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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Project Runway,' 'Rachel Zoe' return

And guess which fashion show is more fun to watch?

August 20, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

When the Weinstein Co. announced a year and a half ago that it was moving "Project Runway" from Bravo to Lifetime, it did more than tick off the good folks at NBC; it sent tremors of fear through the fan base. As the original January premiere date for Season 6 came and went, with Bravo parent company NBC Universal and the Weinstein Co. duking it out in court, devotees were not only jonesing, they were worried.

What would the move to Lifetime mean? A kinder, gentler Heidi Klum sending off eliminated contestants with a murmured "Ciao" instead of the clipped "Auf Wiedersehen"? The show was also relocating from New York to L.A., with Lindsay Lohan serving as a guest judge -- would "Project Runway" lose its head and turn into a design version of "The Hills"?

Focus, people. Different venue, different city, same show. In fact, it's a bit alarming how little change there is. Everything about the New York setting seems to have been meticulously reproduced, including the college-dorm bedding of the housing and the runway itself. Only the views are different, and the light -- a lovely sunset bathes the first official gathering of the 16 participants.

They are a typical "Project Runway" group: the intentionally androgynous man, the recently-in-recovery meth addict, the Louise Brooks look-alike, the girl who stands on her head.

You can't help feeling a twinge of sympathy for them. The season was filmed in 2008, long before the NBC-ordered injunction put the show on an 11-month hiatus, which means that one of these people has been walking around for a year knowing that she or he won "Project Runway" and unable to tell anyone about it!

Not surprisingly, the first challenge is to provide a dress for a red carpet, with all the limitations that make "Project Runway" so much fun to watch -- two days! Two hundred dollars! Thirty minutes to spend it!

As ever, it seems impossible that anything even remotely resembling a dress will emerge from the miasma of quirkiness and terror swirling about in the work room, but emerge they do, in varying degrees of beauty and inspiration.

And therein lies the success and value of "Project Runway." Not with the personalities, not even with the competition. It's the miraculous simplicity of creating something from nothing that makes "Runway" endlessly watchable.

The same cannot be said for "The Rachel Zoe Project," which starts its second season Monday on Bravo. Zoe is a personal stylist who has become something of a personality by creating looks for young stars including Anne Hathaway and Lohan, and by inserting herself in the red carpet world in a way not historically recommended by members of her profession.

As a result of her show, she has reportedly lost at least one big client, Debra Messing, though one can't blame a woman for trying to hedge her bets -- in a recession, the first to go usually are not the lawyers, but the personal stylists.

In this season, Zoe and her team are four days away from (last year's) Golden Globes and desperately trying to outfit Hathaway, Messing, Eva Mendes, Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore. It's easy to laugh at a job that consists of finding beautiful (and often free) clothing and jewelry for beautiful people, but it is true that an unfortunate red carpet appearance can haunt a star for years.

Small and thin -- among other things, Zoe has been accused of shrinking her clients as she styled them -- the stylist fairly vibrates with anxiety. You can almost see the fumes of burned calories rising off her as one dress goes missing, another seems nonexistent and Chanel won't return her e-mails. Still, there is something satisfyingly informative in watching how the looks are assembled, what sort of thinking goes into the gown choices, how the jewelry is chosen and worn (Important tip: Don't stack sapphire bracelets or they will scratch).

Problem is, it's not something you really need to see again. When the next episode opens with high hysteria over what Hathaway will wear to the Oscars, frankly I could not imagine caring less. Remember when Sharon Stone wore the Gap dress? Have her wear a Gap dress, but Move On.

Only they can't, because this is their job, an endless waltz through high-end shops, though now with cursory references to the economy.

The difference between "Project Runway" and Project Zoe is that one is about creation and the other about assembly. Most of us couldn't make an outfit from food items, but if we had backstage access to Armani and Harry Winston we could probably throw together a pretty glamorous get-up too. Especially now that we know that thing about sapphires.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Project Runway'

Where: Lifetime

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

'The Rachel Zoe Project'

Where: Bravo

When: 10 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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