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'Project Runway': From Produce Aisle To Banana Republic

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page C01

The unshakable desire to be a big-time fashion designer has led 12 seemingly reasonable adults to participate in the public angst, navel gazing and back-stabbing of reality television. The new Bravo show "Project Runway" debuted Wednesday night and it will follow a dozen designers as they compete for $100,000 in seed money, a professional fashion shoot with Elle magazine and a mentorship with the Banana Republic creative team.

Considering that several of the designers seem a bit obsessed with hot pants and micro-miniskirts, the most valuable prize might be the advice the winner will receive from Banana Republic, a company that has perfected the art of transforming fashion fiction into commercial ideas with mass appeal.

On the new Bravo show "Project Runway" that premiered Wednesday night, the designers take in a fashion show as model Erin Denardo struts. (Barbara Nitke -- Bravo)

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As is mandatory on reality television, the participants are forced to live together -- in this case in New York -- and engage in passionate parsing of every tossed-off comment from the judges, each other and anyone else who happens to cross their path. Living together "was awkward because they're competitors, but in a creative environment you need feedback. Sometimes it was supportive. Sometimes it was intrusive," says contestant Wendy Pepper. "Some people just take a lot of oxygen out of the air."

It promises to be delightfully bitchy television.

Each week the competitors will face a challenge intended to highlight an element of the design process or some aspect of the fashion industry that must be mastered. The first week's challenge focused on innovation. The designers had to create a glamorous dress for an evening on the town. Each had $50 to spend on materials. Everything had to be purchased in a supermarket. The definition of a dress was loose at best.

In the tradition of all reality television, there is a lot of fiction in the series. Most design students do not have to craft a dress out of corn husks, aluminum roasting pans or mop heads. In fact, most designers are not hunched over a Singer stitching up samples in their showroom. Still, one of the ingredients to success in the fashion industry is the ability to innovate, to surprise, to create something that is familiar but entirely different.

One of the contestants, Starr Ilzhoefer of Charlotte, N.C., who has a law degree, stitched up a Thanksgiving float of a dress with a tinfoil pouf skirt, a giant purple tissue-paper collar and globs of strange substances scattered over the bodice. The judges did not consider this a design triumph even though it was remarkably similar to several dresses that have recently appeared on the John Galliano runway in Paris.

Another designer, Daniel Franco of Los Angeles, painstakingly tailored a jacket out of butcher paper and even trimmed it with aluminum foil piping. He layered it over a black garbage bag dress. The judges -- designer Michael Kors, Elle fashion director Nina Garcia and stylist Patricia Field -- called it unimaginative and cliched. Exactly how many butcher paper blazers have they seen in their lifetime?

And Pepper, of Middleburg, Va., created a bikini decorated with the entire candy aisle of a New York supermarket. In her homage to Carnivale, the coup de grace must surely have been the half-inflated balloons that trimmed the briefs. The ensemble was so skimpy that it led Garcia to complain: There are no clothes! But this is not necessarily a deal breaker in the fashion industry.

The challenge "caused me to rethink the whole food preparation part of my life," Pepper says.

She is the oldest contestant at 40. She is married and has a 5-year-old daughter. She has a modest eveningwear business in Virginia, where she is known for elegant ball gowns. Next to Kara Saun of Los Angeles, whose design concept allowed for next to nothing on the model's torso aside from blue paint, Pepper created the most provocative ensemble. "What I like about the show is that it showed that I'm open," she says. "I'm not in one pigeonholed category."

That also explains the vaguely punk rock makeup Pepper wears on the show's Web site: She is busting loose. "I have a lot of aspects to me," she says. "It gave me an opportunity to have fun. I have this dramatic streak. It's probably why I do this."

The series was shot in a little more than three weeks, with the designers competing in challenges every three days. "I had to go away afterwards. I couldn't go straight home. I was totally depleted," Pepper says. "You had to come up with a concept and make it in 20 minutes, then absorb the criticism. And the longer you were there, the harder it was."

The original dozen will, over the course of the series, be whittled to three. The finalists will present full collections during New York's fashion week in February. Pepper is contractually prohibited from letting folks know how she fared.

But she says that one of the major lessons learned has nothing to do with the technical aspects of design. "Much of being a successful designer is having good interpersonal skills," she says. Franco, the first designer dismissed from the show, was quite talented, Pepper says, but "he was not really well liked from day one. I felt a little sorry for him. . . . He wasn't good at making connections with the judges."

As in the fashion industry, success isn't always measured by the quality of the clothes.

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