It happened the way these things often do. I was drifting around my Brooklyn apartment on a Sunday afternoon, putting off a writing assignment. I had already given the place a Procrastination Cleaning so compulsively thorough that at one point I found myself consolidating two boxes of bandages into one more streamlined package. And so I turned on the television - a no-no among my writer cronies, who argue that daytime T.V. begins a dissolute spiral downward. Writers are a vulnerable population of clammy, sweatpants-clad hermits, and while other groups are quite capable of ‘just turning on The View for ten minutes,’ we are not. For me, a quick check-in with Barbara and the gang would lead to a 22-hour sloth-a-thon capped by a 5 a.m. showing of Turner & Hooch. Then I’d start drinking. Then I’d start doing drugs.
So it was with extreme trepidation that I reached for the remote, but I was desperate not to work. I flicked disinterestedly through dozens of channels before landing on Bravo, which was running a marathon of the 2004 first season of Project Runway. I sighed. I was never a fan of reality T.V., never able to join in the water cooler chat about the latest episode of American Idol. My granny-ish viewing preferences tilted towards cozy mystery series on PBS starring elderly but plucky detectives.
Five minutes into Project Runway, I put the remote down. An hour later, I had taken a pillow from my bed and tucked it under my back for a more comfortable viewing position on the couch. Three hours later, I was absently shoving a box of pizza rolls into my toaster oven with my eyes fastened to the screen as I rooted for contestant Jay McCarroll to win. Around midnight, I got my wish.
The premise of the show is simple: a cutthroat group of contestants competes to create a garment, usually with alarmingly limited time and materials, to be presented at a runway show at the end of the program. Every episode presents a different design challenge, ranging from nutty (an outfit made with items from the grocery store) to inspired (fashioning a new ensemble from the clothes on contestants’ backs.) Taping takes place in New York City – to bang the point home there are many, many loving shots of massing pigeons and yellow taxicabs – with much of the action taking place at Parsons The New School For Design, where designers take over a workroom.
The producers found their perfect host in German glamazon Heidi Klum (“as you know in fashion, one day you are in, the next, you are out”) whose deliciously chilly Teutonic parting shot to each exiting contestant is an Auf Wiedersehen followed by a double air kiss. Her fellow judges nicely round out the mix: designer Michael Kors (“hey guys”) formidable Elle editor-at-large Nina Garcia (“hi, everyone”) and a guest judge along the lines of Victoria Beckham. Kors’ sense of humor mitigates the sting of his criticism (“Hel-LO! Slutty, slutty, slutty!”) while Garcia, unfairly labeled as too tough, brings an intelligent, high-fashion perspective to the proceedings (“Don’t bore me.”)
Oh, how do I love thee, Project Runway? Let me count the ways. The heart of the show is witty, cultured Tim Gunn, former chair of fashion design at Parsons (and now Chief Creative Officer of Liz Claiborne.) One of the highlights is his visit to the workroom to inspect the designs-in-progress. He frowns in concentration, one hand on his chin. “Talk to me,” he’ll say after a long silence, and the contestant ramblingly explains his or her vision. If he’s pleased, he says Carry on. Less skilled contestants get a diplomatic I’m concerned.
Much has been made of Gunn’s extensive vocabulary and liberal use of words such as constructivist and egregious and amorphous. “Why is there so much consternation and Sturm und Drang?” he’ll ask a blank-faced designer. Gunn’s eloquence helps to tamp down that sheepish self-loathing that reality television can elicit –the same tawdry shame that waits at the grease-soaked bottom of a McDonald’s bag after a binge.
I’m desperate to be Tim Gunn’s friend, and fantasize about meeting him at the Neue Gallery uptown for Viennese coffees at Café Sabarsky before taking a stroll in Central Park, where we discuss art, literature, life. Alternatively, he summons me to an elegant little pre-opera supper at his apartment before we attend a performance of La Gioconda together at the Met, where we discreetly squeeze each other’s arm during onstage moments of high emotion.
