fashion at least (as distinct, say, from shows like Top Chef), you can see the result without having to actually taste or wear it. While the show hasn’t been adverse to some reality TV clich├ęs, such as the presence of a villain (Pepper, Rice, and season three winner Jeffrey Sebelia), it’s also generally discovered that it didn’t need them either.

Two or three things have been different this year, however. One is that the move to Los Angeles (to make life easier for executive producer as well as host Heidi Klum) has limited the presence of two of the judges, the ever dour Michael Kors & Nina Garcia. Their replacements have generally lacked the predictability (and the absolute skepticism) of Kors & Garcia. The second is that the show has, at least in the early weeks, almost consciously not eliminated the very worst designer. Mitchell Hall had to make the worst design three straight weeks to finally get the heave-ho, while first eliminated Ari Fish was simply a delightful eccentric not especially concerned with the demands of the market. She had a shot of being this season’s Jay McCarroll, the first season’s winner, equally disinterested in the marketing side of design & someone who never once won an individual week’s challenge before taking the entire shebang. When Ra’mone Lawrence Coleman was eliminated three weeks ago, the show lost its strongest male designer.

The last has been the addition of a follow-on 30-minute show, Models of the Runway, that focuses on the models paired with PR’s designers. As the winning designer stands to take $100,000 and several plums to jump start their career (none of which seem equal to the impact of being on Runway itself), the model paired with the winner goes away with $25,000 and a spread in Marie Clare. While it’s interesting to see the model’s insights into the designers, the show is a serious deflation from the headiness of Runway in that it’s not about creative people being creative and most of your stereotypes about models seem borne out here. Plus, if you have any complaints about the elimination of designers in the PR process, it’s nothing compared to the arbitrariness of what befalls the models. This season in some ways has been worse for them, since Runway has increased the number of times designers have to switch models just to add to the suspense for this new show. There is virtually no way for a model to determine which designer she is going to end up with, so that winning this contest amounts to little more than the luck of the draw. The model eliminated last week, Tara Egan, was actually paired with the week’s winning designer but got caught in a communications snafu between designers. It doesn’t appear to have hurt her career one bit.


¹ Daniel Vosovic, season two, or Mychael Knight, season three. Prior to the start of this season, PR had an “all star” contest composed of previous contestants that Vosovic easily won, which seemed one way of acknowledging his role as perhaps the finest designer to emerge from the entire five-season Bravo run.