By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; C01
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.
Season 2 gave us Santino Rice and Andrae Gonzalo. Rice's dismissive attitude toward the other contestants was leavened only by his ability to do a spot-on imitation of Gunn. Gonzalo would weep uncontrollably during the critiques, even when the judges complimented his work.
Season 3 offers a more diverse collection of the talented, the desperate, the cocky and the kooky. The contestants range in age from 25 to 49, with a fairly even distribution, while in the past there tended to be only a token elder. While a few of them are without professional design experience, most have been employed at large corporations or have small businesses of their own.
Robert Best, 37, has one of the most focused résumés. He graduated from Parsons and has worked for Isaac Mizrahi, Anne Klein and Donna Karan. He currently designs clothes for Barbie. (You thought those sparkly party dresses were just conjured out of thin air?) And he brought his favorite pillow to the "Project Runway" apartment. Who could not love a man who plays with Barbies and has his own version of a binkie?
Keith Michael, 34, is a Brooklyn-based menswear designer trying to expand into womenswear. For his first attempt at a dress, he recalled the famous Carol Burnett skit in which she plays Scarlett O'Hara in a dress made from curtains -- and the curtain rod. He used the image as a warning: Don't make a costume. He wins the first challenge with a dress that is elegant, engaging and wearable.
Laura Bennett is a trained architect, the mother of five children and so polished she almost makes Heidi Klum look like a schlump. Bennett arrives at the group apartment wearing a pencil skirt and crisp white blouse. Her red hair is pulled into a tight ponytail. She's carrying her belongings in a Louis Vuitton valise and train case. The season will be worth watching just to get a look at her grooming regimen.
"I never dress down," Bennett says. "When you're 42 with five children, it's a slippery slope to sweat pants and a minivan. So I just don't go there."
Vincent Libretti is not a favorite to win. The 49-year-old former designer flamed out from stress during his first go-round in New York, and now he's back. Having cashed out his 401(k), he's trying to revive his career. He exudes desperation and a quivering fear that his clothes don't have enough youthful pizazz. That insecurity leads him to accessorize his dress with a lampshade and sunglasses. One look at his model has Kors inquiring, "How many drinks did she have?"
The designer with the most daunting scholastic record is Stacey Estrella. At 40, she has an undergraduate degree from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard and works for a high-tech company in San Francisco. But she loves fashion and says that if she wins, "it will help me build significant brand awareness in my target demographic while also providing seed capital to build a multinational fashion house and investment firm."
Laudable. But this is not "The Apprentice," this is "Project Runway." The only salient question is, can Estrella make a nice dress from a shower curtain?
Project Runway (one hour) makes its third-season premiere tonight at 10 on Bravo.