It's hard to think of a milieu better-suited to reality television than the fashion world. Flamboyance, cunning, bitchiness, competitiveness, and obnoxious self-promotion are traits common to both the stereotypical fashionista and the ideal reality show contestant. Not surprisingly, advertisements and teasers for Project Runway, Bravo's much-praised fashion reality series (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET) now midway through its first season, emphasize minor tantrums, an innocent flirtation between two designers, and a few instances of over-the-top backstabbing. But Project Runway is ultimately not about a group of designers sabotaging one another by clawing apart their opponents' creations. The show is rather about the unglamorous work behind the glamour of fashion; it demystifies the process of designing—revealing the hours of sketching, cutting, basting, and sewing that go into every garment a designer creates.
Like most reality programs, however, Project Runway is animated by good old-fashioned competition. Twelve contestants face a weekly challenge—improvise an outfit for a night on the town with supplies bought at the supermarket; create a head-to-toe look for a rock star; design a swimsuit that can double as evening wear—to be conceived and executed quickly, usually in less than 24 hours. After a fitting with the models—who have been handpicked in a humiliating elimination lineup reminiscent of junior-high gym class—the designers send their creations down the runway to be judged by an American Idol-style panel composed of industry luminaries ranging from designer Michael Kors to Elle fashion editor Anne Slowey. Each week, one designer is eliminated and has his or her fate announced by German supermodel Heidi Klum, who officiates so coldly and monotonously, she sounds like a cyborg. "[T]his runway competition is as cutthroat as the fashion industry itself—one day you're in, and the next day you're out," she drones (pronouncing what has become her signature phrase, "You in oh you out"). Real-world stakes heighten the pressure: Three finalists will show their lines at New York's fashion week in early February, and the winner will receive a spread in Elle magazine, a mentorship with the Banana Republic design team, and $100,000 to start his or her own line. In other words, one designer will be offered a huge break by an industry that is notoriously hard to break into.
To the contestants' credit, they remain mostly unfazed by Klum's cartoonishly catty remarks. And however sensationally the show has been marketed, it focuses, like the designers, on the work itself—which, perhaps surprisingly, is as riveting as the few catfights. We watch the participants selecting their material ("I was immediately drawn to this fabric, it's such a rich rosebud …" says Austin, the resident dandy) and subsequently attempting to force that material into submission. ("These placemats were obviously not meant to be worn," the recently eliminated Nora moans as she sews her recalcitrant grocery store find.) In fact, many of the best designs arise astonishingly from the absurd constraints of resources and time. When Austin purchases corn on the cob as part of the grocery store challenge, it's hard to imagine a wearable, let alone attractive, dress coming of it. But he painstakingly shucks the corn, then weaves the delicate husks into a stunningly intricate bodice and skirt. Likewise, it's hard to get one's mind around the notion that Jay, the show's funnyman, has transfigured a collection of leather straps he described as "two black Band-Aids with dental floss" into a fabulous, Gucci-esque swimsuit.
Viewers are by now well-acquainted with the six remaining contestants and, having watched them work from week to week, are familiar enough with their sensibilities and skills to handicap the race. Jay McCarroll is guided by an urban streetwise aesthetic, has a brash, unerring sense of humor, and is fond of giving interviews in a huge fur stole, like a Hollywood starlet. He is also arguably the show's most talented designer. But he runs neck-and-neck with the unflappable Kara Saun, who moves fluently from hip-hop looks to elegant feminine styles, and the appropriately named Austin Scarlett, a technical wunderkind who designs girly Gone With the Wind-era confections, sets his hair in hot rollers, and sleeps in an ascot. The dark-horse contender is Wendy Pepper, a marginally talented designer but the only one who seems to have a developed strategy: She cultivates the persona of a small-town everymom while behaving as monstrously as the Joan Crawford character in Mommie Dearest.
This being reality television, it's hardly surprising that the designers are as colorful as their designs. In the end, though, the designers are beside the point, and it's their creations that take center stage. With each week's runway show, it becomes ever more apparent that while the denizens of the fashion industry may easily inhabit the world of reality television, runway fashion and reality are worlds apart. On the runway, everything is bigger or smaller or bolder or brighter: the outlandish outfits, the models with their transfixingly inhuman proportions. This, of course, is what all the behind-the-scenes toil is for: to achieve, for however brief a moment, a suspension of reality. And a sensitivity to this trade-off may be the best part of Project Runway—the show manages to provide a fascinating glimpse into the artistry behind the spectacle of high fashion while knowing just when to leave the workshop behind.