Full disclosure: I’m obsessed with Project Runway. Say what you will, but I love it all, from Heidi Klum’s grammatical redundancies (“Models, this is also a competition for you as well”) to Michael Kors’s bitchy zingers (“She looked like Barefoot Appalachian Li’l Abner Barbie!”), and from the competitors’ weirdest confections (Nora’s lawn-chair party dress; Santino’s lederhosen-lingerie) to the show’s catchiest “buzz phrases” (“Make it work!”; “What happened to Andrae?”). All of this just to explain that whatever I write here about Season Four, which premieres on November 14, necessarily negotiates between a journalist’s neutrality and a fan’s crazed devotion.
But that’s not all. I also have to confess that over the summer, I begged Tim Gunn, Project Runway’s resident mentor, to let me serve as a guest judge. I met him at Parsons, where he unexpectedly claimed not only to know who I was, but to have loved my book on Marie Antoinette and fashion. Elated, I handed him my business card; he graciously returned the gesture; and we pledged to meet again soon. Alas, we never did. But like my friend Jane (who sees Gunn often near her West Village apartment and refers to him as “my future boyfriend”), I never stopped dreaming of the day when we would reconnect and become the best of pals.
Or the best of colleagues, because once I heard that Gunn would indeed, after a barrage of media speculation to the contrary, return to Project Runway for its fourth season, I saw my chance. Jane’s future boyfriend needed me! Yes, the guest judges who helped to evaluate the contestants’ designs each week were generally better-known industry players than I. Did I really have more authority or expertise than, say, Diane Von Furstenberg? Patricia Field? Iman? Debra Messing? (Okay, forget Debra Messing, whom I—and, I imagine, most of the show’s other ardent followers—could defeat handily in just about any sartorial throwdown. I’ve seen pictures of her from before she had a stylist, and let me just say that leg warmers, berets, and suspenders do not a fashion maven make.) But there were other reasons, I decided, why I should be a guest judge. Surely, the producers couldn’t know many other thirtysomething blonde professors with experience (however short-lived and disastrous) in modeling and closets full to bursting with designer clothes. Wouldn’t they hail me as an odd-duck version of their own stars? Tim Gunn, maybe, trapped in Heidi Klum’s body?
Well, if I saw it, Project Runway didn’t, and I was “out”—to borrow Klum’s favorite distinction—before I was ever “in.” But as Klum also likes to remark, and as the show itself demonstrates so compellingly, in fashion, yesterday’s reject is today’s winner. Or, rather, yesterday’s judge manqué is today’s avidly courted journalist, invited to Lincoln Center for a private showing of Season Four’s designs and allowed to preview the first episode. So here I am at last, metaphorically perched alongside the runway and assessing, for all you fans at home, the degree to which this show has held on to its edge.
The question of edginess is crucial, for on Project Runway, “no wow factor” is the ultimate sin, and its own standard of knock-your-socks-off creativity has conditioned its viewers to expect nothing less. And this in turn has led us fans to dread the waning of originality that tends to weaken popular reality shows. As anyone familiar with The Real World, say, or Flavor of Love knows, the thrill wears off quickly once a program starts recycling the same “quirky” characters and the same “shocking” conflicts. Much of the suspense that attends Project Runway’s return thus derives, I think, from viewers’ fears that after three years, even this seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of novelty might soon run dry.
Accordingly, Season Four’s debut episode reflects a palpable tension between familiarity and surprise. On the familiar side, it offers up another cast of lovable freaks, such as Elisa, the hippie-chick puppeteer prone to New Age psychobabble, and Sweet P, the tattooed biker chick who threatens at any moment to unveil “Mean P,” a nasty alter ego in the mold of Zulema’s “Shatangi” from Season Two. It offers up, too, a cornucopia of memorable sound bites: Christian, who at 21 is the youngest contestant, deems himself “kind of a celebrity in my own head”; Klum notes that one garment’s overlong, tattered train makes the model “look like she [is] pooing fabric”; and even the episode’s winning garment isn’t safe from Kors’s sharp tongue: “It looks a little Mother of the Bride.” For my money, both the characters and the cattiness have yet to grow old.
Rather less entertaining is the season’s inaugural design challenge: With a limited amount of material and time, create an outfit “that expresses who you are as a designer.” If this sounds familiar, it should. Season Two began with essentially the same challenge (six yards of white fabric, $20, and one week versus Season Four’s all-the-fabric-you-can-grab and thirteen hours), framed in exactly the same way. Tellingly, all four judges (Klum, Kors, Elle’s Nina Garcia, and, taking my spot as guest judge, the designer Monique Lhuillier) use variations on the word boring to describe the losing garments. But this hardly seems fair. How can the show’s designers be expected to shine when the very task they’re given has been done before?
Ultimately, though, Project Runway appears to have saved itself (and its audience from boredom) by showcasing a crop of designers that is—as Gunn has not unjustly declared—“the strongest group ever.” Because Project Runway’s lawyers have forbidden me from revealing the first episode’s winner and loser, I can’t go into much detail about specific triumphs and travails. Does Elisa’s decision to smear her textiles with grass stains enhance what she calls her “sylphlike haiku of a cut”? Does overconfident Christian heed Gunn’s criticism of his crooked seams? Does Kit, a young Gwen Stefani look-alike, recover when tough-guy Kevin takes away “her” plaid fabric? Which cast member marks textiles with spit instead of chalk, and is this technique genius or madness? I can’t give you any answers, but I can say that these people know from fashion. Both in the first episode and on the runway at Lincoln Center, they showed pieces of genuine and consistent beauty: a sleek purple sheath with a giant bow at the neck; a draped Grecian frock in steel-gray silk georgette; a tailored pantsuit with wide, buttoned cuffs at the ankles; a flouncy silver redingote. Of all the contestants’ work, only the loser’s left me cold, and that is as it should be. As Gunn reminds this individual, “Somebody has to be the first to go.”