How I Learned To Love Project Runway

Aug 05, 2015 by Alex Castle

I have never been the least bit interested in fashion. I like jeans and t-shirts and the occasional solid-colored button down. I own one suit, and I bought it in 2004. I don’t wear anything with any kind of brand name or logo on it, I have never spent more than $60 on any one 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.

And yet I am a huge fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, the reality competition wherein aspiring fashion designers engage in themed challenges, only to be mercilessly critiqued by industry luminaries and the flawlessly preserved Heidi Klum. Most any straight man would blame their wife or girlfriend for making them watch this show against their will, and I would have never watched it if my wife hadn’t introduced me to it, but I make no excuses — I’m grateful to my wife for turning me on to this show.

Most reality shows depend on artificial stimuli to create drama: alcohol (The Real World, The Bachelor), sexual tension (ibid.), claustrophobia (Big Brother), or good old fashioned lying and politicking (Survivor). Project Runway needs none of these — it simply makes its contestants work their tails off, 18 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 13 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 to address the camera directly about whatever is going on — finds its best expression on this show when contestants take the opportunity to rag on each other’s work, and this is another area where women and gay men excel. (I hope our gay readers will not feel I’m unfairly stereotyping them for their way with a cutting remark.)

You 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 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, Zac Posen 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 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.

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.

New episodes of Project Runway air Thursdays at 9pm on Lifetime.

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