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'Runway': Making Good Without Making Nice

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2006

During its Wednesday night finale, "Project Runway" proved to be a reality show with fashion integrity. Jeffrey Sebelia -- with the prison-yard neck tattoos and an attitude so nasty that he actually made somebody's mama cry -- was crowned champion of Season 3.

The Los Angeles-based designer won because the collection he showed in Bryant Park during New York's fashion week in September was creative, surprising and unique. It had a distinctive point of view that set it apart from the other contestants' collections. It did not ape the sensibility of a more established brand. It was not aimed at filling a niche in the marketplace or some hole in a woman's wardrobe. Its goal was to spark desire in a customer for something she never dreamed she wanted. Sebelia did not do that with every garment. In fact, he really only accomplished it with one dress -- perhaps two. His spiraling zippers were dazzling, and they made his point. (Besides, if he'd been able to do that consistently, he wouldn't be on "Project Runway," he'd be working for Gucci Group.)

Sebelia, 36, was rewarded for his achievement, and rightfully so -- with a $100,000 prize from Tresemme and a spread in Elle magazine. Now if only someone could persuade him to stop acting as though he has a lump of coal for a heart.

Laura Bennett's collection was elegant and safe. Her cocktail dresses and gowns are sound answers for a woman who is seeking sophisticated evening clothes with a blend of glamour and sex appeal. But Bennett doesn't offer new ideas, just nicely modulated and tweaked versions of pre-existing aesthetics. Her clothes are variations of what we know: sexier than Armani's; less form-fitting than Badgley Mischka's; more minimal than Chanel's; frillier than Carmen Marc Valvo's.

Uli Herzner's clothes delight the eye but they can be redundant. Her skill is not based on silhouettes or proportions but on her adeptness with colors and prints. Herzner makes what could be cacophonous into something harmonious.

During the deliberations led by host Heidi Klum, Michael Knight was acknowledged by the judges as the crowd favorite. He had received the loudest cheers when he walked onto the runway. He came into the finals with a track record for beautifully executed sportswear, and throughout the show, the judges were forever complimenting him for actually "thinking" about his designs and the way in which they expressed his creative ideal while allowing for the reality of a woman's life.

But Knight had an aesthetic meltdown as he worked on his collection. He has said that his design hero is Gianni Versace. But Versace's sexy, just-this-side-of-sleazy style requires enormous skill. The late designer's body-revealing clothes were feats of engineering, giving the impression that they were hanging precariously off the body while providing modesty precisely where it was needed. The key to Versace style was not submitting to wild abandon but making calculated use of restraint.

Knight's youth and inexperience were his undoing. At 28, he was the youngest of the finalists and needed an objective eye to keep him on track, to tell him when he'd gone overboard. He needed "Project Runway's" resident consigliere, Tim Gunn. Knight's reliable good taste turned bad. And it was so baffling that it left judge Michael Kors wondering, "What happened?"

Sebelia stood out because he sent fashion -- something personal and challenging -- down the runway. That was a risk because fashion often alienates more consumers -- or viewers -- than it excites. Bennett and Herzner simply offered the audience nice clothes with obvious commercial appeal. It is a subtle distinction, and the fact that the judges went looking for fashion -- and rewarded Sebelia for producing it -- distinguishes "Project Runway" as a reality show that tries to reflect the standards of the industry it mines for entertainment. It would have been easy -- and more palatable -- to crown Herzner the winner. She showed a wide range of joyful clothes, from a swimsuit to an evening gown. And Herzner was a likable character, while Sebelia came across as mean and small. Who wants to reward nastiness?

It has been hard to like Sebelia over the course of the last few months. The usual reality show editing and his own acid tongue conspired to portray him as insufferable and self-absorbed. Like his fellow contestants, he complained about his competitors. But Sebelia continued to malign his nemesis, Angela Keslar, long after she had been eliminated. He defended his condescending rudeness to Keslar's mother -- who had the misfortune of being Sebelia's "client" for one of the challenges -- by saying he was being honest and she was being difficult. Sebelia could maim with his caustic words. One desperately wanted to grab Sebelia by the scruff of his neck and remind him that the fashion industry is rife with troublesome customers. He lists Gwen Stefani and the Red Hot Chili Peppers among his clients, but if he talks like that to all of them there won't be a socialite or rock star from New York to Los Angeles who'll deal with him.

Sebelia was a splendid reality show star, and it may be that he survived several eliminations because of the sick pleasure the audience took in his appalling behavior. He could have been sent home after he dressed Keslar's mother in about five yards of pure, dark purple "ugly." The frumpy, asymmetrical frock led Kors to describe it as Comme des Garcons goes to Amish country. Sebelia could also have been sent packing when he created a black and white cocktail dress that looked like he'd been given a budget of 10 bucks and still managed to come back with change. Bennett and the other finalists had even accused him of outsourcing his sewing. At the beginning of Wednesday's show, he had to produce proof that he had not cheated, or face disqualification an hour before his debut at New York fashion week.

Sebelia was kept on because he provided more than just wicked entertainment. He was talented and creative. And more than any other contestant, he was a fashion designer and not just a guy trying to make nice clothes.

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