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'Project Runway': Looking Fashion Forward

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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
Project Runway's lackluster season ends. Can the show get back to making it work?

Project Runway’s widely derided Season 6 is finally over and—as expected—it ended with a whimper instead of a bang. “Mean-a” Irina Shabayeva and her be-hatted, dominatrix inspired collection won the day to a resounding meh. Michael Kors was unusually restrained during judging. Nina Garcia looked downright pissed off for being forced to sit through the runway show. Even Tim Gunn’s highly promoted epic freak out turned out to be little more than a few moments of intense brow-furrowing over the backstage chaos.


All along I’d been rooting for cute Carol Hannah Whitfield, whose lovely, wearable dresses and buoyant personality provided a bright spot in an undeniably draggy season. But, c’est la vie. The real question now is how much of the show’s creative plunge can be blamed on Lifetime Network tinkering, and can PR get its mojo back for Season 7?


At the beginning of the season, long suffering fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Project Runway we knew and loved seemed to have survived both a location shift from New York to Los Angeles, and the move from hip Bravo TV to mom-favored Lifetime, relatively intact. There was Heidi Klum, impossibly chic and perennially pregnant. There was dapper Tim Gunn, dispensing advice and proclamations (Don’t Bore Nina!) with typical aplomb. The new crop of aspiring designers settled into the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Downtown L.A. and even continued to buy their fabric at a West Coast outpost of Mood.
  
Sure there were a few troubling signs early on. The first challenge involved making a red carpet-ready dress (yawn), and featured sartorial train wreck Lindsay Lohan as a guest judge. But, we reasoned, this is Los Angeles after all. Some Hollywood influence is to be expected. And sure, this new group of designers is sort of generically young and attractive and straight from central casting, but it always takes a few episodes for the real personalities to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Give it a couple of episodes to find its groove, we told ourselves. Everything will be OK.


But it became painfully clear over the course of the season that, while Project Runway still walked and talked and “aufed” the same, this incarnation was a pale shadow of its former self. Instead of interesting challenges that pushed the designers’ resourcefulness and creative boundaries, we had representatives from corporate sponsor Macy’s coming in and directing the designers to make something blue. Because blue is hard! The genuinely quirky contestants were dispatched early on and we were left with a group of cardboard cutouts who whined and sniped and occasionally made googly-eyes at each other across the work table.


The real turning point came mid-season when Epperson—who had displayed some real talent but who, at 49, was the elder statesman of the season—was sent home instead of the model-handsome but consistently blah Logan Neitzel.


Where are the Christian Sirianos and Santino Rices of seasons past who made up for their occasional bitchiness with genuine talent and creative vision? Instead of a real villain like crazy, Bettie Page-obsessed Kenley Collins we got the blandly unpleasant Shabayeva. I would even have settled for rocker-chick Stella Zotis and her love of “leaathur” to add some spice to this lackluster season.


Project Runway has always stood out because, despite the drama and the kooky contestants and all the typical reality show trappings, it managed to keep a razor sharp focus on the work and the creative process. Instead of promoting mediocre talents and manufactured drama, the show simply needs to get back to the work.


And, for the love of all things holy, stop with the guest celebrities and keep Garcia and Kors in the judging chairs every week. Who else can we depend on to point out that some ill-considered ruffles on a garment make the model look “like she’s pooping fabric”?


That’s just good television.

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