On ‘Project Runway All Stars’ and Why the Franchise Still Matters After 12 Years

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Last night, 24 models walked down a televised runway wearing clothes that ranged from gridded pastel poofs to painted-on kimono jackets and what someone called “Cruella de Vil collars.” The three creators of these clothes were then judged by a former star of Charmed, a man who thinks the moon is a planet, the creator of this year’s coolest light-up dress, Marie Claire EIC Anne Fulenwider, and Grace, from Will & Grace. One of the designers was then awarded $100,000. For making clothes.

That’s not to say that clothes-making or design aren’t worth $100k, just that it’s odd that, since 2004, Project Runway has survived on the very concept of fashion design when so few people seem to care about it otherwise. In fact, the show and its franchise has thrived: last night’s episode was not merely vanilla PR, but the fifth season of Project Runway All Stars, the spin-off hosted by Alyssa Milano and starring all of the contestants from the original PR who had enough personality to garner a second invitation but not enough dignity or success to turn it down.

Perhaps that’s a little rude, to reduce the show to its basest function, because the work done by the designers under such constraints is sometimes truly beautiful and fascinating. It’s also much better than the work produced on any of the show’s other spin-offs, which are numerous, and mostly unsuccessful: Under the Gunn, Project Runway Junior, Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, Project Runway: Threads, Project Accessory.

The source of the success the franchise has managed is hard to pin down, especially in this era of purely voyeuristic reality television, where Andy Cohen and his Housewives run wild. The only competitive reality shows left are mostly situation-based (Survivor, The Amazing Race) rather than skill-based, as Project Runway is. The two main exceptions are The Voice and Steve Harvey’s new kid-talent show Little Big Shots, but both of those thrive on the star-power of the hosts and celebrity guests — and also, of course, on the everlasting brightness of children. So it’s a blessing that Project Runway been allowed to succeed for so long — 12 years, in fact.

When Bravo launched Project Runway, it was, and still is, hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum, and it’s biggest breakout star would be then-unknown Tim Gunn, who had served as chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design but had no experience in television. The show wasn’t an immediate hit for a burgeoning Bravo, but it picked up steam and hasn’t let up (much) since, surviving a change in networks (it’s now at Lifetime), format shakeups, and the departure of Michael Kors from its panel of judges — all because of the strength of the competitors, and also the fact that the talent being showcased and democratized (designing and creating fashion) is one that is essential to society but barely ever examined.

Because, while fashion is a scary word dogged with all kinds of appropriate connotations — it’s unethical, it’s expensive, it’s classist — it’s also the basis for our everyday wardrobes. The upper echelons of fashion trickle down into Target, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, and maybe even Walmart. So the products being designed by the Big Name Designers might not land in your closet, but their knock-off cousins surely will. And yet we often have very little insight as to how those clothes are made, or what kind of thoughts go into them.

Project Runway does not offer a snapshot of the real fashion world; nobody should be foolish enough to believe that any reality show would be capable of or even attempt to show the actual truth of something, because the real world is boring and rarely ready for a close-up. On Project Runway, fashion is created by one person in the span of a day or two, and then immediately evaluated by tastemakers and eventually given an “in” or “out.” In fact, as the show has gone on and the producers have tried to keep it relevant with smaller budgets, the competition has become even less realistic: time constraints have played a bigger and bigger role (last night’s finale featured eight-look collections completed in four days) while drama has been ramped up, too. It’s clear that certain contestants (this season’s Sam, especially) are kept for dramatic potential, and that’s a shame, but also understandable. Drama makes everything more entertaining, and hour-and-a-half reality shows are not an exception.

And yet still fashion is the star of the show. And that’s important, because what fashion manages to do is bring together art and commerce in a way few other mediums can. To say the sole appeal is the art side of things would be dangerous, and not at all because only one or two challenges each season actually focus on clothes as “art” (though the distinction between “fashion” and “clothes,” a nebulous one to begin with, is often at the heart of the judging). No, there’s only been one true “art”-based reality show.

For a moment, and to the horror of New York Magazine‘s Jerry Saltz, let’s remember Work of Art, the show judged by Saltz and that also promised artists $100k and, more substantially, a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum. This was in 2010, years after the popular peak of Project Runway, so the motivation to create a show that followed PR‘s format, only in a less commercial, more exclusive industry, is head-scratching. To say nothing of the fact that photographers were being judged against painters and performance artists — all very different forms of art, all serving different purposes and capable of expressing different things — there’s just no way to objectively judge art. The art industry exists only in scare quotes, and trends are unpredictable and based more on name than talent. There’s also the mystique surrounding art’s creation, that art is spontaneous and not made-to-order. However untrue that might be, to see artists given tasks and then struggle to create art to fit these tasks, and to then be judged on it? Not good fun.

The products being designed by the Big Name Designers might not land in your closet, but their knock-off cousins surely will. And yet we often have very little insight as to how those clothes are made, or what kind of thoughts go into them.

Other fashion-based shows have come and gone, sure, the most egregious of which was Shear Genius, simply because, well, that title. The newest “fashion” show to thrive is RuPaul’s Drag Race, aired on LOGO, another TV channel that caters to gay men and is willing to foster fledgling shows. But Drag Race is, more than maybe any other competitive show on television, dependent on personalities — just look at the name of the thing. It’s also less about fashion and more about performance, as even the fashion design element is performative. But at least the contestants here obtain success in the drag community, which translates to real-life opportunities. And that’s something that Project Runway just can’t seem to do for its contestants.

That very few of the show’s designers obtain A-list level says more about the fashion industry than the talent of designers. Christian Siriano is one of the few winners who has parlayed televised success to flesh-and-bones stardom, but his strong talent was backed by an absurd and lovable personality and a decidedly business-minded approach, even from the beginning. All evidence elsewhere points to the show’s contestants not being welcomed within the fashion industry, but insiders’ unwillingness to accept newcomers is well-documented — just look at Kanye.

And this failure to launch a star has maybe hurt the show’s ratings, but it hasn’t hurt the show’s quality. In fact, as paths to success in fashion change and social network numbers begin to translate into market value, the visibility of appearing on Project Runway could, in the coming years, be more influential than ever on a designer’s commercial success. Who needs a boutique when you’ve got 100,000 Instagram followers who will buy whatever you’re willing to sell? And that’s great and all, but it doesn’t even really matter. Because, for one reason or another — whether it’s All Stars‘ returning talent, the charm of Tim Gunn, the wit of Heidi and the judges, or the fascination with capital-F Fashion — each season of the show manages to entertain and educate as much as the last. It is, without a doubt, the reason many men know what the word peplum means. And isn’t the world better for it?