Saturday, October 21, 2006


Uli’s swimwear
was the top-rated outfit
in this year’s finale
according to viewers

The television equivalent of a print ad’s mouse-type, the small print at the bottom of the page that the advertiser needs to include (in pharmaceutical ads, it sometimes shows up literally on the verso of a full-page spread) but doesn’t really want the prospective customer to read, the credits that roll at the end of a show just as the first commercial pops up starting the bridge to whatever show is next, is especially interesting for a reality-based series like Project Runway (PR), where it indicates that judges make their decisions in consultation with the show’s producers. That little detail explains at least one, and possibly two, of the hit shows major surprises at the end of its third season.

The first of these was a decision not to eliminate one of the contestants in the second most important challenge of the season, and thus to present a Final Four at Olympus Fashion Week instead of a final three. The second may have been the actual decision as to the winner of the series itself.

In actuality, there have always been four contestants showing work at Fashion Week. The timing of the show’s airing requires it or else the live audience at the event will know in advance who the final three challengers are, which is certain to get out. During season one, this caused something of a stir as several fashion world commentators preferred the collection shown by Austin Scarlet, who turned out later to have been the one already eliminated.

On September 6, I correctly predicted just who would make it to the final four, but felt convinced that one of the two women on the show – Uli Herzner, an East German native now soaking up the sun & Cuban colors endemic to Miami, or Laura Bennett, the statuesque architect whose preference for classic evening wear suits her perfectly in designing for older women, not exactly TV’s favored demographic – were destined not to make it to the final challenge. In retrospect, I think that the judges were ready, and planning, to eliminate Uli at this next-to-the-final challenge when she threw a spanner into the works by clearly winning the challenge, putting the judges into the (for them) untenable position of having to choose between fan favorite Michael Knight and this season’s villain, Jeffrey Sebelia, the one-time junky & alcoholic who specializes in costume wear for overage rock stars. Since the show’s narrative in its third season hinged on this epic, if thoroughly artificial, joust between good and evil, it would not do to resolve it two full episodes before the grand finale.

The solution, tho, was simple enough. Just announce that no one was disqualified and send all four to Fashion Week. In reality, what this meant was simply not airbrushing the number four finisher out of the final episode. Problem solved.

The more troubling possibility is that this same concern with narrative, rather than with fashion, may have altered who actually won Project Runway overall. I say this on the grounds that the ultimate winner, Sebelia, makes sense only narratively, and not in terms of the twelve outfits he showed at Fashion Week. Now there are obviously people who think the world of Jeffrey and his vision of style, just as there are people who think Desperately Seeking Susan, a 21-year-old motion picture that presents the retro-avant clothing of lower Second Avenue as somehow fashion forward, is a documentary of the 21st century. These are the same people who think they just invented dressing all in black.

To underscore that this is not just me feeling sour grapes – after all, my favorite designer, Michael Knight, was the first eliminated at the finale (albeit with some reason) – it’s worth taking a look at the actual ratings of dresses in the Fashion Week show by fans on Project Runway’s website. Rated on a scale of 1 to 5, Jeffrey’s highest score was, as of Friday morning, 3.89, making him the only designer among the four not to have an outfit with a score above 4.0. On the other hand, he had four outfits with scores below 3.0.

Michael, the first eliminated, had one outfit rated at 4.10 and just two outfits rated below 3.0. Statistically speaking, his scores for his outfits outpaced Jeffrey’s. Now it’s true that Knight’s collection was disjointed and over-the-top, with at least two pieces that were just variants of one of his winning challenges. The two challenges he won in the series both came in situations where Parsons School of Design chief Tim Gunn had seriously criticized what Knight was in the process of putting together, and he listened to these critiques & improvised effective tho more modest outfits at the last minute. The youngest of the final four, Knight seriously needs this kind of direction and the two months on your own to create a collection of twelve pieces left him to his own devices.

