Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The third season of Project Runway (PR) has whittled a particularly inchoate initial group of would-be fashion designers into a more cohesive, if not tight, group of six, four men & two women. If talent alone were the judge, the final three who will get to present at this fall’s Fashion Week will be two women & an African-American male. And if talent alone is the determining factor, PR will have its first black champion in Michael Knight, a Montgomery, Alabama designer now living in Atlanta, completing a perfect trifecta of unlikely winners in the clubby, coterie-driven world of NY glamour, having already had a rural eccentric, Jay McCarroll, right out of a Jonathan Williams poem, and former Vietnamese boat person, Chloe Dao, who had in fact already baled on her attempt at the NY scene & has a boutique now in Houston, the city in which she, her seven sisters & her parents all live. Michael Knight is a quiet, positive guy who doesn’t trash his fellow designers & promises his mother that he will pray every night, not one drop of irony in his voice. His style might be characterized as soft hip-hop, but his primary assets are a terrific eye, a good mind, and solid experience fitting clothes on human beings.

But this being reality TV – even reality TV at its best – talent alone is unlikely to determine the final trio of contestants, since one of the narrative imperatives of the genre is that The Villain must reach the finals. This season’s villain, Jeffrey Sebelia, interestingly enough is a personal friend of second season baddy, the self-proclaimed great Santino Rice. Like Rice, Jeffrey is a veteran of the LA music scene, designing clothes, primarily jackets, for the likes of Marilyn Manson & Steve Tyler. Also like Santino, Jeffrey is instantly recognizable by his style, in the current case a ring of textual fragments (the largest word is “Detroit”) tattooed around his very long neck. And, again like Santino, Jeffrey has been through the school of hard knocks, being both a recovering alcoholic & heroin addict. But where Santino was a good, if never subtle, designer, Jeffrey is uneven at best, and not terribly adept at the craft details that are essential tools of this trade. And where Santino’s grandiose personality made for great TV, Jeffrey is just a jerk.

In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be the bad guy this season at all, that role having earlier been assigned to a much more talented & interesting character, Keith Michael, whose classy designs were overshadowed only by his own infinite self-regard. Unfortunately for the series, Keith, who had never designed women’s wear before, was also (surprise!) deeply insecure & was caught using prohibited resources to overcome his lack of experience. As a result, he was sent packing & several of the remaining contestants stepped up their arrogance in an attempt to gain the curiously coveted slot of Most Despicable Wannabe.

Jeffrey, tho, sealed the deal by taking some huge risks in verbally assaulting the mother of one of the other challengers, Angela Keslar, in a show for which mothers & sisters of the contestants were brought in as models for a “designing for the everyday woman” theme. Jeffrey had no clue what to do with this short, plus-sized Midwesterner & listening to what she wanted certainly wasn’t in his game plan. When his design for a layered dark dress began to go awry – and it was dreadful – he blamed the mother, telling her at one point – to the amazement of the other designers – that he objected to her “even being here.” Having reduced the woman to tears he barely survived that week’s challenge only because one of the contestants perennially on the edge of elimination, Robert Best, made his plus-sized model look like a giant over-ripe tomato.

The two other contestants who ought to make the finals are Laura Bennett, a 42-year-old architect & mother of five (plus pregnant with numero seis), whose advice to career women who want to have families is “never dress down,” and Uli Herzner, a German born (and speaking) Miami resident who is a master with prints and color. Both women are competent & at least moderately distinctive in their style, but neither strikes me as exceptional. Laura exudes competence – she would be a competent surgeon or pilot, competence is literally what she does. But her style is bland but elegant & her intuition is for women much like herself, professionals over 40. The somewhat younger Uli is more of a free spirit & her sense of color can be bold. But her range is quite narrow. Every successful garment she has made has been a variation on a narrow theme.

By comparison, Michael has repeatedly demonstrated a great sense of design & deft competence at the craft skills necessary to the trade. More than any other designer, you can see in him all the ways in which clothing design is every bit as much an art form as it is pure commerce. Twice thus far, Knight has made major last-minute revisions at the suggestion of Parsons School director Tim Gunn, who mentors the challengers, and both times come up with terrific results. One challenge he won – Knight is the only designer to have won two consecutive challenges this season – and the other he deserved to win. I suspect that the only reason he didn’t was – not racism, but the show’s narrative need to give Jeffrey one victory now that the season has trimmed the contestants down to just six. The same was true one week earlier when Vincent Libretti, a geeky 49-year-old and the show’s first married man in three seasons (whose signature is a pair of glasses with frames thick enough to embarrass Clark Kent), won a contest I suspect just to keep Michael from winning three straight & sapping the season of its narrative suspense.

In effect, Michael has been the best designer four weeks in a row now. More than any other single designer in PR’s three seasons, he is in a completely different league than his competitors. Tho he won one week, Vincent is a surprisingly weak challenger to have reached the final six. One might say the same for Kayne Gillaspie, the Oklahoma “white-trash” (his term) former fatty – he once weighed over 300 lbs – who has gotten this far almost entirely on chutzpah & niceness, but whose sense of taste is the design equivalent of Elvis black-velvet paintings.

So I expect that Vincent & Kayne are goners, one tonight, one next Wednesday, which leaves us with Michael, Jeffrey, Laura & Uli. One of the narrative sleights of PR is that, in order to keep people from knowing the final three in advance, the last four contestants all get to show at Fashion Week, tho only three are then broadcast on the series on Bravo (the fourth place finisher of the first season, Austin Scarlet, apparently made great use of this opportunity, pushing his career ahead faster than eventual champion McCarroll). I have no clue who will be in that unlucky fourth spot this year, tho I fear it will be Uli or Laura, when in fact Angela & Alison Kelly, both already eliminated, are stronger designers than Kayne, Vincent or Jeffrey.

They’ve gone, I suspect, because the show is so heavily marketed to a gay male audience – the show has yet to mention Vincent’s family! Still, this may be the only show in all of reality TV that takes genuinely talented individuals & then focuses on their creativity as one determining factor as to who wins. Some of its key recurring personalities – including supermodel-host Heidi Klum, the exact combination of Lolita & the Marquis de Sade, with her chirpy auf wieder sehn to each contestant as they’re eliminated, and the elder-preppy Tim Gunn (his signature phrases are make it work and carry on), are perfect for the show, and, if it’s hard to ignore what a dummy “top designer” Michael Kors is – also what a mediocre designer – it’s a small price to pay for the best running narrative on television. Now if the show could just free itself of some of the genre’s clichés. It could starting by auf’ing Jeffrey tonight.


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