Tuesday, November 10, 2009

#52 - Project Runway

It was the Decade when....

You're either in or you're out.

Once the network of high-brow arts programming and the fawn-a-thon that was (is?) Inside the Actor's Studio, BravoTV underwent a major makeover in the Aughts. It seems the success of Queer Eye convinced the suits at Bravo that all the channel's programming should be equally homosexual. And what's gayer than haute couture? Thus was born Project Runway, a show that made fashionistas of us all.

The secret to Project Runway’s runaway success was the alchemy of its permanent cast - from Heidi Klum: vapid, Helen-of-Troy beautiful, and parrot-like in her fashion analysis ("Ya, I agree with Michael, I did think the dress did look a little too much like Eleanor Roosevelt at Studio 54") yet still likable through some miraculous and unfair power she possesses, to Tim Gunn’s officious and anal, but ultimately endearing and empathetic tutor, to the weekly exercise in bitchery that is Michael Kors, to Nina Garcia with her exhaustingly predictable criticisms on the designers lack of technical skill in garment construction (“That hem is not even.” “It looks like it was just thrown together.” “Is that glued on?!?” asked as if she were accusing the designer of employing the skins of orphan children as material.), these personalities had struck the delicate balance of sass (Kors and Garcia) and sweetness (Klume and Gunn) that a competition reality show needs to succeed; lean too far one direction and the flavor goes either cloyingly sweet or cheek sinkingly sour. Tent poles in place, season to season Project Runway felt comfortably familiar even if the contestants were wildly different.

And what contestants! A motley crew of gays, fierce gays, weepy gays, HIV-Positive gays, outré gays, dashing gays, foreign gays, Mormon gays, and Austin Scarlett. Oh, and there are women too. But I'm not being fair; the talent of the female designers on Project Runway is so good it makes one wonder if there is indeed a glass ceiling in the fashion world given the preponderance of men in the highest echelons of design glory. (Yes, of course I know about Coco Chanel and Donna Karan, I'm not brain dead.) In the current season, not a single male has made it to fashion week.

Everyone has their favorite designer. Though I loved Malan Breton, with his Turnbull&Asser suits, brilliantined jet black hair, and a cackle to rival Dwight Frye, he disappointed on the runway and was eliminated far too early in Season 3. Then there was Laura Bennett, who had so much class and WASP affectation I was shocked her last name wasn't Vanderbilt or Astor. With a penchant for fur and vintage cuts, Bennett should have probably won the competition...if it had been on Television it '55. Richard Avedon would have photographed her gowns beautifully. And who doesn't tip their chapeau to "Tranny-Fierce" Christian Siriano, or as he is known amongst my friends, "the gayest gay in Gaysville." Though he may have looked like a Chihuahua, when it came to fashion design, he was a tiger. Not only did Siriano (deservedly) win the competition but he was lampooned, hilariously, by Amy Poehler on SNL, no small feat! No other Runway contestant acquired such pop-cultural saturation.

Though Christian made quite an impression, no designer on Project Runway won my affections as much as gutsy, hilarious, pompous, fearless and all around show-off Santino Rice, Season Two's wildcard contestant. Santino's secret: Behave as if you were Dolce&Gabbana rolled into one, then push the envelope...to the breaking point. (It's a daring choice to make a lingerie line inspired by liederhosen, it's another level of ballsiness entirely to emboss the words "Auf Wiedersehen" on the ass of the panties, all but begging for Heidi to supply you her own trademarked rendition of the German farewell.) Santino lost the competition after a surprisingly tepid fashion week showing but his irrepressible personality won him a seat behind the judges table on the equally addictive reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race. With Santino, love him or hate him, you're bound to have an opinion. After six seasons on the air, Project Runway has made armchair Anna Wintours of us all, dispensing instant and cruel judgement on other people's style.

With Season Six shifted to both Lifetime (after a long lawsuit between Bravo and Harvey Weinstein) and Los Angeles, Runway might be running out of seam. (Not a typo!) It's getting harder to surprise on the Runway, the challenges more achingly familiar each week. Worse, the format itself has become a cliche, imitated on Bravo's attempt at Runway replacement, the abysmal "The Fashion Show" and more successfully on Bravo's other big hit Top Chef. As Runway catwalks on, the lack of a truly successful break-out designer makes one wonders if Project Runway is really a successful sifting process for new design talent. Of course, long term success for the contestants is not what any reality show concerns itself with; the immediacy of the moment till the next commercial break is all. It's really just entertainment. What...? Did you think the ability to make a dress out of nothing but plastic shopping bags and corn husks tells you anything about a contestant's potential to be the next Halston? Not even close. It's the mini-human dramas and silly design challenges that keep us coming back for more, not curiosity about the minutiae of the fashion industry. While in the next decade may see the show dissolve into total irrelevance, for now Project Runway is still with us. We can count on our weekly fix of sartorial sinfulness, snide commentary and those three little words of advice that sum up what Runway (and maybe life) is all about: "Make It Work."

You AUGHT to remember.

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