Sunday, April 11, 2010

On the "Runway"

Another season of "Project Runway" is drawing to a close. It's my favorite reality show despite my disinterest in fashion generally. I love shows about people making things, as I've mentioned before. I love seeing creative, skilled professionals at work. I have a special fondness for movies about artists and composers, and I find any depictions of the creative process fascinating. So it's no wonder I like watching the "Project Runway" designers turn out dozens of garments, with the cameras following every step in the process from initial sketching to the final catwalk twirl. On the other hand, there are a lot of other elements at play that help to make it work.

"Runway" is now in its seventh season, the second to be broadcast on Lifetime. I've followed all of them since the beginning. There have been good and bad years, and it's been fascinating to see how delicate the show's alchemy for success really is. Last season was set in Los Angeles instead of New York, featured guest judges for most of the early rounds of competition instead of regulars Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, and most of the contestants were already established professionals. It was a lousy season, full of pedestrian personalities and pedestrian clothing. The entire atmosphere was different, from tamer challenges to milder critiques in the judging sessions to a bevy of finalists who looked like they belonged on the modeling side of the show.

The current season, by contrast, is back to its old tricks and much more fun to watch. The past week saw one designer and one model drop out of the competition by their own choice, the return of another designer to fill in the empty slot, a celebrity judge whose comments led to the declaration of two winners instead of one, and finally this week's eliminated designer going home after constructing three different dresses that never quite came together. There's enough going on in one good episode of "Project Runway" to fill a whole season of a lesser program, and the best part is that the tension is focused around the creative process rather than interpersonal drama.

"Runway" doesn't engage in the same amount of manipulative editing as you see on other shows – there is some to accentuate the wilder personalities and build up tension in the elimination segments – and the drama that does result tends to be born out of the extremes of the competition where the designers are essentially working around the clock for days on end. From clips that have surfaced in retrospective programs and from unedited segments online, it's surprising to realize how little most of the footage has been touched. It certainly comes through in the show itself, where you get a very genuine vibe from what's going on onscreen.

And I suspect that this is one of the major draws of the show – it's pulling back the curtain on an industry that is obsessed with appearances, to let us see a little of the rough-edged reality behind those million-dollar dresses worn by anorexic twenty-year olds. The lack of perfection - the quirkiness and volatility of the participants, the chaos and pandemonium before every runway show, and the occasional catastrophe – bring the world of high fashion back to the realm of mortals and turn the spotlight on the designers. It's still plenty pretentious and elitist, one of the few places on television where this is a plus, but now it's also more accessible and we get to see more of the players involved.

The show's hosts are iconic precisely because they're so pleasantly off kilter and go against expectations. Host and model Heidi Klum seems to be perpetually pregnant, yet still always looks fabulous, speaks in a thick Germanic accent, and bids each departing competitor "Auf wiedersehen." She's also one of the tougher critics on the show's judging panel. Tim Gunn, the indispensable mentor figure, shepherds the designers through the competition and provides early critique. He's equal parts wry, British sophisticate and den mother, and has proven so popular he briefly had his own show in 2007, "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style." He's an unlikely icon of American fashion, yet also a long overdue one.

The New York Times ran a piece last year noting that young women who want to work in fashion these days no longer want to be models exclusively, but have shifted their aims toward being designers and fashion editors too. The trend was directly attributed to the popularity of shows like "Project Runway" and "Ugly Betty" and their portrayals of the fashion industry. And no surprise. The contestants on "Project Runway," harried and stressed as they are, always look like they're having way more fun than the poor girls on "America's Next Top Model." Sometimes you have to peek behind the glitz and glamor to find the people who are really worth talking about, and as the age of the supermodel declines, I look forward to the rise of the "Project Runway" generation.

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