Julie E. Washington
Plain Dealer Reporter
As host Heidi Klum growls during every episode of Bravo's "Project Runway," you're either in or you're out. And "Project Runway" is very, very in.
This cross between "The Apprentice" and "America's Next Top Model" is the latest reality-television hit. Viewers have flocked to see designers melt down under the pressure of having only a few hours to go from fabric to fabulous. You never know if this is the week when Wendy Pepper, an abrasive 39-year-old mom from Virginia, stabs someone with a pair of scissors.
"It's been great. The response has been incredible. It's an extraordinary cult phenomenon," executive producer Jane Lipsitz said about the show, which has a group of aspiring fashion designers competing in design challenges.
In the two-hour finale at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, the three finalists will unveil their lines of clothing during scenes shot at New York Fashion Week earlier this month. Finalists received $8,000 each to create 12 pieces and have spent months at home creating, Lipsitz said.
The winner gets everything he or she needs to start a clothing line, including $100,000. The winning model - each designer picks a model to work with - gets a photo spread in Elle magazine wearing the winning designer's clothes.
In each "Runway" episode, designers are given a challenge, a budget and a deadline. They must create an outfit that their chosen model wears in a mini-fashion show in front of the "Runway" judges. The designer with the weakest design is eliminated; he or she is sent home with a kiss and an "auf Wiedersehen" from Klum.
People tell Lipsitz that the show has rekindled their interest in sewing. Clothes designed on "Runway" are fetching hundreds of dollars in a charity online auction at projectrunway.com.
Lipsitz knew she had to prove to viewers in the first episode that while "Runway" was about the world of high fashion, the show wasn't pretentious. So the first challenge had designers create clothes using only items found in a grocery store. The winner was a dress made of corn husks.
Lipsitz and her production company, Magical Elves, already had helped develop "Project Greenlight," a reality show about aspiring filmmakers, for Miramax. About a year ago, honchos at Miramax said they wanted to do a fashion version.
Lipsitz had to figure out how to make sewing exciting. She decided to focus on the theme of ordinary people aspiring to become something extraordinary. When high stakes and dreams are involved, viewers will watch no matter what the participants are doing.
"It's relatable for people who have forsaken a dream of theirs," she said.
Miramax wanted to involve models in the show, and Lipsitz decreed that each episode would ax a model at the start and a designer at the end. The double-elimination element gives the show a twist.
"Runway" premiered with 12 contestants, chosen from casting sessions in Miami, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago in June. Friends encouraged Robert Plotkin, 29, to audition for the show. He had just returned to the United States after spending four years running a clothing design and manufacturing shop in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Plotkin, who lives in Hackensack, N.J., made it through several challenges but met his Waterloo in the U.S. Post Office.
Designers spent a day making rounds with a postal carrier, then redesigned the postal uniform. Plotkin spent too much time making pants that zipped into shorts. The judges hated his blah knit top.
He was disappointed to leave the show but relieved to get off of the roller coaster. "I could take a big gasp of air," he said. "There's no sour taste in my mouth."
Plotkin is rooting for either Jay McCarroll, 29, a vintage-store owner from Pennsylvania, or Kara Saun, 37, a professional designer, to win "Project Runway."
"It's like a horse race: neck and neck," Plotkin said.