Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Project Runway’s judges for the final competition (from left):
Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, “Posh Spice” Victoria Beckham & Heidi Klum

The time it takes to edit down the raw footage of a Project Runway show into the smooth final product creates some interesting problems for the program’s narrative. In order not to give away the secret of who the final three contestants are, the show has had to let a fourth designer – one who has narratively “already been eliminated” – produce a collection to show under the tents. The potential problem with this popped up during the very first season, when a few attendees wrote that the “eliminated” collection of Austin Scarlett was superior to any of the final three.

When the penultimate show of the third season saw all four of the contestants present particularly strong designs, the judges & producers threw up their hands and declared that they all would show and be in the final challenge to see who would win. It was an interesting step, in that it made television’s best “reality challenge” show a little less visibly unreal.

The current season four took awhile to show up. Tim Gunn, formerly the head of the Parsons School of Design where the competition takes place, had left Parsons to take over as the head of design at Liz Claiborne. His presence as mentor to the 15 designers – he’s the perfect Henry Higgins – has more than a little to do with the show’s popularity & his signature phrase, “Make it work,” has become part of the contemporary lexicon. Just last week one of the build team members of Mythbusters, a “let’s blow this up for science” show that is the antithesis of Runway, was not only quoting Gunn on the air, but imitating his clipped & precise manner of delivery.

Runway does a better job of showing creative people being creative than any television show ever, but half of its pleasure lies in the personalities. In addition to Gunn, host Heidi Klum sparkles as she shows up in one impossibly fabulous outfit after another – made even more pronounced in seasons 2 & 3 when she was going through a pair of pregnancies. Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia & dour, always dressed in black Michael Kors round out the regulars, performing solely as judges in addition to Klum & a rotating “celebrity” jurist.

I don’t know what happened this season, but the word on the street is that there will be only three finalists this year even though five designers presented last week in Bryant Park. The five remaining contestants include Rami Kashou from Ramallah in the West Bank, Christian Siriano, only 21 when the competition started, Chris March of San Francisco (already well-known in the gay & theater communities for his costumes for Beach Blanket Bingo), Jillian Lewis from Long Island, a talented designer with serious time-management issues, and “Sweet P” Kathleen Vaughn from Los Angeles, at 46 the senior contestant. Virtually none of the contestants are really newbies to the design world – one worked for Ralph Lauren, another already has had gowns worn by the likes of Jessica Alba. One contestant who was eliminated near the end of the competition, Victorya Hong, successfully competed to have her own show at Bryant Park this year as well. So, yes, this is the year in which six of the original fifteen contestants made it to the tents in the park.

One “innovation” this year has been that the show has really not had anyone who could be called a “villain,” a standard feature of all reality TV. In each of the first three seasons, it was very clear who the villain was and, in each case, the villain made it to the final three, even if he or she did not deserve to be there. One, Jeffrey Sebelia, won the third season competition.

Actually, I think the show was in the process of evolving – or identifying – this season’s villain, Carmen Webber, when she was eliminated in one of the earlier challenges. Soon thereafter another contestant, three-time All America swimmer Jack Mackenroth had to drop out due to illness. Because of some upcoming “team” challenges, the producers were then forced to re-up Chris March, the last contestant at that point to have been eliminated, and the group of competitors pulled together in a way that I’ve not seen in any previous season. It is not that everyone is friends – Christian’s catty comments has the rest of the cast’s eyes rolling. But they all seem to take the pint-sized designer from Annapolis as if he were just an annoying kid brother. Even Jillian, who is all of 26, feels like she’s at least a decade his senior. Plus it’s hard to have a villain who is not only both younger & shorter, but also more talented, than everyone else. If Christian just learned to listen & care about others, he’d be the total package.

If I have any complaints about this season, it’s mostly that the designs themselves have not been up to the standards set in previous rounds. Rami is great at draping fabric – but that is all he does, the proverbial one-trick pony. As befits his background, Chris’ pieces tend toward the cartoonish – that he’s survived something like five challenges since being “uneliminated” is itself a considerable accomplishment. My guess is that he’s not going to be one of the three “finalists” even though you can see his Bryant Park show here.

The other contestant whom I expect to be eliminated is Sweet P, the post-hippy LA designer who seems flabbergasted by every single assignment & has not won any of the ten weekly challenges. Somehow, she has managed to hang on in elimination after elimination. When she stayed & the popular Ricky Lizalde was eliminated, I think everyone watching must have gasped. Ricky’s designs often don’t work, but he always has some idea.

The other two whom I expect to show besides Rami are Jillian & Christian. If the judging is on pure talent (as it was last season), the winner overall will be Christian, unformed as he is. If it is on whose clothes women would want most (as it was the second season), then I think Jillian. Jillian should benefit from having an entire month to work, even tho the designers always discover one last “design challenge” waiting for them when they return to New York. I can’t even count how many times this year Jillian has been sewing her model into her outfit as they literally were proceeding to the runway.

I should note that if you check around on the web, you will discover that almost everybody who attended the show in the tent had the same idea as to who the winner should be. One site even has links to photos of each collection and a poll. The one discordant note that I've seen, however, came from Victoria Beckham, the celeb judge, so I think it could go either way.

One of the interesting aspects of this show is just how many of its participants have gone on to make use of their success here, even if they didn’t get all that far into the season. Get into the final six, which is really about the point when it stops being a crowd & turns into a community, and you’re suddenly a hot ticket in the garment district. Now a number of these folks already were hot tickets before they began on Runway. But Austin Scarlett, who finished fourth in season one, is already the creative director at Kenneth Pool. That’s not hot. That’s blazing.