Project Runway: a psychological study

I think I’ll start by getting the spoiler alert out of the way.  This post contains spoilers for last week’s episode of Project Runway.  If you haven’t watched it, but would still like to do so with an element of surprise intact, then stop reading and come back later.

Still here?  Swell.

No discussion of the new season can appropriately start with anything other that “Oh, thank God you’ve all come back!”  Insofar as I tried to warm to the “All-Stars” filler season, seeing the old crew back again hammered home how mediocre the PRAS experience ended up being.  Having Heidi, Tim and Michael back made the deficits of not-Heidi, not-Tim and not-Michael obvious.  (Especially that last one.  Egads, Isaac Mizrahi was such a dithering twit as a judge.)  I would rather just wait a little longer between seasons if it means we’re spared any more dishwater-dull placeholders, thanks all the same.

I also think some of this round’s designers are more skilled than we’ve seen in recent seasons.  I particularly like Ven, though I am beginning to wonder if his elaborate folds and dramatic draping aren’t becoming a little bit one-note.  I also like Christopher, because he is: 1) talented, 2) seemingly genuinely nicer than most, and 3) cute.  And of course, I already know who I hate — I will clap my hands in childlike glee when insufferable prat Gunnar is sent home.  I also hated Lantie (and really, honey, it would probably have helped your chances if you’d watched an episode or two of the show before signing up, since you were completely clueless about what you had gotten yourself into) but she’s gone, so… good.

Anyhow, what made last week’s episode a little more interesting was the departure of two other designers.  Of course I refer to Andrea and Kooan, who both decided to leave of their own volition.  Watching the reveal that the former had slunk out in the middle of the night and then the latter’s announcement to the assembled workroom that he was heading home also, my immediate thought was “Look at that!  Contagion, right on national television!”  Seeing benchwarmer Nathan start bawling and talking about his desire to leave too only reinforced that impression.

By contagion, I refer to the increased risk within a community (particularly adolescents) for suicide following the suicide of one of its members.  (It was this phenomenon that was wickedly spoofed in the pitch-black 80s satire “Heathers.”)  I saw it firsthand at a previous job, when several members of a local high school sports team committed suicide over the span of a few years, and one can find numerous examples in the media.  It is plausible to suspect an element of contagion in the recent rash of suicides by adolescents bullied for being (or being perceived to be) gay.

Before I continue, I should probably stipulate something, what with this being the Internet and thus the hope for a common-sense, good-faith reading of what one writes being ridiculously naive.  I obviously do not think the departure of two no-talent contestants from a fashion-based reality show is anything like the tragedy of adolescent suicide.  Conflating the two would be glib to the point of monstrousness, and using the one as a low-stakes illustration of the other does not mean I think they are in any way equivalent.  If you think I think so, then I urge you to back away from your computer and make arrangements to take the air in a restful location.  Seriously.

That said, I couldn’t help but think that last week’s episode really was a penny-ante study in the effects of contagion on a particular population.  Here you had a small group of people under pressure, whose only peers are also their competitors, and for at least a few of whom there must be feelings of being inferior or unappreciated.  Add in the presence of the media (strongly suspected to be a major factor in suicide contagion) literally recording every minute of their lives, and there you have it.  All it took was one of them to go to trigger another’s similar decision, and a third to voice similar thoughts.  I don’t think it gets more classic than that.

Anyhow, that was my armchair psychological analysis of last week’s episode, with an even higher tempest:teacup ratio than usual.  Obviously the phenomena aren’t entirely parallel (and, once again for good measure, there is no comparison between the mild bummer [if that] of the one and the horrible tragedy of the other), but watching the domino effect of Andrea’s departure made the show a bit more interesting than the usual drama of wondering if Nina will inexplicably like something god-awful because it’s “editorial.”

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


        • I don’t even remember that! (I do remember the episode where Uli’s mom was on, which I thought was cool since Heidi spoke German to her. For some reason, I love when the judges speak foreign languages. It reminds me that they’re humans.) How did he get away with that, with Heidi sitting right there? They’re both German!

          • It was one of the last few shows of 3rd Season. He was talking with Heidi and Nina and he was complaining about Uli and the whole colorful prints thing. He affected a German accent for it.

            Dude. She escaped from East Germany. You grow up in East Germany? You will find yourself madly in love with bright colors and prints.

            Instead of wearing the same goddamn jacket and pants every goddamn week.

          • He was talking about how he wanted her to branch out and “yeah yeah ‘I love ze brite colorz and ze printz’ but let’s change it up!” or something to that effect. Heidi laughed.

            She’s the nice one, after all.

        • Michael Kors’ job on this show, I’m convinced, is to come up with increasingly overwrought, over-the-top, hilarious-yet-nasty things to say to the competitors on the runway, especially if he can get into some kind of weird mixed metaphor that you can’t unsee after he says it (“Dubai hooker”, “that dress has pubes”).

          Oh, and to alternate bitching that a look “isn’t wearable,” then laud the next one for its over-the-top free creativity.

