I have never been the least bit interested in fashion. One look in my closet, or at my person, quickly confirms this. I like jeans and t-shirts and the occasional solid-colored button down. I own one (1) suit, and I bought it in 2004. I refuse to wear anything with any kind of brand name or logo on it, I have never spent more than $60 on any piece of clothing (other than winter coats, boots, and the suit), and I have been wearing the same kind of plain black and white sneakers since high school.
Nevertheless, I have somehow become addicted to Project Runway, the reality competition wherein aspiring fashion designers engage in themed challenges, only to be mericlessly critiqued by industry luminaries and the flawlessly preserved Heidi Klum. (I may have hit on this point before, but remember when models were really pretty? I miss that.) Most any heterosexual man caught out as having seen this show would blame their wife or girlfriend for making them watch it against their will; I am the same in that I would have never watched this show if my wife hadn’t introduced me to it, but unlike the majority of those heterosexual men, I feel no shame at all — I’m grateful to my wife for turning me on to this show. I love Project Runway, and I don’t care who knows it.
Most reality shows depend on artificial stimuli to create drama: alcohol (The Real World, The Bachelor, Jersey Shore), sexual tension (ibid.), claustrophobia (Big Brother), the intemperate slings and arrows of a panel of judges (Hell’s Kitchen, American Idol, America’s Got Talent), or good old fashioned lying and politicking (Survivor, Bachelor Pad). Project Runway uses exactly zero of these — it simply makes its contestants work their asses off, 16 hours a day, every day for three or four weeks, at achieving their lifelong dream.
Nobody is chosen for this show because of what they look like. There has never been a coupling among the cast members in nine seasons. The rooftop champagne toast at the start of each season is the last time anyone is seen to be holding any kind of beverage. Ambition and fatigue are the key dramatic elements on this show. It’s easy to forget, since episodes are a week apart, that there are no days off, that each day brings a new, bizarre challenge (Make a red-carpet gown out of the materials available at a newsstand! Create a whole line of sportswear using what you find in a gorilla cage!) and no sooner is the last one finished than the next one is upon them.
The fact that aspiring fashion designers tend to be either women or gay men amps up the potential for extreme cattiness and/or emotional confrontation, which is always very attractive in a reality show. The reality show convention of the “confessional” — where contestants are individually pulled away from the action and address the camera directly about whatever is going on — is its most entertaining when contestants take the opportunity to rag on each other’s work, rather than about niggling personal issues (though they do dip into those as well), and this is another area where women and gay men excel. (I hope my gay readers will not feel I’m unfairly stereotyping them for their way with a cutting remark.)
One might argue that Top Chef and cooking shows of its ilk are also meritocracies; their contestants are also not chosen for their looks, and they also depend entirely on a merciless work schedule for drama. I’d agree with that, but I have never been able to get into cooking shows for one simple reason: I can’t taste or smell the food. I have to take the word of the judges what’s good and what’s not. I may not agree with what the judges on Project Runway like — I am constantly being reminded how little I know about fashion, in fact — but at least I am able to form my own opinion with the same amount of information as they have.
And the judges are both amusing in their comments, and qualified to make those comments, which is refreshing on a show like this. I don’t know how Paula Abdul ever got into a position to judge other people’s singing, considering she has the thinnest, squeakiest voice ever committed to magnetic tape and would never have gone anywhere without the razzle-dazzle of her tightly choreographed music videos. Whereas, Michael Kors is an actual designer with an actual, ongoing product line, and has a marvelous knack for both stinging one liners and for praising good work. The same goes for the inscrutable Nina Garcia, who has been working at fashion magazines forever and looks slightly uncomfortable without a martini in her hand. The show’s other star, the diminutive-yet-dapper Tim Gunn, is like the nicest uncle on planet Earth, and his mentoring segments are somehow very comforting even if they rarely seem to be particularly helpful. (And I call him diminutive because if I can tell how tiny someone is even on television, which tends to make everyone seem the same size, you are tiny! Tinkerbell tiny! Thumbelina tiny! I’m reaching for a tiny reference that doesn’t sound like I’m calling him gay and I’m not coming up with one!)
And of course the show is anchored by Heidi Klum, who somehow manages to seem kind and sweet and approachable (and gorgeous) at the top of each show (when she’s telling the designers about the challenges) and ice-cold at the end (critiquing the results and kicking people off). She’s the Simon and the Paula, all in one beautiful body. She looks great! Have I mentioned that?
Is this show perfect? Of course it’s not. It bends over backwards and then twists and then bends again to find new ways of shoehorning product placement, any old product placement, into every episode — the one where the designers had to make clothes out of whatever they found at the Hershey candy store stands out in my memory — to the point that it’s distracting and obviously not very relevant to “fashion” or “making clothes” or “temporal reality.”
It also, like all reality shows, has a habit of keeping the most colorful characters around longer than their work justifies, just so they can stir the pot a week or two longer. I’m prepared to forgive this indiscretion (most of the time) because I watch the show for entertainment, and because no one ever wins the whole show because they’re colorful; this kind of thing is usually isolated to the early rounds.
This season has had an unusual number of team challenges, which predictably lead to a lot of interpersonal strife as the designers disagree about matters of taste and each others’ skill. I think this is because this season’s crop of designers has been doing something I’ve never seen in the four or five seasons I’ve been watching: they’ve been giving each other constructive criticism, generally being supportive of each other, and even literally helping each other sew (on non-team challenges). So if the producers of this show want to work the puppet strings a little and get some drama out of nice, well-adjusted people by making them work together, that’s fine with me.
I’ll close with this question, and it’s something that’s bugged me for as long as I’ve been watching Project Runway: why can’t fashion designers dress themselves? I have never seen so many insanely bad haircuts and outfits in one place as one sees weekly in the Project Runway workroom. These people seem to have very good taste when it comes to what other people wear but make themselves look ridiculous. Even I know you don’t wear a plaid bow tie with a short-sleeved polka-dot shirt and rolled-up jean shorts with braided suspenders. But maybe I just don’t understand fashion.