Commercial or Couture: The Essential Design Paradox on Project Runway

It's Season 7 of Project Runway and Tim Gunn's hands are warmly clasped in anticipation as he looks with a paternal eye on the hopeful designers gathered on the rooftop of The Atlas. The show is back at home in the beloved Big Apple. Clearly anticipating good things, Tim praises this new group for possessing a spirit of innovation and for diverse perspectives. The pregnant Heidi Klum is sipping apple cider and all seems right with the world. But we've been wounded before—thrown off balance. Last season, the show was whisked away to L.A. It was moved to the Lifetime network after a lot of confusion. Now, still with Lifetime but back on a familiar footing in NYC, we wonder how all of this will turn out. Dare we trust? Personally, unenthusiastic word of mouth kept me away from Season 6 but I'm trying to learn to love again.

Everyone knows that one key quality of the truly chic is the element of mystery. Still watchable but with seriously threadbare ratings in the aftermath of the sixth season, Project Runway has kept this element of je ne sais pas. We wonder what is really going on behind the scenes. How unbiased are the judges' final decisions? Why does Heidi, though she isn't supposed to know what went on in the workroom, seem omniscient at times, knowing when someone was slacking because of their immunity or magically guessing a designer changed things up at the last minute? It's these questions, not just the clothes and the drama, that keep us interested. Who watches Project Runway, anyway? Is it the fashion guru, the design expert, the reality TV junkie, the duped boyfriend or the husband who never would have imagined enjoying the show but finds himself nodding his head with Michael Kors or getting defensive over something Nina Garcia said? I'm not really asking for input because the answer is that all these types follow the show. I would venture that most of the show's fans don't make a habit of wearing designer clothing or have a degree from Parsons or The Fashion Institute of Technology. Nevertheless, we know what we like, and though we learn from the judges, they often leave us puzzled as well.

Fashion design, fine art, and popular culture have always been locked in a tangled embrace. Throughout history, what you see on the runways and the streets is tied to what you see in the news, what you observe in the newest wing of an art gallery. The mod sensibility, inextricably linked to music and art, isn't only found in clothing. Military style jackets are hardly just for soldiers. Yet, as fine art and design have grown increasingly abstract, so has fashion. Gone is the time when the famous painters created their masterworks because they were commissioned by royal families, or great writers made their living serializing novels in popular publications or simply wrote to amuse friends and family. Indeed, writers such as Shakespeare wrote specifically to captivate the common man. Bach composed pieces for each week's church service. Art was not for glory, but for something else. Artists needed employment or simply needed to share their gifts with others. Art has not always been an end in itself.

You'd think that fashion design would be one of the least likely types of art to become inaccessible. However, most designers don't mind the fact that their runway creations, so fascinating on the catwalk, would be absolutely laughable at the grocery store checkout line. As art has become more personalized, self-centered, and conceptual, so has fashion design. As culture has grown me-centered, so have fashion designers.

Another ingredient, clearly illustrated in the format of Project Runway, of this confusing concoction we currently call "art," is the part critics have played in the 20th and 21st centuries. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in his work of social analysis, The Painted Word, critics have slowly crept in as the authority on art. We don't know what to think, but if a respected critic proclaims that a yellow line down the center of that black box is a profound statement about modern existence, we figure it must be a big deal. If Nina Garcia, Michael Kors and Heidi Klum all agree that a chartreuse jumpsuit is truly fashion-forward, we decide we must have simply missed the point when the entire look sparked personal revulsion. Next time we cruise the mall, that audacious color beckoning us from the store windows doesn't seem so "out there" after all.

On the other hand, and perhaps on the brighter side, our current tumultuous economy seems to have brought fashion out of itself, so to speak. Many designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Luella Bartley, and Norma Kamali have opted to create more wearable, affordable lines. Consumers can grab these looks off the racks at Target or Walmart and still make their rent while looking stylish, not absurd. Where does Project Runway stand in this paradox? I don't think the show is sure. At times, the wearable looks get top billing, at others, all things artsy and singular impress.

