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Smarty Pants

How Project Runway flatters New Yorkers’ sense of self.

Illustration by Anooj Khan & Sons  

A t the taping of the season finale of Project Runway in September during Fashion Week, the favorite game among the crowd was playing Who Got the Boot? Each season, Project Runway sends four contestants to the taping of the finale, but only three are still in contention—the fourth is a decoy, already eliminated in an episode that hasn’t yet aired.

After watching the four runway shows, I was sure I’d cracked it: Uli, the elfin, pattern-fixated German, had been axed (the judges having finally wearied of her Miami Beach repetitions), and Jeffrey, the bad boy with the unfortunate scrolling neck tattoo but the surprisingly sophisticated collection, would take the crown. A friend, though, came to the opposite conclusion: Jeffrey’s toast and Uli triumphs. We were both wrong. So was everyone else in the tent. In a twist revealed on-air in a subsequent episode, all four contestants had made it to the finals, so no one had been eliminated, thanks to an uncharacteristic, last-minute act of clemency from the judges.

Damn you, Project Runway. You outsmarted us again.

Project Runway, the reality show of the moment, is lucky it wasn’t an instant hit like its Bravo cousin, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Instead, Runway has taken three seasons to break out, but now it’s drawing the largest audiences in Bravo’s history, and it will no doubt top itself with the airing this week of the second part of the season finale. (Queer Eye, meanwhile, flared then fizzled out; seeing the Queer Eye guys at the Project Runway show felt like spotting the doddering monarchs of a past dynasty at the coronation of a new regime.) When it premiered, Runway lacked not only Queer Eye’s catchy conceptual hook but also every known successful trait of the reality genre—it seemed more like an anti-reality show. Instead of friction-friendly characters from all walks of life, we got a roomful of fashion students. Instead of TV-friendly spectacle, we got people at sewing machines. It seemed like Bravo’s sad attempt to niche-market its own reality show, the way channels were doing up and down the dial: Humili-date! Project NASCAR! America’s Next Top Golfer!

As it turns out, Runway is the anti-reality show, but not in the way it first appeared. In fact, the show’s formula now seems, in hindsight, like a no-duh recipe for success: contestants with demonstrable talents pitted in a competition based on skill; each week’s episode climaxing in a satisfying showdown; survivors selected by expert judges, not text-messaging teens. And all of this comes wrapped in a running commentary by contestants who also happen to be witty and (mostly) gay men. It’s the reality show that roasts itself, in real time.

As a result, the show that started as American Idol for fashion designers has inspired its own mini-brood of imitators, from Bravo’s Top Chef (Runway for gourmands) to the forthcoming Top Designer (Runway for fancy chairs). Runway, meanwhile, has been essentially adopted as the official reality show of New York, mostly because it’s the first one that gets this city right. The Apprentice sells a vision of New York, but it’s packaged to appeal to outsiders—that is, exactly the kind of people who think Donald Trump has impeccable business sense and who consider the Trump Plaza an icon of architectural glamour. If Laura Bennett, Runway’s resident New Yorker, were ever a contestant on The Apprentice, she’d cut down the Donald with a withering quip while nursing a baby in one hand and a gimlet in the other.

It’s been suggested that Runway’s success represents the democratization of fashion, part of a new widespread fascination with design, all of which is usually tied in with Michael Graves at Target and the slender beauty of iPods and the metastasizing of home-renovation shows. These are all, no doubt, factors in its larger success, but I think the reason New Yorkers like Runway is because, unlike The Apprentice, with its play-school business challenges, Runway is all about work. Hard work, and the people who are willing to do it, in exchange for a faint promise of rewards but a weekly guarantee of weariness. At its core, Runway fetishizes drudgery, and as we’ve seen this season, there’s no more damning accusation than you didn’t do all the work yourself. The designers, locked away in that harshly lit Parsons dungeon, toil under that damned, remorseless clock as it mocks them with each sweep of its time-lapsed hands. Tim Gunn is the genial jailer, always tut-tutting and tapping his watch. Two more hours, people! Make it work!

That’s why Runway’s October Surprise—everyone made it through to Fashion Week! Hooray! Group hug!—wasn’t just tricky, but felt like a bit of a betrayal. Sure, no one wanted to see the irascible Jeffrey bounced, or the lovable Michael ousted. But what’s made Project Runway so good thus far is that it’s not about forgiveness, or even fairness—it’s about results. It’s about a fantasy world where skilled people work hard against impossible deadlines, while other people make bitchy asides. (And we make bitchy asides about them.) Talent, toil, nasty comments—that’s New York, baby! Who asked Heidi Klum to step in like the governor with a last-minute stay of execution?

So enjoy this week’s finale—my money’s still on Jeffrey—but remember, we might look back at this season as the one when Runway went off the rails. Having a final foursome is heartwarming, but it cuts against the show’s essential ethos, as articulated every week by the Teutonic Klum: “One day you’re in. The next day you’re out.” The same holds true for reality shows.