TV Preview

'Project Runway' Returns With Gently Worn Concept

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the debut episode of Season 5 of "Project Runway," which begins tonight, the producers have gone all misty-eyed and nostalgic. They have resurrected the first season's opening challenge in which the designers had to find their raw materials inside a Gristedes supermarket.

Remember that first season, when the idea of gathering a dozen or so wide-eyed and desperate designers and pitting them against one another in cutthroat but wacky challenges was bright and shiny? The three finalists would get to show their collections during New York fashion week, and the winner would be crowned America's next great designer.

It was all so innocent back then. The show's host, Heidi Klum, was a mere Victoria's Secret stunner with a mechanical manner. Michael Kors was only a witty designer with a fan base limited to those willing to pay $1,000 for a pair of pants. Nina Garcia was just a fashion editor instead of a BlackBerry pitchwoman. And Tim Gunn was just a good-hearted Parsons professor rather than a fashion god.

Viewer demands were modest, too. All they wanted was a little runway sashaying, a bit of reality-show fireworks and the chance to see a few outrageous frocks during prime time.

But then "Project Runway" became an Emmy-nominated, bloggable, starmaking monster. It sparked controversies and kerfuffles. Was the benevolent Gunn leaving because of scheduling conflicts? Was Wendy Pepper really spawn of Lucifer? Did Jeffrey Sebelia cheat? Why did Michael Knight lose his grip on good taste during the finals? How did Klum lose all that baby weight so fast?

"Project Runway" produced pop culture stars who dazzled for 15 minutes and then attracted a backlash. How fierce is Season 4 winner Christian Siriano? Oh, he was so last season of "Saturday Night Live."

In the lead-up to this evening's debut, the behind-the-scenes drama became more captivating than the promise of garments made out of Hershey's Kisses and Twizzlers. We have arrived at the end of an era. Next season the show moves to Lifetime -- land of "Army Wives" and "The Golden Girls" -- and to Los Angeles, where perhaps the contestants will be required to construct a garment from the raw materials found in a Fatburger. Garcia is switching from Elle magazine, in which the winner's designs are now featured, to Marie Claire, where they thus far are not.

Poor "Project Runway" fans have had to deal with so many sordid distractions when all we really wanted was to anticipate which Season 5 contestant would be first to hit a crying jag. When the corporate suits over at NBC Universal, which owns Bravo, started speaking in legalese about lawsuits and broken contracts, we just hoped that someone was busy working out the logistics of another prom-dress challenge that would have the designers cowering before pit bull high school girls who want lace and rhinestones and sequins on their frocks and they want them now!

Oh, happy day! "Project Runway" is back and while it no longer surprises us, it continues to amuse. Once again we find 16 contestants running wild through Gristedes trying to decide if they should spend the bulk of their allotted $75 on kale or plastic cups. Several of the women are teeter-tottering in four-inch heels, and one would have thought by now the ladies should know that almost all challenges involve a 50-yard dash.

Most of the contestants wimp out and stock up on tablecloths and shower curtains, essentially defeating the purpose, which is to create something that the judges won't find revolting using unorthodox materials. Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Feld's decision to melt down blue plastic cups to create a molded cocktail dress wins him big kisses from Gunn. But there was only a furrowed brow from Gunn when he looked at 32-year-old Jerry Tam's choice of shower curtains.

In the workroom, as Gunn surveys the big piles of picnic gingham, he warns the designers they'd better "make it work," lest the judges accuse them all of being "slackers." After this verbal pimp-slapping, the contestants are all duly chastened. Jerry is so shellshocked that his eyes are practically going boing! outside his head.

This season's motley crew, we are told, is notable not for being the most talented crew -- that was arguably last season's -- but rather the most diverse.

Korto Momolu, 33, is originally from Liberia and lives in Little Rock. We must pray that geography will heavily influence her design aesthetic so that we might lay eyes on Afro-Ozark couture. Leanne Marshall, 27, calls herself the "silent fashion assassin." Jerell Scott, 28, is a former model and about five minutes into the episode was already starting with the trash talk. We love him! Stella Zotis, 42, who looks like Cher during her "If I Could Turn Back Time" period, is the requisite rocker. Her sensibility is for musicians and "hookers and pimps and whoever is tough enough to wear it." She has an unfortunate run-in with some trash bags, and a seriously defeatist attitude. Klum describes Zotis's ghoulish trash bag dress as "butt ugly," and you get the impression that Zotis pretty much agrees.

And then there is Blayne Walsh, 23, who immediately lets the audience know that he has an obsession with tanning, which we actually appreciated knowing because it meant we could stop wondering whether he is naturally the color of a dried tangerine. He seems to be positioning himself as the new Christian. Walsh has a machete-style haircut, is full of bravado and prone to the overuse of a single adjective, his being "delicious." Unlike Siriano, however, who had serious design talent that made his outsize ego bearable, Walsh's Gristedes garment made his model look like she was wearing a giant used diaper.

Bravo has promised a long list of flashy guest judges, including Natalie Portman and LL Cool J. But first on that list was Austin Scarlett. He was the bouffanted blond waif boy from Season 1 who prevailed in the original supermarket challenge with a dress made out of corn husks. He now designs wedding gowns for Kenneth Pool.

He had little to say that was especially witty or wise. But his presence served as evidence that once you get rid of the kale, tomatoes, coffee filters, trash talk and hysteria, there just might be viable design talent left in the room.

Project Runway (one hour) airs tonight at 9 on Bravo.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company