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Walking the Runway

Analise Lipari | Monday, September 25, 2006

The familiar phrase, “Make it work, people!” has become the mantra of Bravo’s “Project Runway,” the fashion world’s take on the reality television phenomenon. Taking a page from the “Survivor” handbook – but with a slight change in attire – “Project Runway” is a glossy, glitzy and grungy look at the inner workings of the world of fashion through the eyes of 16 designer contestants. “Runway” has been a runaway success for the network, averaging 3.4 million viewers per episode. According to Bravo, “Runway” has become its No. 1 show.

Now in its third season, “Project Runway” has a format built on simplicity. Weekly episodes chronicle various challenges – ranging from spinning clothes from home furnishings to constructing window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue – in which the designers must work with their minds, hands and sewing machines to succeed. Each season culminates in the final contestants showing their collections at Olympus Fashion Week in New York.

The program is hosted by Heidi Klum, the famous German model known for her work with lingerie line Victoria’s Secret. Klum is the show’s anchor, relaying challenges to contestants and delivering the fatal blow to the unfortunate designer who loses each project. Despite her tendency to be overly blunt, as well as her mysteriously perpetual state of pregnancy, Klum is a vital ingredient in the “Project Runway” formula for success.

The contestants must face evaluation from a trio of judges. The first is well-known designer Michael Kors, whose sense of style and sharp humor lends the show a sense of humor. Nina Garcia, fashion editor of Elle Magazine, is the second judge, and her personal aesthetic sense often comes in conflict with those of the show’s contestants.

A rotating celebrity judge rounds out the trio. Past judges include wedding gown designer and design icon Vera Wang and Nancy O’Dell of televised tabloid “Access Hollywood.” All the while, Klum moderates with typical German efficiency, personal composure and an “Auf Weidersehn” at each episode’s conclusion.

The true star of “Runway,” however, is Tim Gunn, chairman of the fashion design department of the Parsons School of Design in New York City and surrogate den mother to the show’s contestants. Gunn’s deliciously dry sense of humor and deadpanned manner accentuate his blunt but heartfelt insights into the errors and shortcomings of these “students.”

It is Gunn who coined the show’s signature phrase, “Make it work, people!” His no-nonsense sense of style and function carries throughout the show, and he has become both the show’s centering personality and the target of much fan affection.

The appeal of “Runway” to women and men seems to lie in both the sense of high style that pervades the show’s aesthetic and in the behind-the-scenes, “fly on the wall” mentality of the viewers that watch. It is a rare look behind the clothing racks and high-end boutiques, taking viewers into the depths of fashion’s most basic and mysterious origins.

“‘Project Runway’ succeeds because it brings the public into the secret club of fashion,” said Robin Givhan of the Washington Post in a recent article. “It is pure entertainment, of course: no Seventh Avenue designers are making evening gowns out of materials found at the local recycling plant – although a few are coming close. The audience correctly senses that it is learning a little something about the way the fashion industry works.”

The first season of “Project Runway,” airing originally in 2004, introduced America to the format and concept of blending high fashion with reality television. That season gave the world such memorable characters as Austin Scarletty, a fantastically over the top designer who now works on wedding gowns, and season one winner Jay McConnell, whose left-of-center sense of design and fun, funky style won him accolades in both the show and the New York world at Olympus Fashion Week that year.

Season two took the extremity of personalities of the preceding season and doubled them, introducing audiences to Santino, a designer whose unconventional talent was matched only by his ego, and fan-favorite Daniel Vosovic, a contestant whose appearance that season was his second on the show, having lost earlier in the first season. Season two included such challenges as designing a party dress for socialite Nikki Hilton, as well as an evening gown for awards show commentator Nancy O’Dell.

Where “Project Runway” succeeds most is in the relationships between and development of its characters. Each designer, even in the earliest episodes has a story to tell and a style to emulate and espouse. Relationships between designers can range from friendly camaraderie to fierce clashes, as seen in the adverse nature of Jay McConnell’s and Wendy Pepper’s professional rivalry. It is the nature of the show to be nothing if not a difficult, challenging competition, and as the stakes rise, so do the contestants’ tempers.

At the end of each episode, however, audiences are left with more than just character studies and pretty clothes. “Project Runway” is a fascinating look at an industry whose seamy underbelly often remains hidden from the public eye. By using the format of competition to highlight the secrets of the fashion world, Bravo has found a long-lasting hit.