Take two looks that made the judges' top three on Episode One of Season 7. Seth Aaron created a look that would have flown off the racks at Hot Topic, which duly was praised for being very marketable, while Ping Wu (who has since been ousted) produced a drapey confusion of fabric that Tim Gunn referred to in his blog as "diaperesque." The judges praised Ping's work because it immediately captured their attention. One imagines the same might be true of a blank canvas entitled "Nothingness" in a modern art exhibit. Your everyday Joe would be thoroughly confused or perhaps apt to laugh at such a "creation," but those on the inside might consider it genius, worth thousands.

Certainly, there is a place for the fantastical in fashion design. That's part of the fun. It's true, the looks we see on the runway are meant to be exaggerated, not necessarily practical but expressions of, yes, fine art. But is there no middle ground between this extreme and something that actually resembles clothing? The judges, who praised Ping's first look for capturing attention (whatever that means), let her slide by again in the potato sack race, even though her odd creation had the regrettable—shall we say, ahem, improper—unintentional effect of exposing her model's bare derriere on the runway. Finally out of grace, Ping didn't make it through the next challenge. Interestingly, as they let her go in episode three (the couture challenge), the judges noted critically that Ping's dress, born of a collaboration with the contemptuous Jesse, had to be held up by her model. Hmmm, if I remember right, so did her first, "oh-so-captivating" creation.

Because of the schizophrenic decision-making born out of these perhaps unconsciously opposing points of view, it can be very difficult to predict which designs the judges on Project Runway will consider worthwhile. Ironically, it was Ping who stated her designs "look best on a human body," while Tim later countered that that should be true for all fashion designers. If only that were true, as any average-sized woman who has tried to sit down in super low-rise jeans would agree. In all this confusion, how much of a reality check does this reality fashion show need if it is to survive and how much of a reality check does the fashion industry need in general?

The voice of practicality at least exists for those hoping to go into a career designing clothing. On Project Runway, it's a hyper-reality check, as exemplified when the lovely Christiane King had to surrender to the pitiable distinction of being the first to go home greatly due to the fact that her dress was poorly made. This brings up a very important aspect of the show, and, by and large, a successful career in fashion. To be a great designer, you not only need vision but proficiency with a sewing machine. It seems so prosaic, and this is why so many new hopefuls are annoyed when, before they get to do the fun stuff, they're sent to sewing class. But fashion designers are not merely artists on paper—they must work with real, unruly matter. If a designer doesn't learn what works in reality, he or she will never be able to truly realize those beloved sketchbook visions. Christiane had passion, particularly in the opportunities that vivid color-play creates, so here's hoping she grows in her construction skills.

I'm not necessarily suggesting that because a designer turns out a poorly-constructed garment on Project Runway, that his or her construction skills are poor in general. The world of Project Runway is a crazy dimension, a super-concentrated boiling-down of much that we put up with in our typical lives in society. The frenzied competition, deadlines, and loss of balance that are prerequisites of many successful careers are magnified in the fashion industry—and even more so on Project Runway. Yes, it's ridiculous to have to design a couture evening gown in 48 hours, but on some level, we can all relate. And much of what determines the win is not only talent but how a person deals with that insane pressure.

Just as the contestants on the show, we as viewers are caught in this exhausting paradox between the cold, hard reality of the fashion design world and the trippy, fantastical circus modern art can be. We simply don't know whom to trust—certainly not ourselves. I wonder where the hope is for us when Tim Gunn, also considered a fashion authority, is often perplexed by the PR judges. So, I ask us to ask ourselves a daring question: in art and design of all types, whom should we be creating for? Is it safe to assume the critics are all-knowing, or should we judge for ourselves? Better yet, perhaps we should consider giving some of the power of discernment back to the masses. If they'll take it.

Amy Ha

Amy Ha

Professional, Full-Time Copywriter and Author