The new season of Project Runway reviewed.

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Aug. 20 2009 4:37 PM

Let the Good Lines Roll

The new season of Project Runway reviewed.

Project Runway. Click image to expand.
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn of Project Runway

Guten Abend to the immutable Heidi Klum, whose Teutonic cheekbones return to prime time this week with the season premiere of Project Runway (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET). The fashion-design competition has hopped channels from Bravo to Lifetime with none of its appeal damaged in transit.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

If P.R. has picked up any new habits at its new home—any tendencies toward the maternal sensibilities of a fairly square women's network—it wears them well. For instance, there's a tear-streaked moment early on when one contestant, a recovering addict, suffers a crisis of confidence and considers throwing in the terrycloth. He blubbers to on-air mentor Tim Gunn that he doesn't want to fail again. "Nor do I want you to," says Gunn, den-mothering dapperly. He then speaks his signature catchphrase, investing it with an especial consoling quality. Make it work is the new This, too, shall pass.

More momentous than the change of channels is a switch of settings. In moving from New York to Los Angeles this season, Project Runway has gone Hollywood in order to get to middle America. The initial challenge finds the 16 contestants whipping up dresses appropriate for an awards show. I'll take this as a sign that PR, already increasingly celebrity-infested, is trying to broaden its reach by cultivating an US Weekly populism and making its take on the grammar of chic more approachable. Every good American, after all, knows how to eyeball a girl in a gown on a red carpet. "Here, it's as much about who you're wearing as who you are," says Heidi, dashing off a fashion-semiotics line while the local sunlight enhances her smile and vice versa.

In the matter of stylistic vision, the most gifted of the season's contestants divide into three camps. First, there are the incompetents. The most notable among these is Gordana, who bears an eerie resemblance to Arianna Huffington and who created a dress that seemed to involve a teal taffeta life buoy. Slightly less unpromising is Carol Hannah. Her great inspirations are "woodland fairies" and Southern glamour. Indeed, the outfit Carol Hannah made for the red-carpet challenge appeared to be inspired, structurally, by the one Scarlett O'Hara made out of green curtains.

Second, there are the retro types, sometimes prattling delicately about "old Hollywood glamour," sometimes seeming to design costumes for a living-history exhibit at the Wallis Warfield Simpson Museum. They include Louise, who wears an Isabella Blow bob; Shirin, who has a thing for capes; and possibly Ra'mon, the first contestant we meet, who entered the fashion world after abandoning a nascent career in neurosurgery. He's following his passions all the way to knocking off Dior.

Third and most compelling are the Futurists. I detect some hints of Frank Gehry in their approach to form—the Walt Disney Concert Hall figures prominently in P.R.'s L.A. landscape—and a lot of Grace Jones in the air. (Could it be that the emergence of Rhianna and Lady Gaga as trendsetters has given Grace's delicious shtick a new salience?) The Futurists are interested in performance-art androgyny and tough femininity, and they are not slaves to traditional fashion rhythms. "I don't differentiate between different colored carpets," says mohawked Malvin as he hustles through the challenge. Later, appreciating his own work, he says, "My dress is ineffable." Au contraire, Malvin—I'll eff that dress right here: It's an attractive silver tank sheath, perhaps too low-key for the greedy eyes of tabloid cameramen despite the intriguing man-eating aspect of the horizontal pleats on the back panel.

In the premiere, the editors do an especially deft job of presenting Ari, a charismatic 26-year-old woman from Kansas City and a hard-core conceptual artist from the Futurist camp. First, they give us the idea that she is a total dip. "I'm really into the idea of transformative clothing that would go into a tent, that would also have water purification systems, and you would be comfortable in it," she says while approximating a straight face. The featured selections from Ari's portfolio indicate that her ideal client has survived the apocalypse only to fall victim to deconstructed nylon hoodies.

Ari is trying to make a garment from "weird bulbous hexagonal tessellated forms." Tim Gunn worries that it will shape up as a "halter diaper." For a time, it seems that, as red-carpet attire, the thing would be suitable only for Björk to wear to the Buckminster Fullies. Yet, Ari—cool, confident, well-versed in her Helmut Lang—pulls together something that would look great on Barbarella at the Vibe Awards. Guest judge Lindsay Lohan manages to focus long enough to fix the outfit with an appreciative scowl, narrowing her eyes at a techno-chic tomorrow. Auf Wiedersehen to our double-0 decade.

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