          • When I first started watching halfway through first season, I thought that Nina was supposed to be the “bad cop”, Heidi the “good cop” one, and Kors the dispassionate down the middle kinda guy.

            OH HOW WRONG I WAS.

            Santino, all is forgiven.

  1. I also believe there is an element of them purposely keeping on someone lacking comparatively in design talent but heavy on the personally obnoxious traits (at least on camera) just to give the audience someone to hate each week. Of course one of those ended up actually winning once (Gretchen) and almost kept me away from the show permanently. Fortunately, I gave in and continue to watch. I completely agree with your assessment of the season thus far.

    • First of all, love the new Gravatar pic.

      I am convinced that the entire reason for the otherwise-pointless PRAS was to placate enraged fans after Gretchen’s appalling, idiotic win. She was just awful, wasn’t she?

      Both Kooan and Andrea were terrible, but I had the sinking feeling that the former was going to fill the spot of “person whose stuff no sane woman would ever wear, but who somehow survives anyhow.” Plus, I found his persona both cloying and affected. I’m glad they’re both gone. (I thought Andrea should have been kicked off for that stupid, shapeless apron she sent down the runway for the candy challenge.)

  2. I Am Not The Target Demographic for Project Runway … except that I am.

    My mother was a child fashion model in Manhattan. My grandfather was an official photographer for the Miss America pageant for decades. In a nearby alternate reality, I grew up to design clothes for a living.

    And yet, I fast-forward all the drama-llama bull$hit that I’m pretty sure MOST of the (desired by the network) viewers think is the entire point of the show …

    But I’m watching it for the competency-porn: people who are really good at what they do engaging in their creative process. I used to be able to watch American Chopper for the same thing, which was FASCINATING: redneck creativity in action, glorious folk-art welding. It was amazing. And then 2/3 of each episode started getting swallowed up in people being unpleasant to each other and I quit being able to watch. :-/

    On another site I read, their fan nickname for Kooan was “Frokemon” and zomg they’re right, he was right down the center of the kawaii nexus that makes some Japanese pop culture utterly alien-feeling to the West. I will miss him, though I don’t fault him for not being able to find his particular fizzy special-snowflake creation vibe within the show.

    • I’m right there with you, Elliott. (Well, except for your backstory. Mine is much less colorful.)

      I love PR because, at the base of it, it’s still a show about people who can do something well. They do focus more than I’d like on the stupid drama, and I wish they’d give us a little bit more insight into the technical aspects of what the designers are doing. (The week before last, Christopher was lamenting Andrea’s incompetence to the judges, and he made reference to her screwing up by using the wrong sewing machine or something for the fabric, in a way that was apparently meant to communicate that only a total idiot would do that, but only made sense if you know about garment construction — I wish at some point in the show there had been some layperson’s explanation about what made that so wrong.) But they still manage to make the show mostly about the designers’ work, which I appreciate. It’s why PR is the only reality show I watch.

      • My artwork is also very process driven and watching people work their creativity at superhuman speed is amazing, especially when they create work I find to be brilliant. I agree that I wish I knew more about fabrics, or how pieces are put together. Years ago, I designed my wedding dress and walked in with a sketch only to be shocked at what other things I needed to think about, type of materials, size of pearls, lace, buttons…none of which I prepared to answer until I actually see the materials and get confirmation from the seamstress that she could actually work with those materials to make my dress. It was a real eye-opener to how much I didn’t know about clothing design and construction. I also watched American Chopper for the similar reasons relating to the process of design and creation. I find that I often enjoy the process of creating as much as I do a finished product.

      • > They do focus more than I’d like on the stupid drama,
        > and I wish they’d give us a little bit more insight into
        > the technical aspects of what the designers are doing.

        Watch Face-Off.

  3. Project Runway is a horrid joke. The reality of the fashion industry would make for a wonderful television series. I’d call it “In Search of Fashion”.

    I’d start in with a historical perspective, commencing with Cristóbal Balenciaga, working my way from the 1950s to modern designers such as Akemi Doi.

    For all the hooey and drah-matick flouncing around, the fashion industry has a strong ethos of tradition and craftsmanship. The days of haute couture are passing away and good riddance to some of that folderol. Style is perennial. The good stuff never really loses its appeal.

    Fashion hides in plain sight. It takes an educated eye to spot quality. Working through the history of fashion, not the models and the poseurs like Dior, who couldn’t sew a buttonhole if his life depended on it, but the craftsmen, the cloth-makers, the seamstresses, the fitters, the stylists, now there’s a story worth telling.

    • You don’t think Project Runway is about craftsmanship? Really? Huh. Well, I guess that just goes to show that two people can watch the same thing (I assume that you do actually watch the show?) and come to totally different conclusions. For all the peripheral drama, to me it seems very much focused on construction and execution, and if you can’t sew you don’t last.

      • I watched five or six seasons of the PR show and rolled my eyes to heaven. I sew, too. The producers of PR don’t know how to explain what goes on. Heidi Klum was beyond worthless. Tim Gunn was the one redeeming aspect to that entire show. PR’s unrealistic. It’s completely out of step with how the fashion industry actually works.

