Chicago Manual of Style: Project Runway can’t make it work

By Jessen O'Brien

Last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway revealed the ninth season finalists—four contestants chosen to show their work at New York Fashion Week. If you haven’t seen the episode, don’t worry. I don’t plan on giving away any specific spoilers. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to talk about this season as a whole and critique the direction of the show.

There are three main issues with the show at this point. First of all, there has been a distinct shift in how the contestants are chosen. When the show first aired, it emphasized selecting genuinely creative and talented designers. Of course, if a candidate was particularly dramatic this most likely factored into their being chosen for the show. But overall the show seemed to trust that if you put a group of creative people together in a stressful, competitive environment, drama is sure to follow. And it is—as anyone who has worked with a group of creative people will tell you. The first few seasons of Project Runway contained multiple scandals—accusations of cheating (i.e. Keith and Jeffrey), conspiracy (Wendy), and straight-up craziness (Morganza). Now, though, it seems that the contestants and even the challenges are produced solely because of their potential for drama. This current season in particular is filled with designers that are more catty than talented. Even Anya, the judges’ favorite, can’t sew a pair of pants. A show that used to condemn designers for daring to send a garment down the runway with so much as a single pin in it is now praising the tailoring abilities of a contestant who sent a pair of pants down the runway that weren’t even fully sewn in the back.

The next two issues are with the challenges themselves. In the beginning, challenges were intended not only to produce drama and test the designers but also to train them and see what their specific limits were. There were once clear reasons for each challenge: a group challenge because designers need to learn how to collaborate in a team, a client-based challenge so that designers could learn how to work with real people while still maintaining their own point of view, or a presentation challenge so the designers could learn how to show their work to the press and the public. Yes, there were a few vague challenges about inspiration, and a few crazy ones with flowers and candy, but even these were pointedly directed towards gaining an insight into the designers’ thought processes and innovation. In season nine, the challenges are oriented to yield wacky designs, maximize the drama, or both. A few that sound similar to older ones sneak in, but lack the same specificity of focus. Consequently, at the end of the season it’s difficult to tell which designers truly deserve to continue on to Bryant Park—which ones have learned the most, and which ones are the most prepared to become America’s next top designer.

Lastly, the challenges are less and less about design and more and more about fashion. Designers are praised less for coming up with an interesting concept and more for picking up on the latest trends. So contestants are rewarded for their ability to follow, not lead, the fashion world. The judges have always leaned this way, but the situation has worsened as the skills and talents of the designers themselves go downhill. Few seem to have a defined and unique point of view in comparison to, say, Santana or Austin. Even those who do innovative work, such as Mondo, receive less praise than someone like Gretchen, who can predict the Urban Outfitters catalogue.

Project Runway has been on the air since 2004, and in the past nine years it’s opened up the world of fashion. Documentaries such as Valentino: The Last Emperor, movies such as The Devil Wears Prada, and shows such as The Rachel Zoe Project have all followed the path it forged in giving viewers new insight into why they wear what they wear. Yes, it’s a reality TV show, and its primary purpose is to entertain. However, because it both entertains and gathers a considerable audience, Project Runway also plays a role in determining what it means to be fashionable.