Crimes of Fashion

Project Runway's designers: Can they even dress themselves?

An earnest plea to reality show titans: Cool it with the "immunity" stuff. The concept of certain blessed contestants being rescued from elimination at the eleventh hour was clever enough when it was introduced on the first season of Survivor. And that aired way back during, what, the Paleolithic era? Now, every reality show features some variation on the immunity challenge, and it's old like Bob Mould. I'm over it. I'm over it like I'm over Paris Hilton's posterior cleavage, so stop it. Think of some other way to reward competitors besides the promise of immunity. Perhaps a literal immunization? I can think of myriad reality show alums who could benefit from the syphilis vaccine.

That said, Project Runway (8:00 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo) is a gas, despite abuse of the I-word. Hosted by Heidi "Boom Boom" Klum, the show is every Parson's graduate's dream: A group of fledgling fashion designers compete in various design challenges, claw at each other's satin capelets and emote telegenically. The contestants are a diverse and charismatic bunch: There's Jay, a portly clown who wears fun fur and chartreuse do-rags with surprising panache. There's Wendy, a graying middle-aged hipster seeking one last shot at fash fame.

Lipstick by Covergirl, bikini by Silly String: Josiane models the goods on 'Project Runway'
Barbara Nitke/Bravo
Lipstick by Covergirl, bikini by Silly String: Josiane models the goods on 'Project Runway'

There's Alexandra, a blah blonde with a ready-to-wear sensibility; British flibbertigibbet Vanessa; and the hilariously named Austin Scarlett, a couture queen in vermillion lip gloss. The contestants cover all points on the design-whore continuum, which means loads of potential for hissy fits, accusations, and garden-variety meltdowns. J'approuve.

In one challenge the kids have to design holiday party frocks for Banana Republic. It's amusing to watch these free-spirited couture junkies get forced to deep-six the crinoline and conform to the staid Banana aesthetic. (How does one drape the discerning preppy backside?) Wendy takes the prize with her understated black cocktail dress, and pouting eccentric Star gets the boot for her slashed and shredded harlequin nightmare. (I swear, that gown could induce vomiting, hallucinations, and spontaneous labor in pregnant women.) Star weeps, Wendy freaks, and a klatch of sallow runway models attempt to convey emotion. That's the kind of quality television I've come to expect from the hags at Bravo.

In another challenge, the designers have to craft several complete looks for fledgling pop star Sarah Hudson. (This challenge provides a moment of unintentional hilarity when Hudson's atrocious debut video is played for design inspiration. In terms of musical credibility, she makes Gwen Stefani look like Thelonious Monk.) Austin interprets Hudson's Bo Peep vibe a bit too literally, and designs an obnoxious wedding cake of a dress complete with oversized bow. The winning design, courtesy of jittery poseur Nora and smug control freak Kevin, is a shattered punk rock confection that looks like regurgitated Avril Lavigne to me, but enchants the judges. (I shop at Deb, so my knowledge of design technique is admittedly lacking.)

It's refreshing as a lime rickey to see folks with legitimate talent competing for a just reward. Watching the frantic designers cutting, pinning, and stitching actually evokes awed respect in a way, say, Fear Factor challenges rarely do. I'd maim for some of the designs showcased here. Jay's shimmering Chrysler Building-inspired dress, for instance, or Jay's leather cap-sleeved top or...well, anything Jay designs. I want him as my jolly personal couturier. (However, I don't want Nora and her ghastly fauxhawk coming anywhere near me with a yard of tulle. With her tendency toward crocodile tears and paranoid accusations, she's easily the most annoying competitor on the show, which is saying a lot.) Also, the roster of guest judges is impressive. Michael Kors, Betsey Johnson, and other design icons all make appearances. In the pantheon of models-cum-hosts, Klum is no Tyra Banks; her clipped Teutonic diction makes every criticism sound like a command to a drug-sniffing rottweiler.

If you're seeking style with substance, Project Runway is not the show for you. This is a brittle treat; sweet and intermittently delightful, but not the sort of venture you'll lie awake and ponder. Even a trifle like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy offers some insight into human desire, while Runway merely revels in the perfect bias cut--and the perfect cutting remark. That's enough for disciples of Anna Wintour, but might not prove meaty enough to snag a less groomed demographic. Ah well, I know I'll be tuned in week after week, wearing my Deb velour jumpsuit and dreaming of Milan runways.

 
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