          • America’s done lost its mind, Dr. Saunders. People are wearing ugly things that don’t fit because they don’t know any better. Just an explanation of some obvious stuff, the nap of cloth, the appropriate use of fabric, I mean really, Queer Eye does a great job in its own way, combating this pernicious trend but so much more could be done.

            Ordinary people need better clothes. They’re being sold poorly-made crap. The good stuff isn’t that much more expensive. People need to be educated and for all those fashion magazines getting sold, chock full of impossibly stupid fashions, they’re not learning anything. The entire retail model is screwed up. I presume you’ve bought some good suits and they were all altered to fit you. I’d like to see everyone stuffed into a 3-D scanner and measured for size, then let some capable tailor, even if he were driving a robot to do it, generate a pair of trousers on the spot, guaranteed to fit. There’s an epidemic of ugliness out there, perfectly nice people wearing perfectly hideous clothes. It must be stopped, heh.

          • Well, QE was an interesting experiment. Only I’d use actual stylists, I know a very good one in Hollywood. She and her lovely assistants are forever running around, attempting to do the impossible at a moment’s notice. There’s a show for yez.

          • I for one feel deeply appreciative of America’s growing acceptance of the use of clothes that, while they look homely or uninteresting, are comfortable and easy. Sure people looked snappy in all those suits but god(ess?)! I’d jump off a bridge if I had to truss myself up in that monkey suit every day.

        • (consider this a reply to your next post downthread, which oddly doesn’t have a Reply button)

          That’s something that really showed the PR judges/producers were manipulating results, on the red carpet challenge episode — two of the looks they lauded TO THE SKIES did not fit for steaming piles of goat-crap. Did. Not. Fit. Made the models look like lumpy sausage. And the judges were specifically PRAISING fit. They palmed that card, and I saw them do it, dammit.

          I love to take friends (specifically most often, female friends who think they look horrible) shopping and find things that REALLY fit them and REALLY flatter them. Because it’s not their body’s fault for not being ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’, it’s the clothes that don’t fit the body in question, and the clothes are not the boss of ME, let me TELL you. :->

          • Oh absolutely, Elliott. We shouldn’t cut our own hair and I’m not sure we’re well-served to pick out our own clothes half the time. Others must look at us.

            Women’s relationships to clothes can become bizarre. As you say, some women suffer from terrible self-image, to the point where they’ll purchase things that won’t fit. It starts with underthings. A good brassiere is expensive. I had no idea until I started raising daughters. I had an elderly Korean woman as a tailor. At first it just started out as repairing a few things sent to the cleaners until I realised what an amazing talent she had. Thereafter, she did the family’s alterations and eventually was taken along to help get my daughters properly fitted for underthings.

            Life’s too short to waste on cut-rate crap, or trying to squeeze into clothes which don’t fit and flatter, or wearing some battered old pair of trousers with the seat half worn out of them. The freighters pull into Mombasa, loaded with bales of castoffs from American resale shops. That’s another resource frugal people ought to use more: resale shops. Often, surprisingly good stuff puts in an appearance, for pennies on the dollar.

          • Life’s too short to waste on cut-rate crap, or trying to squeeze into clothes which don’t fit and flatter, or wearing some battered old pair of trousers with the seat half worn out of them.

            Or it could be that life’s too short to worry about such things, at least for some of us.

            I don’t begrudge anyone else choosing to take an interest in those things, of course. Russell was exactly right when he said vive le difference. But their importance is certainly not a universal truth.

  4. Andrea and Kooan were easily my two favorite contestants this season (not because of their design aesthetics, OBVIOUSLY). The rest of the cast is kind of boring without them. Dmitry rules, though.

  5. Also, as I mentioned to the wife, this was the very rare week where I hated nothing that went down the runway. Except maybe Buffi’s.

  6. This season is top-notch so far! Like you mentioned, it mixes in the perfect amount of drama-filled work room exchanges with amazing talent, which is a great brew for some awesome TV! I couldn’t image the pressures these designers are under, and here I was thinking that my job at Dish was stressful! Tonight’s episode should keep the drama levels up with the infamous team challenges. I’m excited to find out who they pair together. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if they put Chris and Gunner on a team?! LOL! We’ll just have to wait and see! Thank goodness I upgraded my DVR to the Hopper just in time, which lets me watch or record six things at once, or else I’d be stuck watching my boyfriend gawk over his beloved Shark Week. My vote is that Raul is out next. What do you guys think?

          • It’s not every day you get a comment from a teenage pop sensation. I vote for keeping it.

          • Well, yes, but it does seem like the author actually pays attention to the show and has made an informed comment about it. If she’s working in a paid endorsement, she’s being real smooth about it. Smooth. Like the velvety feel of Skyy Vodka in your Vesper martini. Skyy Vodka: ultra-clean and refreshing, every time. So I say, keep the comment.

          • My humble suggestion doc; if it’s ambigous enough to not be obvious err on the side of permissiveness. There’s no links at all and there’s some points of interest in the comment. Yes there is a lot of brand name dropping but I’ve occasionally stumbled into that in wierd commenting moments myself.

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