The pattern is familiar but fun as 'Project Runway' returns
By Robin Givhan
July 23, 2008
On last week's debut episode of Season 5 of “Project Runway,” the producers went all misty-eyed and nostalgic. They resurrected the first season's opening challenge in which the designers had to find their raw materials inside a Gristedes supermarket.
Remember that first season, when the idea of gathering a dozen or so wide-eyed and desperate designers and pitting them against one another in cutthroat but wacky challenges was bright and shiny? The three finalists would get to show their collections during New York fashion week, and the winner would be crowned America's next great designer.
It was all so innocent back then. The show's host, Heidi Klum, was a mere Victoria's Secret stunner with a mechanical manner. Michael Kors was only a witty designer with a fan base limited to those willing to pay $1,000 for a pair of pants. Nina Garcia was just a fashion editor instead of a BlackBerry pitchwoman. And Tim Gunn was just a good-hearted Parsons professor rather than a fashion god.
But then “Project Runway” became an Emmy-nominated, bloggable, starmaking monster. It sparked controversies and kerfuffles. Was the benevolent Gunn leaving because of scheduling conflicts? Was Wendy Pepper really spawn of Lucifer? Did Jeffrey Sebelia cheat? Why did Michael Knight lose his grip on good taste during the finals? How did Klum lose all that baby weight so fast?
“Project Runway” produced pop culture stars who dazzled for 15 minutes and then attracted a backlash. How fierce is Season 4 winner Christian Siriano? Oh, he was so last season on “Saturday Night Live.”
In the lead-up to this season's debut, the behind-the-scenes drama became more captivating. We have arrived at the end of an era. Next season, the show moves to Lifetime – land of “Army Wives” and “The Golden Girls” – and to Los Angeles, where perhaps the contestants will be required to construct a garment from the raw materials found in a Fatburger. Garcia is switching from Elle magazine, in which the winner's designs are now featured, to Marie Claire.
Poor “Runway” fans have had to deal with so many sordid distractions when all we really wanted was to anticipate which Season 5 contestant would be first to hit a crying jag. When the corporate suits over at NBC Universal, which owns Bravo, started speaking in legalese about lawsuits and broken contracts, we just hoped that someone was busy working out the logistics of another prom-dress challenge that would have the designers cowering before pit bull high school girls who want lace and rhinestones and sequins on their frocks and they want them now!
Oh, happy day! “Runway” is back, and while it no longer surprises us, it continues to amuse. Once again we find 16 contestants running wild through Gristedes trying to decide if they should spend the bulk of their allotted $75 on kale or plastic cups. Several of the women totter in 4-inch heels, and one would have thought by now the ladies should know that almost all challenges involve a 50-yard dash.
Most of the contestants wimp out and stock up on tablecloths and shower curtains. Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Feld's decision to melt down blue plastic cups to create a molded cocktail dress wins him big kisses from Gunn.
This season's motley crew, we are told, is notable not for being the most talented crew but rather the most diverse.
Korto Momolu, 33, originally from Liberia, lives in Little Rock, Ark. We must pray that geography will heavily influence her design aesthetic so that we might lay eyes on Afro-Ozark couture. Leanne Marshall, 27, calls herself the “silent fashion assassin.” Jerell Scott, 28, is a former model and about five minutes into the episode was already starting with the trash talk. We love him! Stella Zotis, 42, who looks like Cher during her “If I Could Turn Back Time” period, is the requisite rocker. Klum describes Zotis' ghoulish trash bag dress as “butt ugly,” and you get the impression that Zotis pretty much agrees.
Blayne Walsh, 23, immediately lets the audience know of his obsession with tanning, which we actually appreciated because it meant we could stop wondering whether he is naturally the color of a dried tangerine. He seems to be positioning himself as the new Christian.
Bravo has promised a long list of flashy guest judges, including Natalie Portman and LL Cool J. But first on that list was Austin Scarlett, the bouffanted blond waif boy from Season 1 who prevailed with a dress made of corn husks. He now designs wedding gowns for Kenneth Pool.
He had little to say that was especially witty or wise. But his presence served as evidence that once you get rid of the kale, tomatoes, coffee filters, trash talk and hysteria, there just might be viable design talent left in the room.