I made the mistake–a big mistake–of picking up Season 3 of Project Runway while I was the in the video rental store and it promptly reminded me of why I both love and hate the show.
What I love:
- Tim Gunn. What a classy guy–and that’s something you can’t say about most reality show hosts. He’s the kind of teacher that every design student wants. I respect his opinion because he clearly knows his stuff as an artist.
- The challenges. I love watching artists stretch their design muscles as they come up with a dress made entirely from trash or try to create a haute couture gown in two days. Moving outside of your comfort zone to try new things is how we grow as artists. I love seeing how each designer interprets the same challenge in a different manner.
What I hate:
- The constant camera capturing the petty hassles and backbiting of a bunch of people living and working together. Yeah, so what if it makes the show “more dramatic”? Television is supposed to be an escape from annoying behavior, not a showcase for it.
- The judging. Too often it seems to be about making artists conform to a very narrow view of what fashion is or should be. Yes, the judges want the artists to express a “point of view”, but they don’t want that view to stray too far from what they view as the fashion mainstream. Designer after designer was shaken to the core by their critiques and it was painful to watch these talented artists start to doubt themselves and their work.
For me, the critical question of Season Three was how much must artists compromise themselves and their unique vision in order to sell to an essentially conservative fashion industry? What doth it profit a man or woman to show their work at Olympus Fashion Week if by doing so, they stop making the clothes they WANT to make, the clothes that got them into the fashion business in the first place? Is it better to be a flamboyant carp in a small koi pond than just another minnow in the giant ocean of fashion?
The episode that really crystallized my dissatisfaction with the entire Project Runway competition was the challenge in which the designers were supposed to create an international jet setter look for themselves. Kayne, the pageant gown designer from Oklahoma, was taken to task by the judges for creating an Elvis-inspired country-western look for himself. The judges hated it, declaring the outfit “tasteless” and “tacky”. The same judges praised Michael’s hip-hop style outfit and Jeffrey’s heavy metal rocker togs.
Personally, I liked Kayne’s costume. It definitely said “celebrity” to me, but unlike Michael and Jeffrey’s looks which could have adorned the beautiful people in any major American or European city, Kayne’s design was very specific. It was American, it was country western, it was Southern, and it was a blue collar vision of glamor. True, most people couldn’t have carried it off, but those who could have would have.
Again, I found myself asking the question who gets to decide what taste is? Who gets to decide that gangsters and street punks are cool, but rhinestone cowboys aren’t? The fashion industry likes to represent itself as cutting edge, but the reality is that they don’t want designers or designs that are radically different from what they are already producing. And what they are producing are clothes that only 5% of the population will ever be able to or want to wear.
The truly fashion forward designers in this country are the unheralded, largely unknown artists who are making clothes for regular people every day without mass market deals or major photo spreads. In the words of the song, WE are the champions my friends. Sew on, my brothers and sisters!