While Gunn anchors the whole affair, there are so many other soothing constants that I look forward to each week. There is the pitiless tradition of tossing out an extraneous model during the first few minutes of the show (they also compete for a spread in Elle magazine) just to whet the audience’s bloodlust. Auf wiedersehen, Tatiana!
I love the endless, brazen product placement, as Gunn says straight-facedly, You-have-an-hour-to-send-models-to-the-Tresemme-hair-salon-and-the-L’Oreal-Paris-makeup-room-and-please-borrow-generously-from-the-Bluefly.com-accessory-wall. I adore the way the most minor setback is blown to Titanic proportions (Tim to Season Five contestant Keith: “Your model, Runa, had to drop out.” Cue dramatic music and a tight closeup of a white-faced Keith, blind with shock as he struggles to absorb this telegram delivered straight…from…Hell.
And who can resist the brash, flamboyant, high-octane contestants, with their killer competitiveness, their unvarnished ambition? If a designer is praised by the judges during the fashion-show segment, the camera will gleefully cut to another designer who is grimacing with disgust and naked hostility. I rejoice in the genuine anger and indignation the contestants display when they are eliminated, leaving with the requisite, defiant ‘you haven’t heard the last of me’ quote. They do everything but shake their fist at the camera. Frankly, I’m shocked that no one has tried to burn Parsons down. Never, ever will they admit to an inferior creation that actually deserved to be cut.
So many gaudy, glitzy, eccentric fabulons! Campy costume designer Chris March, passive-aggressive schemer Wendy Pepper, spacey artist Elisa Jimenez, who used her own saliva to measure her clothing; glamorous, poised Austin Scarlett (yes, his real name) with his cravats and perfectly arched eyebrows. Inevitably, there is a bemused straight guy thrown into the group who holds himself slightly apart from his more unabashedly gay competitors. (Kevin was the last season’s bemused straight guy, given to comments like “There’s too much drama because there’s too many queens around,” although soon enough, he, too, was dispensing snippy comments about his fellow contestants for the cameras.)
And, inevitably, there is a tough contestant who isn’t afraid to verbally tussle with the others, my very favorite being Season Three’s flame-haired paragon of cool confidence, Laura Bennett, the sole grownup on the show, 40ish and pregnant with her sixth child and not in the mood for any crap. Being timid myself, and reluctant to start even the mildest confrontation in New York City lest I get stabbed, I cackled every time she snapped at someone to shut up.
But the apex of Project Runway is the moment that the contestants get down to work. The cameras are forgotten (well, almost forgotten) as they become utterly absorbed in a frenzy of stitching and snipping and fitting. This is the part of the show that many viewers cite to justify their habit, because it lulls you into thinking that this is a more highbrow endeavor than your average reality show. No implants! No hot tubs! See? Everyone is creating something. It won a Peabody!
As a writer who works alone, I burn with envy as I witness the designers in action, because they have the best of both worlds: the camaraderie and feedback of a group and the glory of showing off their individual creations. I will never have both. At this point in my career, my ego won’t allow me to work in an office and surrender the spotlight. On the other hand, my ‘office mates’ are my two cats, and I have found myself more than once dementedly saying to them Well! Let’s see what the postman brought us or Hmm, what should I have for lunch today? I’ll bet you guys vote for tuna salad, right? On some days, I’m one step away from hosting a Cat Tea Party, so I’d happily move into the workroom and brave the backbiting.
Aside from watching the contestants at work, another key element of the show’s appeal is the kaleidoscope parade of outfits sported by most of the designers, particularly the ones who are in their early 20s. They dress the way I wish more New Yorkers did. Every person in New York looks like a demure fashion editor now, so I celebrate the contestants’ every pillbox hat, every Canary-yellow strip of eye shadow, each pair of stunningly impractical chartreuse shoes with a five-inch mirrored heel. New Yorkers, of all people, have become entirely too beige - and unfortunately, I include myself in that category.
