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Pinking Shears at 20 Paces

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bravo's "Project Runway," which begins its third season tonight, has recruited the most insufferable contestant ever to appear on reality television. For a show fueled by manic fashion design challenges, the biting bons mots of judges and, most important, the bloviating histrionics of its players, this is tantalizing news.

Once again, aspiring designers are competing for a chance to present a collection during New York fashion week and win $100,000 in seed money. Malan Breton, 33, who was chosen for the show's second season but turned down the offer, has been invited back, undoubtedly because of his ability to sound condescending just uttering the word "hello."

Breton was born in Taiwan and, according to his biography, has been a professional model, done television voice-overs, danced with Paula Abdul and will direct a series of 13 short films to be released in 2008. One wonders when he manages to find time to stitch up a frock, but he says he has been designing since he was 11.

Breton dresses in formal suits and wears his dark hair slicked back. He has the sleepy eyes of Macaulay Culkin and a self-conscious accent that sounds like a mix of Madonna, Martin Bashir and the Geico gecko.

The first challenge for the 15 contestants has them ripping apart their "Project Runway" apartment in New York for materials to create the garment that best represents their aesthetic point of view. They have 15 minutes to collect as much of the sheets, curtains, mattress ticking and shredded upholstery as possible.

"I was irritated that the materials we'd have to use would be bed sheeting," Breton sneers. "I myself prefer better-quality fabrics." Here one wonders whether Breton has ever actually seen "Project Runway." As a regular viewer, he'd know he was lucky the judges weren't forcing him to make a dress out of goat cheese. For a goat.

Eager to grab the best scraps, his competitors dash into the apartment and begin feverishly collecting material.

Sniffs Breton: "It was sort of irritating to see how inappropriate people would act." Does he not realize he's on reality TV -- a parallel universe of depravity where adults will eat sour-smelling slop for fame and cash prizes? If the gods of reality and ratings are wise, Breton will have a long, irritating run on the show.

With its first season, "Project Runway" became a guilty pleasure within the fashion industry. The challenges were absurd -- make a dress from foliage! candy! the clothes off your back! But they still were fundamentally about the process of making clothes. The guest judges included a smart mix of fashion insiders, and the critiques were entertaining and pithy.

Season 3 keeps that successful formula. In the premiere, handbag designer Kate Spade sits in with judges Michael Kors and Elle fashion director Nina Garcia, as well as model and host Heidi Klum. Designer Kors spouts his usual colorful commentary, saying at one point, "She looks like she's wearing her granny's underpants!" Garcia continues to be exasperated by the participants' overworked designs. And Tim Gunn, head of the fashion department at Parsons the New School of Design, serves as consultant and consigliere for the contestants with his mantra, "Make it work."

As the show matures, the competitors arrive with more impressive résumés and more clearly defined aesthetics. No one is likely to fail utterly. The drama now resides in the interaction among the players. The number of camera-ready eccentrics has increased.

Season 1 introduced viewers to Wendy Pepper, whose shift into braying self-confidence made one cheer when another contestant surreptitiously drew graffitti on a photo of her daughter. The grade-school prank sent Pepper into a spasmodic meltdown about the desecration of her child's image when in fact it seemed like reasonable payback for her weeks of egomaniacal behavior.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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