The Problem with Project Runway

I’m a Project Runway fan. I think it was the first reality show I ever watched. The rest of the world was nuts over American Idol, but I’m tone-deaf, and musically challenged, so I didn’t care. (Apparently, those traits also make me the perfect contestant for American Idol. But that is neither here nor there.) But I do like fashion. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a kid. (I say this, it should be noted, in a Gap hoodie I got on clearance, gray sweatpants from Old Navy, and a $7 cotton tank top. If I were not in front of my computer, but instead actually leaving my house, the sweatpants would be replaced by jeans, also from Old Navy.) Unfortunately for the credibility of this show, and for my own personal enjoyment of it, thus far, none of the winners have really . . . done anything. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Chloe Dao, the season 2 winner, has apparently expanded her Houston-based business. Jay McCarroll showed a collection at the spring 07 New York Fashion Week, and has allegedly sold some of those pieces to Urban Outfitters, though I’ve seen neither hide nor hair of them, AND I’VE BEEN LOOKING, JAY. I’VE BEEN LOOKING! And Jeffrey Sebelia, the one who arguably had the most sophisticated fashion aesthetic of the three, is . . . designing costumes for the Bratz movies. I guess all of these would be considered successes in the world of fashion. But the show seemed to promise something more. They say that they’re looking for America’s next great fashion designer. The final contest is a show at New York’s Fashion Week. Those are the designers they’re supposed to be able to compete against at the end of all this; that is the fashion world to which they are supposed to belong. None of them seem to be going in that direction.

The problem is not with the designers. They are all – the losers as well as the winners – using this show for their own ends to the best of their ability. The problem is with the design and premise of the show. They seem to be selling this show on the idea that they will uncover genuine, but undiscovered, talents in the fashion industry, who, given this exposure and money will rise to the top. It’s a similar premise to American Idol – find ordinary people with talent but not yet fame, and give them the latter. And however badly American Idol discovers talent, it does seem to give fame effectively, and to give the kind of fame that is effective. Kelly Clarkson is doing great. Clay Aiken is doing okay, too. I’m sure there are other American Idol people selling records, but since I am the uncoolest kid in the world, so much so that I wouldn’t hear of hot new musical talent unless it came to my house and downloaded it onto my iPod, I don’t know the famous American Idol people, either. Be that as it may, Kelly Clarkson can make money off of her American Idol fame because the demographic for her music and the demographic for the show are one and the same. The problem with Project Runway is that the demographic for the show is totally different from the demographic for high fashion.

I don’t say this because I believe the very wealthy and/or already famous don’t watch TV. They might. But they’re not the ones who text in their votes for fan favorite; they’re not the ones who blog obsessively about it, and they are not the ones who would squeal with girlish delight if they saw Tim Gunn on the streets. (Not that I would! Don’t run away, Tim! I just want to touch you!) The target demographic for high fashion includes those to whom earning one’s fame from a reality show on a cable TV channel would be a descent, not an ascent. In fact, for a lot of purchasers of high fashion, being required to work for a living at all, even if it did entail $11 million per movie, would be a descent, not an ascent. So buying something designed by that guy on the tee-vee isn’t going to be exciting, and might even be embarrassing, to the target demographic for high fashion, whereas buying something designed by that guy on the tee-vee would be thrilling for Bravo’s target demographic. (Which includes me! Jay! Where the f@#* are the clothes I want?)

Jay McCarroll is actually responding to this well, by selling to Urban Outfitters, assuming that his clothing arrives sometime soon. But it’s a little too little, a little too late. He won two years ago. We’re over it. (Well, not me. But I take a long time to get over things.) Plus, his man-of-the-people, fashion-is-for-everyone schtick rings less maverick now that Stella McCartney did a collection for H&M andProenza Schouler is designing for Target.

Chloe Dao is also doing the best thing she can. She already had a pretty good business in Houston, catering to the elite and semi-elite of Texas, who are sufficiently removed from New York and L.A. that they might get a little thrill out of buying from that girl on the tee-vee, but whether they do or not, she already had a following and has used her prize money to expand the business she already had.

Jeffrey Sebelia is probably the most hurt by this. His demographic, before the show, was the same as the demographic for high fashion, or at least the subset of it that included rock stars and those who wanted to spend a whole lot of money to look bad-ass. Being a winner on this show has probably hurt him more than it has helped him, because his demographic is precisely the demographic that might sneer at buying clothing from the winner of a contest sponsored by Macy’s. He could pull a Jay if he wanted, but despite his punk aesthetic, I think he is too committed to some level of luxury in his clothing to go that route. It’s really a shame.

There are two solutions to this problem. One is to go the high-fashion route. Stop holding open auditions. Instead, approach the designers that are already on their way up, those who, if they won, would be best able to benefit and to benefit the way you want them to benefit, by funding fashion lines that would show at major fashion weeks and sell to the ultra elite. Go after the kids who were #1 in their class at Parson’s or FIT, or the designers who already have labels that are winning acclaim but haven’t exploded yet, or the designers working for major labels, and considered rising stars at their current workplaces, who are looking to break out on their own, or the designers who have sold to places like 30 Vandam, a store featured in episode 2, season 1, which finds fledgling talent and gives them a little exposure, just like Project Runway says it wants to do. Then restructure the show. Make it feel more like a behind-the-scenes documentary at a fashion boot-camp school than an episodic competitive reality show. Emphasize the challenges that focus a designer’s energy, that inspire, or that respond to real high-fashion situations. A party dress for a Hilton? Fine. Taking photos around New York? Great. Doing mini-collections? Awesome. What about assigning an inspiration, sort of like you did with “envy”? That can work. But drop the garbage, and the dogs, and of course, the “What? Macy’s IS high fashion” nonsense.

Or (and this is more likely), go more populist. Forget New York’s Fashion Week; have the final show be at the corporate sponsor’s venue. I may not like Macy’s or consider it a fashion haven, but I can afford it, and if I could get that skirt Jay McCarroll showed in his final collection (the deep olive one, with the polka dots – Jay, just call me! Please!) there, that’d be awesome. Keep the dogs, the garbage, the pageant queens and figure skaters, and go even kookier than that if you want. Also, have one of the final prizes be the production of the final collection, so that viewers can directly get what they like so much and Bravo can make cash of off it. If you go the populist route, then the format of the show can remain more or less the same. In fact, you can dispense with the pretensions to high fashion. More Barbies, less couture.

And if you, Bravo, use any of these ideas, you need to pay me. And get me that skirt.