When I first came to New York, aflame with the same energy the contestants have, I wore the most preposterous outfits in the world, and I’m glad I did. After I joined the staff of Rolling Stone in 1989, my first order of business was to run out and purchase three pairs of leather pants – black, brown, and white. White leather pants! Did I think I was a member of Earth, Wind & Fire? Naturally, I wore them with a sleeveless purple shirt trimmed in feathers. As a 22-year-old New Yorker, it’s your God-given right to look ridiculous as you clomp down the street in a white vintage slip and combat boots.
I fell on the city like a starving rat on a moldy ham sandwich, rushing to discover new bars every night, spending weekends combing through various neighborhoods, ducking into thrift stores and museums and cafes. The show deftly captures the giddy excitement of being a recent arriviste in the city, and I echo the disappointment of the many fans who are enraged that it will heretofore be set in Los Angeles. Is this necessary? The show will not be the same without that opening shot of the rising sun skimming over the Parsons building – which, by the way, is situated a few blocks from the Garment District, so that, crucially, designers spend a lot of time rushing around on the street. In Los Angeles, they will be removed from this thriving culture as they take to their cars. Most importantly, New York City will be awfully hard to replace as a setting, simply for the sheer number of people who drop down on it every year as I did, hoping to be somebody else, and fast.
Which leads me to my very favorite part of the series. As the finale nears and competitors are whittled to a handful, we are treated to a more rounded portrait of them. Earlier in the season, designers may rattle off a quick biography for the camera in between running to the Hersheys store in Times Square to fashion a dress out of candy, but beyond that, not much information is given on their backgrounds.
This is remedied in the last few episodes, when the remaining three or four contestants are handed eight thousand dollars and given a dozen weeks to complete a twelve-piece look to be shown at New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park. Each of them tapes an extended segment in which they talk about their beginnings. Then, after they commence work on their collections, Tim Gunn himself pays a visit to their homes to check their progress.
Gunn is, as always, gracious and kind, but somehow his visits are exceedingly awkward as he stands, cheery and dapper and slightly hesitant, at the doorstep. The moment when he is invited in is so sweetly poignant, because it is then that we see the designer’s roots peeking out
from beneath the wacky headgear. The place where most of these sophisticated hipsters grew up is often markedly different from their carefully cultivated, glamorous personas: there is the ordinary-looking family, uncomfortable in front of the camera and unsure of what to say; there is the drab sofa where Gunn sits briefly before heading off.
I had assumed that season Four’s Jillian Lewis, so urbane on the show, was an Upper East Side private-school girl, but instead she was Parsons grad who hailed from a modest house in the small town of Selden, Long Island. First Season winner Jay McCarroll, he of the pointed wit and flamboyant dress, grew up in the tiny mountain town of Lehman, Pennsylvania, the youngest of six kids. His dad was a bricklayer, and the family shopped at Sears. And whippet-thin, black-clad Season Four winner Christian Siriano may have looked like the bastard child of Ron Wood and French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, but in the end, he had the same comfortingly pedestrian relatives that most of us have.
In an instant it’s clear how thoroughly these designers have reinvented themselves, how they carefully honed a new persona until one day, they were the person they always wanted to be. I did it, too. When I took the New Jersey Transit bus into the City in 1989 to interview for a job at Rolling Stone, I had a Jersey girl perm, long red nails, heavy Color Me Beautiful makeup, and an Ann Taylor power suit I had borrowed from my mom. As I waited in the lobby, I realized with dismay that I looked utterly different from the stylish employees breezing into the office. After I – to my astonishment – landed the job, I took careful note of the city girls around me. I lost the perm. I bought good shoes. Slowly, slowly, I blotted out that scraggly Jersey girl and transformed her into someone else. If you looked at me now, you’d see a confident urbanite. Some days, I almost believe it myself.