By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The contestants on the fourth season of "Project Runway," which begins tonight on Bravo, seem far more experienced in the fashion industry than their predecessors. Several of them have established businesses, a list of celebrity clients and a scrapbook of positive notices from fashion magazines. This, however, does not necessarily make them more talented, more compelling or any less likely to leave the impression that they, perhaps, should be medicated.
The contestants' average age is 34 -- same as last season. The oldest contestant is 46-year-old Kathleen "Sweet P" Vaughn, who lives in Los Angeles and was once a member of an all-female motorcycle crew. The youngest is the elfin 21-year-old Christian Siriano of Annapolis, who dispenses wry commentary and self-deprecating humor in a syrupy, lackadaisical slur.
The competitors wear their eccentricities on their sleeves. They are audaciously odd-looking or self-consciously hip. Siriano's hair is styled in an asymmetrical cut that looks as if it were executed with a pair of gardening shears. Carmen Webber -- that's Carmen A. Webber if you're nasty! -- wears her hair in a Flock of Seagulls meets Angela Davis blown-out, cornrowed, not-quite 'fro. The heavily tattooed Sweet P has her nickname inked on one arm and her alter ego "Mean P" on the other. And don't we all know that "Mean P" will be making an appearance before this season is over?
All of that makes the contestants visually interesting, which makes good television, but none of this inspires immediate confidence in their taste level.
Most problematic, however, is that by the first episode, too many of the competitors have settled into well-worn archetypes. Were these 15 men and women chosen because they have such instantly familiar personalities? When the cameras are off, does Siriano really embody every single fashion cliche? Or do these players adjust their personalities to fit a preconceived ideal? In short, who exactly is having a crisis of authenticity: the show's producers or the cast?
Some of that is inevitable. With so many characters to introduce in a one-hour show, at least a few broad strokes are unavoidable. There's little time for nuance. And for contestants hoping for more than 10 seconds of screen time, it's hard to resist slipping into character. Still, the result remains the same. All the conversations and exchanges feel predictable.
Siriano will be playing the role of the effete and sarcastic wunderkind. Webber stars as the overly confident fashion victim who thinks her experience as a model will serve as her secret weapon for winning the competition. Ricky Lizalde promises to be the contestant most prone to spontaneous weeping. And within the first 15 minutes, Elisa Jimenez, who makes giant marionettes, establishes herself as the avant-garde head case who describes her clothes as "mythical" and, for the first challenge, grinds grass stains into silk chiffon to "imbue it with a natural element."
Tim Gunn is back as the design-room mentor. And so are judges Michael Kors and Nina Garcia. Gunn continues to encourage the contestants to "make it work," although there are several moments during the premiere when Gunn's look of horror indicates he knows in his heart that there is nothing to be done to make some of those garments "work" -- particularly a dress created by Simone LeBlanc that looks as if it were put together with staples and spit. Kors still has issues with things looking old, "farty" and too MOB -- mother-of-the-bride. And oh how we love him for that! Garcia continues to be bored. After all, how many baby-doll dresses can one woman critique before she cries out for mercy?
With the emergence of so many stock characters -- and the return of such reliable ones -- the first episode begs for a dazzling challenge. Chris March, a New York-based costume designer -- think "Beach Blanket Babylon," not "The Color Purple" -- notes that he's looking forward to some wacky opening challenge that will allow him to put his costume-making skills to work. Design a dress out of vegetables? He's done it. You want lettuce hemlines? He's managed to pull it off with real romaine -- or maybe it was bibb.
The first challenge begins in New York's Bryant Park, where the contestants have gathered for a champagne toast. Gunn and host Heidi Klum arrive to give everyone their marching orders and you hope they will involve constructing a cocktail dress out of sod.
But no. All the contestants have to do is create a single garment that best defines who they are as designers. They even get to use real fabric. The only hurdle? They have to race across the lawn to several tents filled with fabric. The first designers to arrive get to stuff as much yardage into their bags as possible. The slow runners get the dregs. Sweet P, God bless her, takes off her wedges to prepare for the sprint. All the gym rats -- with their six-packs and Popeye biceps -- kick into Olympic track and field form, all long strides and pumping arms. March, a heavyset man, moves very, very slowly. The scene is straight out of elementary school gym class -- Presidential Physical Fitness Day. March is last to arrive and you're rooting for him because you hated gym and because this was the guy actually looking forward to maybe making a dress out of Popsicle sticks. You want the fashion gods to smile on him and leave him with at least one piece of fabric other than the big pelt of gray matted fur.
With their sacks of cloth, the designers head to the "Project Runway" workroom where Jimenez gives all indication of having a screw loose. She sews her dress onto her own body instead of using the dress form. When the models come in for a fitting, Jimenez measures her model using the width of her hand instead of a tape measure. And finally, her tight-fitting teal dress with its 10-foot-long patchwork train of unfinished fabric with Swiss cheese texture inspires Klum to offer quite possibly the most memorable assessment of a garment in the entire "Project Runway" history: "Her model looked like she was pooing fabric."
Is that enough to get Jimenez eliminated? Could there be a greater fashion crime than "pooing fabric"? Is it worse to be boring? We would tell you, but the thought of an angry mob of "Project Runway" fans marauding for spoiler justice inspires us to hold our tongue.
Project Runway Season 4 (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Bravo.