Baggage on the 'Runway'

In Wednesday's premiere, Andrae Gonzalo (with model Danyelle) lapsed into a crying jag when his design was criticized.
In Wednesday's premiere, Andrae Gonzalo (with model Danyelle) lapsed into a crying jag when his design was criticized. (Barbara Nitke)
By Robin Givhan
Friday, December 9, 2005

On Wednesday night's premiere of "Project Runway" -- a reality show that seeks to find America's next great designer -- the audience was treated to a sloppy emotional meltdown, with incoherent ramblings, snivelly tears and desperate arm flailing. It was a spectacular reality TV moment that left one wondering if the producers had managed to recruit an entire cast full of high-strung nuts. If so, what marvelous viewing lies ahead.

Bravo's "Project Runway," hosted by the model Heidi Klum, pits a group of aspiring designers against each other in a series of challenges. Wednesday night, the contestants were invited to a get-acquainted party in the middle of which their first test was revealed: Using only the clothes on their back, they had to create a new ensemble. They had one day to rip their jackets and trousers to shreds and transform them. One poor girl who'd worn only a teensy-weensy dress to the party was reduced to cutting up her overcoat.

Contestant Andrae Gonzalo of Los Angeles launched into his hysterical crying jag when the judges asked him to explain the half-finished disaster of a denim cheongsam that his model was forced to wear. Enough had gone wrong during the creative process to reduce even the most confident designer to tears, but Gonzalo, 32, appeared to be muttering something about the meaning of the vintage jeans he'd worn to the fete, the meaning of the dress he'd been trying to make, the meaning of life, boo-hoo-hoo.

As the floodgates opened, judge Nina Garcia, the fashion director of Elle magazine, threw up her hands and complained, "I really don't need to hear all of this!" It was like watching a wailing child getting shoved onto the naughty mat.

Zulema Griffin, a 28-year-old New Yorker, never wept during questioning but she did look like Bambi in the headlights when it became apparent that the judges had a problem with the dress she designed being so short the model's rear end was left hanging out in the breeze. For a moment, Griffin tried to blame the hooker dress on the model, claiming that she had an excess of junk in her trunk, thus throwing off the dress's proportions. When this maneuver failed -- seeing as how the model's derriere was the size of a walnut -- Griffin finally admitted to simply having screwed up. This was clearly a difficult moment of vulnerability for Griffin as she'd spent much of the episode staking her claim as Season 2's villain with such charming pronouncements as "I don't believe in fair." At the time, she wasn't talking about the challenges of building a career in the dog-eat-dog fashion world, but rather the prospect of sharing hangers and shelf space with her roommates.

One might assume that the designer of a stripper dress or the one who had identified himself as unstable would be the first to go. But people toting unpredictable emotional baggage have far too much entertainment value. Instead, Kirsten Ehrig, a 37-year-old lawyer who'd made a denim and leather skirt and a halter top, was booted from the show. Ehrig, who'd constructed her halter from a vintage T-shirt and had declined to rip up the silk scarf she'd been wearing because it had belonged to her grandmother, was practically flogged by the judges for being tacky and failing to make use of all her resources. Maybe if she'd tied grandma's tiny scarf around the model's waist and called it a skirt and then thrown herself on the floor in a hissy fit she'd have been allowed to stay.

Each week contestants will be eliminated until only three remain. The final trio will each mount a runway show during New York's fashion week in February, after which the winner will be revealed.

The victor receives $100,000 to help finance his own business and mentoring support from Banana Republic. The winner will also be featured in Elle magazine, which seems to be the fashion brand of choice on the reality show circuit as a spread in its pages is also one of the prizes won by Nicole Linkletter on "America's Next Top Model." (Or, as host Tyra Banks says, "Americasnexttopmodel.") Perhaps the winner of "The Apprentice" could sell advertising for the magazine and the winner of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" could cater lunch for the staff.

Last year's "Project Runway" winner, Jay McCarroll, whose style was an enticing blend of sci-fi, technicolor and street style, declined both the cash and the counsel. (But he did appear in Elle.) In an e-mail conversation, he didn't detail the precise reasons for turning down the money: "Use your imagination there for I am not allowed to talk about it." But he did not dispute the suggestion that, perhaps, there were too many strings attached to such a windfall. As for the mentorship with Banana Republic, "everything was fine with them, just bad timing. I couldn't think about mass production in China the week I won the show. It was all just way over my head. I was pretty emotional for months. 'What the [bleep] just happened to me?' kind of thoughts," he says.

He has since regained his footing -- at least to some small degree -- and is at work on two collections: a small offering for fall 2006 and a more comprehensive collection of men's and women's clothes for spring 2007.

While he still is adjusting to the reality of the fashion industry -- labor issues, the fur trade and "the fake Hollywood [expletive]. " -- he is looking forward to the premiere of his own Bravo reality show in February. It will document his upcoming move to New York, his family life in Pennsylvania and the making of Klum's Emmy dress, which, he notes, she did not wear.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company