Again as of Friday morning, Laura Bennett, the second challenger to hear the dread “You’re out” from PR host Heidi Klum, had one outfit rated at 4.02 and just one rated by viewers at below 3.0. Her collection was for the most part predictable but impeccable & that seems to be her special curse. As one of the judges put it, “when you buy one of her dresses, you know you will keep it forever.” But her range is narrow & she definitely is not aiming at Paris Hilton as the ideal customer. Still, her overall ratings from the show’s fans were higher than Sebelia’s.

So it was Uli Herzner who ultimately should have won Project Runway. Her collection was more coherent than Sebelia’s, and she had the top-rated (by the fans anyway) outfit of the entire Fashion Week extravaganza, a shimmering gold bikini with one of her patented print dresses, which on Friday morning had a score of 4.35. In fact, six of her outfits – half of her entire collection – had fan ratings higher than Jeffrey’s best score. Her lowest rated piece received a 3.51 (that would have been Jeffrey’s second highest score). She was also the only designer to have more than one piece with fan ratings over 4.0.

The problem, from the perspective of the show’s narrative, is that Uli herself is bland. She’s shy and her English isn’t perfect (tho I suspect that it’s better than she thinks it is). Last season’s winner, Chloe Dao, was likewise an American immigrant escaping a Stalinist country who came across as fairly bland on television. You can envision the producers squirming at the idea of giving the grand prize to the same story twice in a row, especially after so many viewers concluded that the second season should have been won instead by Daniel Vosovic (the second season’s representation of goodness incarnate), so many in fact that he kept popping up in a Saturn Roadster (how did he get that? he wasn’t supposed to have been given one, since he didn’t actually win) during commercial breaks this year.

Now I don’t want to presume that fan ratings on the show’s website should be viewed as anything objective. But in the world of fashion, unlike any other creative endeavor save possibly for the movies & rock & roll, success has everything to do with a popularity contest. And objectively, based on the individual ratings of the 48 different outfits shown at Fashion Week, Uli trumped everyone else with her scores. Jeffrey, on the other hand, had the lowest. Further, with the exception of zippers as a design element in a green-and-white striped dress, none of his other pieces showed much of his wannabe edgy side. Like the second season villain, Santino Rice, an acquaintance of Sibelia, Jeffrey’s strategy for the final show was to tone his style way down and come across as much more “normal” than he really is. Unlike Santino Rice, he actually seemed to pull it off. Yet many of his pieces commit the worst of fashion faults – they’re bland, predictable & retro in a Woolworth’s sort of way, which is not retro-avant in the slightest.

One of the most important moments in the history of Reality TV as a specific genre came at the end of the first season of Survivor when Richard Hatch, the so-called naked guy & future tax outlaw, the villain of that season, ended up winning the million dollars. I think the producers were betting on the future of Project Runway and concluded that it made far more sense narratively for the “bad guy” – the contestant whose rudeness to everybody was unrelenting & who actually made the mother of one of his competitors cry – to win PR this year, even if his collection didn’t warrant it. The reality is that all four of the final collections were sufficiently unique as presentations, so that they could make a plausible case for whomever they picked. But the dead fly in this soup is that they noticeably picked the worst. And as much as a couple of the judges – Nina Garcia of Elle magazine and Michael Kors – irritate the heck out of me, I would love to see how each of the four judges actually scored the final four. I’ll wager that the raw scores are not how the show itself turned out.

Are the producers within their rights in intervening, if that is what happened? Of course they are. Fortunately, winning isn’t everything on this show. Anyone who finishes in the top six is pretty much guaranteed fast-track entrée into the fashion world at whatever level they are prepared to handle. For one thing, they’re already famous. Several of the shows at this year’s Fashion Week, itself a competition to earn one of the seventy spots available during the week, were presented by former PR contestants. Indeed, Malan Breton, who made it only through the second challenge this season, was himself able to mount an official show this same year. Uli declared herself completely satisfied with the final results of the contest and she may be the biggest winner of all. She wasn’t, after all, supposed to be there among the final contestants. But it’s her outfits that fans (and future shoppers) will remember the best.


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