Pardon, Your Slips Are Showing

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006


The Bravo television series "Project Runway" taped its finale Friday morning under the tents of Bryant Park, the same place where established designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Bill Blass's Michael Vollbracht, Vera Wang and "Project Runway" judge Michael Kors had debuted their spring 2007 collections earlier in the week. While the other shows had attracted celebrities on the order of Usher and Janet Jackson, the "Project Runway" audience was treated to the likes of Austin Scarlett (from "Runway" Season 1), Nick Verreos (from Season 2), and the current cast.

And that was just fine. Guests and Bravo employees squealed with delight: I didn't know Andrea was so tall! I love Kayne! Kayne, this is my daughter; she loves you! Malan!

Four designers presented collections. One of them served as a red herring, to keep the audience from knowing in advance which three designers had made the finals before the secret was revealed on television.

So Michael Knight, Jeffrey Sebelia (whose girlfriend has a matching faux-hawk), Uli Herzner and Laura Bennett all showed collections. If the winner were chosen based on pure enthusiasm, Sebelia would almost certainly emerge victorious. As he introduced his collection, he was jumping up and down and thrusting his fists into the air. How nice it would be to see an old hand like Ralph Lauren come out at the end of a show bouncing happily in his perfectly distressed cowboy boots.

The collection, Sebelia said, was inspired by a book titled "Japanese Ghosts and Demons: Art of the Supernatural," although it was utterly unclear how a book on folklore influenced the clothes. The first garment was a red and white polka dot dress with the straps and buoyancy of a deployed parachute. It set the tone for a collection that was not nearly as tough and energetic as one might expect. It was also the high point. The collection soon meandered into dullness and repetition.

Herzner showed a mix of her signature crazy-quilt prints, as well as a group of less chaotic metallic silver dresses, including a simple but striking shift. Bennett focused on cocktail and evening attire and stayed true to her reputation for beautifully constructed, restrained and elegant grown-up clothing.

It was Knight who offered the most disappointing collection. He called it "street safari" and said it had been inspired by his own search for identity as a designer. He would do well to keep hunting. The clothes were a startling combination of Yves Saint Laurent safari dresses and Baby Phat tawdriness. Good taste, which has been a hallmark of Knight's time on the show, seemed to have deserted him. And he served as an example of how a talented designer can so easily lose his way.

"Project Runway" succeeds because it brings the public into the secret club of fashion. It is pure entertainment, of course: No Seventh Avenue designers are making evening gowns out of materials found at the local recycling plant -- although a few are coming close. The audience correctly senses that it is learning a little something about the way the fashion industry works.

And what drives that point home is not the challenges that the contestants must complete, but the industry experts who are brought in as judges. Kors is a successful designer who has been kicked around by the industry and overcome huge hurdles to build a business. Nina Garcia, a fashion editor at Elle magazine, makes decisions about which clothes appear in that publication. And guest judges have included retail experts, celebrity stylists and the sorts of well-heeled women who actually wear the pricey clothes that dominate the runways.

The guest judge for the finale was Fern Mallis, who runs New York's fashion week. She is not the kind of glamorous celebrity judge who would be a ratings hit. But in terms of industry legitimacy, she's a thousand times better. As part of her job, she sits through virtually every fashion show in Bryant Park. She has seen the good, the awful and the blatantly ridiculous.

"Project Runway" convinces the fashion industry's decision-makers to take the show seriously. So why shouldn't the audience?

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