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`Project Runway's' pattern for success

Unlike the contestants on other competitive reality shows, those on Bravo's returning series actually create things.

July 12, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Is this only the third season of "Project Runway"? I feel as if that show has been around forever, a sign perhaps of its cultural penetration, as deep and rapid as that of Sudoku. It may owe something also to the fact that the present season (which begins tonight on Bravo) comes only seven months after the last, so that "third season" does not equal "third year." This is the rate at which the Beatles used to release records, and you know how that worked for them.

Of all the and-then-there-was-one competitive reality shows I've seen, this is the one I've been able to sink my teeth into, or which has sunk its teeth into me. Though many viewers surely come for the soap opera the producers construct around the game, and some may be here primarily for the Teutonic charms of host Heidi Klum (not pregnant this time around), it is the crafts element that sets "Project Runway" apart from most of its kind: People make things. (They make clothes, I suppose I should mention.)

Those who compete in this show are not out only to win a lot of money or to be on television -- though undoubtedly that's part of it -- they all aspire to produce something beautiful and to acquire the means to do it. Some of them are better than others, and not all are as good as they think they are, and some are as annoying as the most annoying people on the most annoying reality shows, but even the most self-loving and superior among them are scratching a creative itch and are required to produce something inventive, personal and real.

There is a kind of master-class aspect to the show, especially when "mentor" Tim Gunn, chairman of fashion design at Parsons the New School for Design, roams the workroom giving critiques. The contestants tend to nod at his advice and then go on doing what they were doing in the first place, but most of them have already been through fashion school and many have been at work, some quite successfully, in the field for a long time. And from tonight's pregame "The Road to Runway," in which thousands of applicants become 15 contestants and we revisit some faces from seasons past, it's obvious that some "Project Runway" vets are happy to be back where their own opinion is the one that counts. (The new crew members skew a little older and are even more accomplished.)

Given the small budgets and absurd time limits, it's really striking what the best of them produce and how many solutions (and good solutions) there are to a given problem. (Tonight's challenge: Make a dress from the materials in your apartment, bedclothes, curtains, upholstery, like that.) I like the fact that what matters on the show is the work, that there's no one to manipulate, no favor to curry, no way to backstab your way into first place. Making friends among one's fellow contestants means that you might be helped out in a pinch, but having no friends, like last season's Memorable Character Santino Rice, will not hold you back.

"Project Runway" teaches us that talented people are not always nice and nice people are not always talented, but some nice people are talented and some people who are not nice are not talented either. And, um, vice versa. And that sometimes you have to judge a person on one thing, or the other, and that you should never confuse the two. Also that nobody likes a crybaby, but that (in this world, at least) not even being a crybaby, a loudmouth or an egomaniac will keep you from advancing to the next round if you can deliver the goods.


'Project Runway'

Where: Bravo

When: 10 tonight; a special, "Road to Runway," will air prior to the season premiere at 9 p.m.

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